There must have been more than one hundred families in the crowded gym. I was alone, having rushed in from work. Because I arrived a few minutes late for the awards ceremony at Ethan’s basketball camp, the bleachers reserved for families was packed. So, I sat with my back up against wall, on the hard floor.
It was the last day of camp, and Ethan was seated with at least two hundred kids. As much as he loved to play basketball, this was the first time I had sent him to any type of sports-only camp. In my heart I knew, by spending five hours per day not only playing ball but learning technique, I was pushing our eldest son outside of his comfort zone, both physically and, with all the new kids, most likely socially. At the end of the first day, I had called home from work. “How was it, hon?” “Mom, it’s okay, but I don’t think I love it.” “How come?” “I don’t know, just because.” I didn’t press. I could only imagine the volume of stares he endured on his first day; his first hour; his first minutes. But by the second day, when I called again, Ethan’s voice brightened, and he seemed to be enjoying his time at camp much more. Again, I decided not to ask details unless volunteered. I often say that if I were a stay-at-home mom I would be a wreck, worrying about how my kids were getting on with others. As usual, and fortunately for the both of us, I was incredibly busy at work that week; too busy to let myself get consumed with anxiety about how Ethan was getting on there.
“And now, take a look at what our top performing kids can do.” My mind returned to the present at the sound of the Head Coach’s voice booming through a microphone. Immediately, about ten kids raced up to the front of the hot gym and began to twirl a ball on each of their single fingers. Everyone applauded and my stomach tightened. Although Ethan had the sole finger needed for the trick, I also figured it would take a palm and five fingers on the other hand to support the ball and spin. If the coaches were teaching this during the week, had Ethan tried it? Had he been humiliated by the attempt? I felt anxious. And then, the coaches began handing out different awards for varying talent.
For example, I hadn’t even known there was a basketball technique called, “the Spider,” but there was an award for it. Just the day before Ethan boasted that he had figured out how he could do the maneuver, even with his small palm and one finger.
And then, all of the sudden, the Head Coach began to tell a story of a girl named, Cindy. Apparently, he had been coaching her 4th grade team years ago and was extremely upset over a narrow loss. “Excuse me coach, Cindy said to him. “I thought it wasn’t whether we win or lose, but how we play the game?” Apparently, the comment impacted the coach, and it helped him put the game in perspective. But, the story did not end there. Cindy went on to become a great basketball player in High School, but then by the age of 22, she became ill and eventually died from cancer.”
He continued. “And so, in honor of Cindy, we have a “Most Inspirational Player,” award. My heart sank. “Here it comes,” I thought. “And the Most Inspirational Player Award goes to…..Ethan Zucker!” Loud applause followed. And there, among the hundreds of people gathered, our ten-year-old son walked up from his bleacher seat to receive his plaque and smiled for the camera. Meanwhile, I couldn’t help but feel annoyed. “Of course the two-fingered kid has to win this,” I thought to myself. I had just written the blog post last week on Olympian Joanna Roswell, who is bald due to alopecia, and reflected on my hope that one day, people would simply appreciate us for our talents, rather than our difference.
And so, when Ethan approached me and said, “Hey, Mom. I won an award, did you see?” The phrase, “grin and bear it,” rang in my head. I did what any mother would do, I gave Ethan a wide grin, and a huge hug. However, after we went home, out of earshot to Ethan, I called John to vent. “I know they meant well of course, but why can’t people for once not have to give praise to the overtly different kid for something like this? If he didn’t have one finger on each hand, I am positive he wouldn’t have won this. On the court he is just like everyone else!”
That evening I was reminded why I am so fortunate to have my husband by my side, and Ethan is so incredibly lucky to have the Dad that he does. John came home that night and told me I was way overreacting and being a dope over this. That, unlike Joanna Roswell, who could have cycled the same with or without hair and earn her gold medal, that this was different. “Meg, you know handling a basketball is not something easy for a kid with only one finger. It’s very hard to control the ball and dribble with one hand like he does. And he’s a more consistent shooter than I ever was. Whether you like it or not, the fact that Ethan plays the sport, loves it, and is even relatively good at it, is inspirational. He is NOT just like everyone else. You need to swallow that pill and move past it.”
I went to bed that night but did not go to sleep for a long time. My husband’s words rang in my ears. I needed to swallow my pride and somehow allow others to treat us differently, and accept it favorably. In fact, there was clearly an upside. Ethan is recognized and feels accomplished at something many would not otherwise expect him to even try. And, more importantly, his winning the award might just push some kids harder, beyond their own assumed limitations. The short kid might just try to jump all the higher. The slower kid might just try to run faster. The star athlete might even be more open to passing the ball to a kid seemingly not perfect.
And so, I am now sold on that clichéd expression. It’s not whether you win or lose. It’s not even whether you win an award or not. It really is how you play the game. And hopefully others will notice.