I saw her this weekend in the supermarket. It had been a long while. Perhaps six months or so. But then there she was, in front of me, her eyes wide behind the thick glasses, her hands reaching out and caressing the coloured chewing gum wrappers, her little hands picking up and putting back the gum sticks again and again. She was wearing a tiny pink frock, looked relatively new. Her nose was not running much. But other than that, she looked the same as six months ago when I had seen her last.
This was at a time when I used to hang around a lot at the crèche. It was because of a feeling that my child was too young, or perhaps it was because I am over-protective as a mother sometimes. Anyway I used to spend enough time there for someone to remark that I may as well be on the pay-roll there. I used to enjoy it, looking at all the kids and their antics, and only occasionally doing some stuff for my own kid like taking her on a bathroom break or giving her juice to drink.
This child was clearly different. A tiny, wisp of a girl in thick glasses. Her legs sticks emerging out from a faded old frock. She would be absorbed in herself, in a corner of the room, sitting on a mat with her legs sticking out from underneath. No one could convince her to sit cross-legged like the other kids, with their frocks pulled over the knees. No one could convince her to do much, so for the most part they left her alone. She used to have a perpetual cold, and once, when I tried to convince her to walk out to where the other kids were, holding my finger, I realized that she was physically quite strong. She shook my hand off rather impatiently and proceeded to cry, much to my dismay.
Now suddenly she was there in front of me. The same size as all those months ago. The same blank look on her face. Of course she did not recognize me. I don’t even remember her name. But my eyes immediately welled up. I bet she stays home all day, no school, no crèche. I think I have never heard her speak. It got me thinking of a long ago experience.
Now this was back in 1997 (or thereabouts), in graduate school, in the US of A. A friend I went to school with walked up to me and said ‘Hey you want to coach a basketball team? Its right here, 20 miles from us. For the Special Olympics.’ I said Ok without thinking much about it. Then set to figure out what on earth was so special about this Olympics, and how would I ever manage to be a coach. Of course I have played years of basketball, and seen my share of coaches, but did not have a strategy of coaching or anything like that. But then Dan was insistent. When I finally found out more about what I was in for, I was really scared. Of course I pretended to be fine with it. After all, I was only going to be Assistant Coach. Dan the main coach, his wife, an occasional Yoga-stretching instructor for the team.
Our team was in
The Special Olympics has the following as an oath - ‘Let me win. But if I cannot win, let me be brave in the attempt.’ We did not enforce this oath. We were not certified coaches either. We were just filling in for someone who had moved out. We had to take our team through to the end of the season (about two months away), participate in a local tournament, that’s all. Our team consisted of about eight people, of varied ages, both genders, who came regularly. Many had Down’s syndrome. Roger was a very angry, very surly, forty year old man with limited skills except with his mouth. Lizzie was a most sweet, plump, twelve year old girl who smiled at everything. A few of them could jump. Two could lay-up. We had a nice indoor court in a school that was in their neighborhood. Shiny wooden floor, not too shiny. Fiber glass boards, new, milky, nets. Lots and lots of basketballs at our disposal.
We would start with some stretching. Then a few rounds of running around the court for warm-up. I would lead from the front of the line, and also pace them carefully, especially watching out to make sure Lizzie wouldn’t be too tired at the end of it. Dan would be in the back, disciplining, coaxing. The first few days we tried some passing & dribbling drills, free-throws, set shots. After that as the tournament got closer, we gave up on the basic skills development and just divided into two teams and played. Dan & I would be on opposite teams. We would split up the rest as evenly as possible. They all knew the rules. They were all enthusiastic, some of them occasionally out-running us down the court. I would wince, afraid they may hurt themselves, but they would bounce up. They were all totally charged up a week before the tournament. They had gotten their game tshirts. The few parents that used to show up talked non-stop about it.
I was worried. We were a pretty bad team. Although it is not about winning, I felt it was my responsibility that no one gets hurt. I had had enough of brave stories about how many times one or the other had had a fracture. I could not always understand what they were saying, the lisp, the accent, the weird grammar, a bit too much. But I was worried. A tournament! Severe competition! The other teams probably did not have so many people with so many serious problems. Americans! Why do they have to be so uninhibited? Back home people with disabilities are routinely hidden from public view. They are not paraded in basketball tournaments. I was telling Dan. (I know that is neither entirely true, nor entirely false of course, but hey what chances does Dan have of reading about Special Olympics Bharat or other such efforts?).
Then the day of the tournament. Some of the things are hazy in my mind. But I know it was a large gymnasium set up with lots of basketball courts. Teams in bright t-shirts were milling around everywhere. Everyone was eating a lot of chips and drinking a lot of Coke. I was uncharacteristically quiet. The butterflies that usually show up close to match-time were working double time. Some of the others in the team too appeared a bit stressed out, looking at the good teams playing. We figured out the timings of our games and walked around a bit, waiting. A few minutes before the whistle we warmed up, did some inspirational talk and screams and grunts and strode on to the court. They had announced that the coaches could also play, one at a time, in the teams, so we were a little relieved. At least Dan & I could control the ball, and distribute it around, and make sure no one fought or anything.
The games are a blur, but the result is not. We were in a group of three teams, which means we played two games in all. We lost both. Not too badly, but then lose we did. Some of the smaller ones surprised us with some good baskets. Roger managed to hold in his temper. No one got hurt, no blood, no fractures. All good things, but then we lost. Sitting outside with our brown bags of cold sandwiches, the mood was somber. Dan & I made a speech about how it was a very rewarding experience for us, and we wished them the very best, and hoped to be back next season. Then the prize ceremony started. We dragged ourselves in, sore in more ways than one. Then, surprise surprise! We were all given medals! Bronze medals with the Special Olympics logo and everything, we were after all in third place! So what if there were only three teams? I was so happy I could have cried. Lizzie was still smiling so I hugged her tight, and then we were off on our way back.