In his 1993 legendary speech, late great Jim Valvano offered some thoughts on what makes a great day – laughter, tears and thought.
Just eight weeks before he died from cancer, Valvano, a long-time college basketball coach, said at the ESPYs, “To me, there are three things we all should do every day. … Number one is laugh. You should laugh every day. Number two is think. You should spend some time in thought. And number three is, you should have your emotions moved to tears, could be happiness or joy. But think about it. If you laugh, you think, and you cry, that’s a full day. That’s a heck of a day. You do that seven days a week, you’re going to have something special.”
For me, Tuesday was one of those days. The emotions run deep with Carson, our youngest with special needs.. He has overcome so much in his 12 years. As young child, he was a handful. He was unpredictable, prone to unexpected violence and defiant. There were dozens of unfortunate incidents related to bad behavior. Some days he was a nightmare, resulting in prayers for strength and patience, but most importantly the answers to help him. Remembering, not harping, how serious and upsetting our challenges were in the past results in a true appreciation for what we see today.
Life for and with Carson is not easy. It might always be like this for him and us. Never say never, but we expect he will always need us as his caregivers. We suspect an independent life could be a reach. We have also learned, however, to not underestimate him because he is a champion and can rise to the expectations. He has proven this time and time again. When he does meet the challenges and overcomes it brings on tears of pride and joy.
Tuesday at Berlin Intermediate School was one of those instances. Before the pandemic, Carson was showing signs of overcoming his shyness. He’s an introverted kid. The fact he’s aware he is nonverbal, has a disability and is different from others his age certainly heightens his reticence.
He’s shy by nature, but he weas showing signs of being comfortable in his own skin and around other people. COVID wrecked Carson’s maturation. The isolation heightened his social anxiety. In recent months, as a “rise up” ceremony was approaching at his school, we were worried. Right up until his name was called Tuesday, we didn’t know if he would walk down the center aisle, stand in front of the big crowd, receive his recognition and sit with his classmates.
During the ceremony, the classroom teachers presented their students who would be moving on from the school this week. As his classroom neared, we could see Carson in the back of the room with his other graduates, making their way to the front. By his side was his trusted Educational Assistant Mr. DJ, who has been his amazing one-on-one most of the the last two years. At this point in Carson’s life, there is no way he would do this sort of thing on his own. It’s a goal for sure, but not realistic at this point. We just hoped he would walk to the front with Mr. DJ, get recognized and get his picture taken with his principal and superintendent.
Carson was able to do it. He did need to have a trusted stuffed animal from home in his hands, but it’s okay. It’s how he walks into school each day too. It gives him security and it’s a battle we are not going to wage. If it makes him content and he can walk into school ready to start the day, it’s fine with me. In Tuesday’s case, if carrying a stuffed animal to the front of the assembled area while wearing a jacket and tie with his trusted EA is what it takes to get it done so be it. The photo will be a keepsake we will treasure.
I got emotional during this 30-second event. My wife did as well. It represents a lot for him and us. The last thing Carson ever wants is to be the center of attention. He despises it and avoids it all costs. He knew on this day he deserved to be recognized and he rose to the occasion.
I love a conversation Mr. DJ relayed to me after the event. He told Carson it was just fine to be nervous about being in front of all the people. He reminded him he is growing up and becoming a big boy, though. Part of getting older and going through life is overcoming these moments. He was right. It worked.
Throughout the ceremony this week, I found myself getting choked up, as I saw other special needs kids we have met and got to know over our school journey also rise to meet the challenge. To varying degrees, kids with disabilities understand they are different. Each comes with unique struggles, but most fear the spotlight. To see these kids we have known for six to eight years be recognized was an incredible thing.
Equally touching was we were told repeatedly on this day how much Carson will be missed. A staff member told Pam and I looking skyward and holding her heart, “We are going to miss that boy so much.”
It’s heartwarming to hear of his impact. He’s nonverbal but connects. He’s amazing in this way.
As Valvano said, it was “a heck of a day.”