I seem to remember this episode of Life Goes On where Corky, the mentally challenged "old soul" of the show, is granted the right to go to high school with "normal kids." He got himself clean, combed his hair, put on what had to be a fresh set of clothes. He walked with an heir of confidence, and possibly for the first time in his life he was the proudest and happiest he'd ever been. Equally proud and happy, his parents decided to give Corky a gift - a very nice, very expensive binder that he could put his various school assignments in. All smiles and elation, Corky took his new binder, his sense of self worth, and his pride and trotted off to school. His day was almost eventless. The kids at the high school were, more or less, accepting of him, and Corky didn't think there was much to the whole high school thing. When the day ended, Corky was crossing the school yard on his way home when some bully kids confronted him. They didn't like the way he talked. They were opposed to the way he looked. They didn't really think he should be there with "normal people." They decided they best course of action would be to grab Corky's new binder, destroy the contents, and throw it on the ground, laughing at how they'd taught that retarded kid to think twice before being retarded. Corky went home, sad and distraught, and his parents wrapped up the episode by telling him that not everyone was going to accept him, and that the world wasn't always a good place to be. This softened the blow for a multitude of life lessons Corky would learn throughout the show's tenure. In a sense, the bubble Corky had lived in his whole life had been breeched, and now he could become a more well-rounded person. I never was bullied like this as a child, but sometimes I wonder if I should have been.
Recently at Hastings an older couple came in looking for some obscure country CD. I tried my best to find the CD for them, but it was so obscure that it probably never made it to CD in the first place. They might have been able to find it on the internet, but judging their age, I figured the only thing they knew about the internet was that it was "a place where the kids went to do things." They smiled and were very grateful for my help. I got ready to leave them in the country section and return to my work when the old man said, "You don't remember us, do you?"
I know a lot of people whose name I've never took the time to learn. I know even more people who I've never met (that is to say they know of me for various reasons but I've never formally met them). This was a man I couldn't for the life of me ever remember meeting, so I answered him. "I'm afraid I don't."
"We're John Tupper's parents," he said. I tried to recall the name John Tupper because it was familiar to me, and I couldn't figure out where I knew it from. So I took a few minutes to think and then it dawned on me, and now you're going to find out something I did when I was a wee little kid.
When I was ten years old, the Joplin Little League, at the backing, request, and planning of John Tupper, create a branch of the Little League called Challenger. Basically it was a baseball team for kids that had mental of physical limitations. I heard about it on the radio and told my dad that I was interested in joining up. I was too small and too weak to play baseball with kids my age, so I thoughy Challenger would be cool. For some reason I had this notion that we would actually be playing some baseball - catching, hitting, scoring runs, figuring stats, the works. In reality, Challenger was an entire league where most of the kids were so far gone mentally that they probably didn't even realize where they were. Some of them couldn't even hit the baseball off the tee, let alone in the air. Most of the couldn't catch, and nearly all of them thought that throwing a baseball to first base meant you had to hurl it twenty feet over their head. There were no outs. Everyone got to have a turn hitting. And, they didn't keep score. All of these things disappointed me a little bit. I wanted to have some real competition. But still, it was nice to put on a number, hit a ball, and run the bases.
Now, because I could hit the ball in the air, and because I could catch a ball that was thrown to me in a rational manner, and because I could articulate my words into a cohesive thought, I sort of became the face of the Challenger League that first year. All the newspapers, news channels, and fund raising groups flocked to me to ask me all kinds of different questions -
Who's your favorite baseball player?
- Ozzie Smith
What's your favorite thing about playing
Do you collect baseball cards?
- Yeah. Topps. Upper Deck. Donruss.
What made you join Challenger?
- I always wanted to play baseball on a team.
In a way I liked the attention. People recognized me from Challenger, and I felt as though I was somewhat of a celebrity. I played for a few more years after that, but after my sixth grade year I decided not to do it anymore. To this day people still come up to me and talk to me about when I played baseball as a kid. For the most part I am gracious for their acknowledgments, but truthfully there are times when I wish I had never played Challenger. The you are no different than anyone attitude they inflated in me was good at the time, but I don't think it's done me much good. If anything, having people, like these old people, come up to me is just a reminder that despite my better efforts I am different than everyone else. I'm not trying to put Challenger down or anything. For a lot of those kids it was probably a dose of just what they needed, and most of them probably still live in their blissful little bubbles. But for me, it was probably the wrong way to go.
