“When it is dark enough, you can see the stars.”
~Ralph Waldo Emerson
A couple of weeks ago, my nephew Erik graduated from high school. In itself, this is not particularly remarkable, since we have a very large family and every year or two there is somebody graduating from someplace. Indeed, I have two beautiful nieces, Emily and Ashley, who graduated this spring as well. But Erik’s graduation is special, because Erik has Asperger’s Syndrome.
When Erik was first diagnosed, I had never heard of Asperger’s. I was to find out it is a mild form of autism, characterized by complex challenges in learning and an inability to pick up on social cues . I knew that Erik did not act exactly like most other kids his age. His learning seemed splintered- he excelled at some things, but others were very difficult for him to learn. His speech and language were delayed. School was a struggle because he was unable to memorize. It took him years to learn to pedal a tricycle and he didn’t read until he was in third grade.
To me, he seemed like a serious little boy whose slightly robotic way of speaking gave the sense that he was totally unconnected to what was going on around him.
I was wrong. Erik was connected. He just connected differently from most of his peers. Year after year, he fought to keep up. He was socially awkward, especially during middle school where the kids called him names like “spec” and “retard.” He would get so upset he was physically ill. Unlike children who may not realize they are different, Erik knew. He knew he was not as fast, or as agile, or as sociable as his siblings.
Born into a family of athletes, Erik found team sports difficult, because the action transitioned more quickly than he was able to process. Basketball and soccer were too fast. He tried karate, but memorizing the sequences of the katas was difficult. Again and again he tried, and while he struggled, his siblings excelled. It was frustrating. It was disappointing. But like all of us, Erik had a choice. He knew he could dwell in the trenches of self-pity, or he could recognize things for what they were and make the best of them. Erik chose the latter. When his siblings excelled, he reveled in their success. Over and over, I saw Erik stand in the shadows of his siblings’ victories, and over and over heard the pride in his voice as he told me how fast his brother ran, or how many points his sister scored.
Last summer, we sat together at the beach, and I asked him what he wanted to do after high school. He looked down and kicked at the sand. “I want to go into the Service,” he said slowly, “but I can’t because of the Asperger’s.” His voice betrayed his disappointment, and it broke my heart. I worried about his future. But I should have known better. Erik does not give up. He found that he could excel as a swimmer. He plowed through his high school courses and finally, he donned a red cap and gown and graduated with his class.
At the beach last Sunday, I looked at my nephew sitting across the blanket from me. He is tall and slim and handsome, with muscular shoulders like his dad. He grinned when I offered my congratulations, but did not stop to bask in the accolades. In true Erik style, he quickly took off to test the water with his younger brother and sister.
As I watched his silhouette against the horizon, it occurred to me that sometimes life is a team sport. We choose sides carefully, selecting those individuals who are the strongest and fastest and smartest to join our team. And often, we pass over people like Erik -those who take the spotlight off themselves and shine it on somebody else. Those who celebrate the victories of the team instead of the victory of the star. Those who walk instead of run, but keep walking.