“If you look into the mirror of reality, your reflection will be to face up to your fears and the outcome will be you might find something amazing. I learned that from experience. You might not always benefit, but what you will gain is a little less fear and a little more fun in your life.” Ethan Zucker November 2012
I was relieved. Somehow Ethan must have had enough foot development with his two toes (versus my one toe) on each foot that wearing cleats was within the realm of possibility. I had spent plenty of time exploring my options, even some seemingly outlandish. The prior year, I had even written to the Puma customer service department. They had announced a competition to the public to help inspire the company to create a new, custom-tailored cleat. Using that as my entry-point, I wrote to Puma, explaining that our son was born with ectrodactyly and asked if they would be willing to entertain creating extremely wide and somewhat shortened length to be available for kids who were not born with conventional feet. No response. But after trying a few brands on our kindergartner, somehow I found cleats that fit him….at least well-enough for the time-being. But shoes were the least of our challenges in the context of soccer.
When the season started, I used to joke with my husband, John, that Ethan paid more attention to the butterflies and the bunnies hopping around than the game itself. The coach assured us this was normal for 5 year olds. Many of the kids on his team were from a neighboring town and didn’t know him from school, but they quickly got past the initial need to stare at his one finger on each hand and discovered he was a decent player. We also decided to help Ethan along by signing him up for a soccer clinic at the YMCA so he would understand better the game.
During the final game of the season, the score was tied. In the final five minutes, one of the coaches put Ethan into the forward position. Somehow, Ethan surprised all of us and scored the winning goal. I screamed with delight, cheering “Ethan, Ethan!” Within minutes, the players on each team lined up in opposite directions in the post-game ritual to pass one another and shake hands. Within seconds my heart went from completely inflated to a state of emptiness. It sank as I watched Ethan stick out his one-fingered hand to the players of the opposite team and, one by one, the majority put their hand down, or up, or quite frankly anywhere so they didn’t have to touch his hand.
This past weekend, I sat on the cold bleachers watching Ethan’s soccer team, in 1st place, play in the first playoff-game for the season. After Hurricane Sandy, a nor’easter and first snowfall, it was good just to be able to get the kids on a playing field. I glanced over at Charlie and Savanna, both joyfully playing together in a dirty mound of snow piled-up alongside the field.
“Go Ethan!” I looked up when I heard John. Ethan was charging up the field with the ball, quickly glanced and saw his teammate was marginally open. With a quick pass of the ball, his teammate scored, helped directly by our son’s assist. John and I were elated. Charlie and Savanna meanwhile jumped to another pile of snow. I felt so content, so happy about how far we had come since those days when Ethan first began to play soccer.
As we loaded up into the car, I turned to Ethan. “Nice game, E! You guys played awesome!” “Thanks Mom…..” his voice trailed off. “What is it?” John and Ethan had driven to the game that day separately so he could practice with the team earlier, and rather than responding, Ethan followed his dad to his car. It was only later, when he and I were out of earshot of anyone else, did Ethan speak to me candidly. “Mom, a couple of boys made sure to not shake my hand again.” I was shocked. Had this been happening all along, unbeknownst to me? “Huh?” “C’Mon, Mom. It isn’t everyone, ya know. It’s always two or three kids that don’t want to touch my hand in every game when we are all lined up. If they are my age, why do you think they do that?”
My mind raced to an e-mail I recently received from a mom who follows my blog, asking my advice. In it she described several ninth grade boys teasing a younger 7th grade boy based on his (small) size. In fact, they boldly taunted the kid in front of her and her younger son, his friend. She was understandably upset, even felt guilty about not doing more than telling them to stop. She even considered calling their parents.
My feedback to the mother related back to my theme that you cannot control the behavior or thoughts of others, no matter what they say. By allowing the behavior of some insensitive kids get the best of you—you end up losing your own sense of self, your “power.” But there was more, beyond how to react to the situation. I told her that, in my opinion, for the small boy, this is his life lesson and journey—he will be all the stronger for it. In fact, much stronger than those 9th grade boys no matter how tall or strong they are or become.
And so, it was time for me to once again take my own advice. I turned to Ethan. “Hon, I can try and say anything to make you feel better, but the reality is, even at your age certain kids are uncomfortable with difference. Their reaction is at best one of surprise, and at worst, trying to be mean. The key is appreciating that no matter their intention, whether inspired by curiosity or cruelty, it is a waste of our time to try and change their behavior.” I paused. “And by the way, this is not only a lesson for you, but for me, and all the parents out there that have to sit on the sidelines, watching our children endure whatever may come their way.” If we allow it to penetrate, it can rip us apart inside. I continued. “You know, Baba (my father) has an expression I love: Worry about the things you can do something about.”
I proceeded to tell Ethan that, years ago, I first noticed kids reacting to him at the end of the soccer game, even before he became aware. “Mom, what did you do???” I explained that I responded by signing him up for soccer clinic. I couldn’t necessarily stop kids from staring or reacting strangely, but I could put our energy into helping him become a good player. That’s something I could at least control and expect positive results. Ethan seemed content with my response, and began to get ready to go to his friend’s house to watch the football game. “The Giants are going to win today Mom, I just know it!” To our delight (and relief), just like I have managed in my own life experience, his has made him incredibly resilient, and already by age ten, Ethan has learned to quickly move on from experiences other kids his age could never fathom.
Late that night, I reflected on my final tip to the same mom. My suggestion was to continue to support her son’s friendship with the smaller boy. Now that was something in her hands.