“William, you just missed. That’s an ‘H’.” My brother, Peter, and I were playing basketball with our next door neighbor William on a court behind our homes. I had almost come in first place in our shooting game of P-I-G and was determined to beat them both at H-O-R-S-E. Both Peter and William were admittedly better than I was at controlling the ball whenever we played a game, but I was still pretty decent and, at eleven, I already had quite the shot.
“Hey, why do you only have one finger?” I had been so focused on getting the basketball in the net and avoiding ‘H’, I hadn’t noticed a kid who had just approach us, watching intently. I looked over at what seemed to be an eight-year-old and hesitated. “I’m Jamie. We just moved over there.” He was pointing at a small brown bi-level house about twenty yards away from the court. Ignoring the question, at least for the moment, I attempted the shot. “That’s an ‘H’. Pass it to me.” It was Peter. Frustrated that I missed the shot, I threw him the ball. I next turned to Jamie, prepared to give my typical response to the one question I had heard more than any other in my short life. “I was born….” But I didn’t get a chance to reply, because Jamie interjected. “Oh, the reason you couldn’t make the basket is because you only have one finger.”
I looked at Peter, feeling instantly deflated. “Guys, I don’t feel like playing anymore, I am tired.” “Meg, are you sure?” I was sure. “You missed. That’s a P!” I heard William shout at Jamie behind me. I walked away toward our house, feeling sorry for myself. I already knew that once my head wasn’t in the game, there was no point.
But before I reached the house, I felt my brother’s hand on my shoulder. “Hey, come back. Now that we have four players, we can play a game. I need you on my team to win.” Noting my expression, he added, “Who cares what he thinks? I need your shot.”
As we ate dinner that evening, I couldn’t help but grin at Peter sitting across the table. We had beaten William and Jamie that day, three games in a row.
“C’mon Ethan, let’s try again.” We were enjoying our last few days left of Winter break before our five-year-old went back to nursery school and John and I returned to our respective jobs. With Charlie and Savanna both still napping in their cribs, I had decided it was time for Ethan to learn how to dribble a basketball. There was snow everywhere outside so the dribbling lesson would have to be in our kitchen. “That’s it!” Ethan smiled proudly, and proceeded to bounce the ball three times with his sole right finger, and then catch it with both hands.
On the first day, we had begun practicing with a simple bounce and catch of the ball for what felt like hours. “Do you really think he can do it?” John pondered out loud but out of Ethan’s hearing. The question was less about dribbling around our kitchen and more about signing Ethan up to join a team at the local Y. Immediately, I thought back to my days playing basketball with Peter and our neighbors. They had both taught me to play. Even as I struggled at first, handling the ball with my own small one-fingered hand, they refused to let me quit. “Not only do I know he can do it, I want to make sure he has the time at home to develop skills, before anyone else weighs in.”
That spring we picked up a basketball net for our driveway at a neighbor’s garage sale, and Ethan joined the YMCA league feeling extremely confident. The day of the first game, after he had just scored a point, I overheard him saying to a boy on another team something quite familiar, “……because I was born that way.”
Last month right before holiday break, I happen to come across a list in Forbes magazine developed by Amy Morin, a licensed clinical social worker:
Mentally Strong People: The 13 Things They Don’t Do
- Waste Time Feeling Sorry For Themselves
- Give Away Their Power
- Shy Away From Change
- Waste Energy on Things They Can’t Control
- Worry About Pleasing Others
- Fear Taking Calculated Risks
- Dwell on the Past
- Make The Same Mistakes, Over and Over
- Resent Other People’s Success
- Give Up After Failure
- Fear Alone Time
- Feel The World Owes them Anything
- Expect Immediate Results
At first I read the list in the context of my profession and even sent it to several co-workers. But then it occurred to me to share it with the Don’t Hide It Flaunt It Facebook community. After the kids were in bed, John and I began to discuss the kids’ basketball schedules for the coming weekend. The season had just started and I asked John how Ethan had played in his first scrimmage the prior weekend, “How was the game? Was he rusty?” Expecting a description of Ethan’s skills, I was reminded that our lives are never quite that simple. “Actually, Ethan was great and scored early. But there was a boy on the other team who, during the line-up, just couldn’t take his eyes off of Ethan’s hands.” I felt my stomach tighten, wondering how it made Ethan feel, since it had been over a week and he hadn’t mentioned a thing. As I drifted off to sleep, I made a mental note to ask Ethan directly about the scrimmage and check-in about the boy who was fixated on his one-fingered hands.
The next morning, as I sipped my coffee, I noted a New York Times article about Zach Hodskins, a senior at Milton High near Atlanta, Georgia, who was born without a left hand or forearm http://www.nytimes.com/2013/12/21/sports/basketball/one-handed-basketball-player-gets-shot-with-florida.html?_r=0. Apparently, based on his phenomenal skills on the basketball court, Hodskins was recently guaranteed a roster spot at the University of Florida who designated him a preferred walk-on. At nearly 6 feet 4 inches, Hodskins was described as a strong passer with extraordinary range. “He doesn’t have 3-point range; it’s in-the-gym range,” his coach Matt Kramer said. But beyond his skills, I was intrigued by Zach’s confidant and humorous attitude. A foul had been called, leaving the culprit’s coach mystified. “What did he do?” asked Coach Kramer. Pointing to Hodskins, the official said, “He was hand-checking with both hands,” the official explained. “Hey,” Zach said. “I don’t even have two hands.” Growing up, Hodskins’ parents noted that young Zach would not tolerate any coddling, and despite some failed attempts to intervene where they believed their son might need the extra help, Zach would have none of it. In fact, unlike me at his age, the eighteen-year-old basketball player is clearly a flaunter. “It is upsetting when I notice young people trying to disguise a disability with bulky clothing or cropped photos on their social media pages. I’ve never had that problem,” Hodskins continued. “These kids need to be themselves, not hide it all their lives.”
But beyond the attitude, Zach is willing to use his difference to his advantage, as necessary. At one game, an opposing coach shouted to the player guarding Zach, “Make him go left,” a command that offended Hodskins’s mother. Only, Zach welcomed those words. “I tell them, ‘Keep forcing me left.’ I get more separation when they do that,” he said. It occurred to me that not only did I need to show Ethan the article about the super-talented Hodskins, I needed to also show him the Strong Minded Forbes list. Zach Hodskins seemed already to have embodied its message and was benefiting from its results. Responding to my call for him, Ethan walked into the same kitchen where he had learned to dribble years earlier. I decided to ask about the kid from the scrimmage. “Did that bother you E?” Ethan looked over and laughed. “Are you kidding me? It was awesome! The kid couldn’t stop staring at my hands and I think he was too afraid to guard me closely.” He waited for my reaction, and continued, “…and so, I used it to my advantage. He didn’t cover me well so I could shoot!”
In that moment, after we had given one another our shared, “high-one,” it occurred to me that although he would find both of interest, Ethan did not actually need to be inspired by Hodskins or learn from the Forbes list. He was already more than mentally strong.