The other night I was trying to pinpoint when exactly it was that I realized I was different than everyone else, and ironically the events that did it coincides with my last year of Challenger.
It was the a few weeks before summer vacation my sixth grade year. We were having the all grades school track meet at Columbian, and for the first time in my young life I actually had to compete against someone. In the previous years I competed against myself. I ran the 50 yard dash on my own. I ran the 100 yard dash on my own. I competed in the softball throw on my own. As a result, I have a whole shoebox full of blue ribbons that are proof that at times I really am better than myself. However, in 1993 Columbian Elementary got a new student, one whose special needs exceeded my own, a young autistic kid named John, and for the first time I had to compete against someone else.
Now, I was never bullied as a child in school, and by all rights I probably should've been. I looked different. I talked different. I thought different. I was as different as you could possibly get, and yet the kids of my school shielded me with so much confidence that when I looked in the mirror I didn't see the smallest kid in the class, or the slowest runner, I saw someone who could do just as much as the classes' best athlete. So no one made fune of me, and as a result, Columbian really had no handicapped kid to make fun of. Enter John. John was as weird as you could possibly get. He couldn't keep his assignments straight. He skipped and played by himself on the playground, and when he needed to tell you something he held his finger to his eye and rocked back and forth, so that he was constantly swinging back and forth through your visual field. Once I remember he tried to play kickball with us, and he barely kicked the ball two inches, and even with the rest of the boys taking it easy on him, he managed to get out because he ran clear past first base, down the hill, into the area of the playground where the second graders play (a distance of about 300 yards).
So, whe I heard I was going to race John I thought I had an easy victory. I figured he would probably hear the whistle and run completely out of the track meet lanes, thus getting himself disqualified and giving me an easy victory. I was pumped because finally I was going to show all my friends and all the hot girls of my sixth grade class that at some things I was really athletically superior. So the day of the race John and I line up, and we get ready, we get set, and the whistle is blown. I start to run, and I suddenly feel this whoosh of air to my left, and then I see what looked like flames shooting up from the ground, and I look ahead to see this fading blur of autistic kid skipping (not running) by me at Warp 10. I thought it was a fluke. He can't possibly hold that speed during the 100 yard dash. Funny thing is, he did, and with even more expediency. In essence, the kid who rocked all day and talked to bugs handed me my ass. But I wasn't totally embarrassed. I knew we still had one event to go.
If I was going to prove what was left of my superiority I was going to have to do it in the softball throw. So we get up there and John goes first. He gets in poisition for his first throw and chucks it with tremendous force. The only problem is that he didn't get his release point quite right and he hurled it over his head for negative yards.
"That counts!" I yelled.
John poised himself for the second throw, and again he got his release point wrong except this time he released it to the side and nearly took out some people sitting a few rows back along the sideline.
"That counts again!" I screamed.
Then I got up there and took my first toss. Just to be an ass because he'd beaten me by skipping, I rolled the first throw along the ground. I think it went about three inches. I did the same thing again and rolled it about five inches. I think I won the blue ribbon with probably the most pathetic score ever measured in the softball throw. I didn't care though. I wanted to win at something.
What John showed me was that when it came down to it I was way different than everyone else. He was the worst athlete in the school and I couldn't run faster than him, so really, that meant I was the worst athlete in the school. This revelation would set the tone for a multitude to come.
Every time Corky got laughed at in that episode I never really knew how to feel. On one hand I felt bad because it wasn't his fault he was mentall retarded. On the other hand, those boys made a valid point...he did look different...he did sound different...and if I'd been one of them I may well have laughed along with them. The thing is those kids laughing at Corky actually helped Corky in the end. He got a job, moved out, had a lasting relationship with someone, and had more to show for his life than I could dream of at this point in mine. Ultimately I know that I am different than everyone else. I hear it every time some attractive girl tells me I have an old soul or someone gives me a courtesy laugh for an off the wall joke. Sometimes I know it's a good thing and I celebrate my individuality. Sometimes I know it's a bad thing and I dream about being more homogeneous. In the end, though, I guess I wish someone would just kick my ass and laugh at me a little more, beat me in a race by skipping, and pop this bubble abruptly instead of slowly letting the air out of it so that I still have time to savor the moments inside.