I remember when Kevin was little and people started telling us how bright he was. He seemed to grasp concepts that were advanced for his age, he learned things easily and retained them, and he was a voracious reader by the time he was six. People would often comment that talking to him was like conversing with a miniature adult. I would beam with pride. Not that I took credit for it – but I was a little in awe that this bright, accomplished boy came from me – that I was lucky enough to be his mom, and that, yes, because he shined, I got to shine vicariously.
It was more of the same with Joey. We were actually convinced that Joey probably possessed a genius IQ when he was little. He was crazy into numbers – like, he would memorize not only how many chapters one of Kevin’s chapter books had (I’m thinking of The Giver, in particular), but what page number each chapter began on – and this was before he could read. He memorized people’s birthdays, the order of the songs on certain albums, and he could recite the alphabet backwards – fast! – when he was three.
All this apparent braininess led to visions of greatness in my mind. My kids would do big, important things – how could they not? They both were placed in GATE at school, and I was confident that their lives would follow a clear path to success.
Over the years, things have changed. The older Kevin and Joey have gotten, the smaller fish they have become in a larger sea, and their so-called “genius” no longer stands out. In high school, things don’t necessarily come so easily to Kevin – he’s had his share of academic struggles. Now that he is entering his junior year of high school and I am coming to grips with the fact that he is a mere two years away from adulthood, I am realizing that that vision of greatness I had for him once upon a time was probably naive and unrealistic. I am coming to terms with the fact that it is highly unlikely that he will graduate from high school and enter right into a four-year university program; based on finances and his academic resume, it’s far more likely that he will enroll in a community college after high school. There is a part of me that feels guilty about that – is there anything we could have done to secure his future better? Will he find a way to make his way in the world as an adult? And yes, I will confess that there is a part of me that feels crappy about it in light of the fact that many of my friends will no doubt be sending their kids off to far-flung colleges where they will live in dorms. Part of me wishes that I could give my kids what I never had in that regard – I never went to college. As for Joey, well, he’s not the math wiz he was in first and second grades, and for the most part seems to have lost interest in numbers. He doesn’t really like reading all that much. He does well in school, but not stellar. He’s not a superstar.
My own mindset about achievement has changed, too. Part of it has to do with Finn – having a child with intellectual disabilities forces you to look at the world through a different lens. Some parents of kids with Down syndrome remain persistent in their efforts to make sure their child reaches their “full potential.” Some parents, like me, have begun to question the whole notion of potential and all its trappings: intelligence, success, achievement – and how society values people based on those factors.
What I’ve noticed lately is that average has become pathological – a dirty word in parent circles. Nobody wants to have an average kid. If you have a kid with Down syndrome, then “they need all the help they can get,” so you need to make sure to provide it so they can “reach their full potential” (whatever the hell that means – can anyone quantify potential?). The unspoken message is “so they can be as high-functioning as possible,” although outwardly, most parents in the Down syndrome community claim to hate the categorizations of “high-functioning” and “low functioning.” If you have a “typical” kid, you should be doing the hundreds of things available to give your kid a leg up – flashcards, tutors, coaches, enrichment programs, etc., etc. The commonality is achievement, and it’s all in the name of laying the groundwork for our kids to become successful in life.
What does successful mean, though? It seems as though in our society, we measure success monetarily, materially. We measure success by what a person acquires – what kind of job (and therefore salary) they have, what kind of house they live in, what kind of car they drive, what kind of clothes they wear, what kind of vacations they take, what kind of toys and activities they provide for their kids. When people talk about success, it seems like happiness and character and healthy relationships are rarely considered part of the equation. Why do we not seem to value those things as much as we value achieving and acquiring? Is someone considered “successful” if they have a high-paying job and a nice house but are an asshole? (I’m being serious.) Is someone not considered “successful” if they earn a modest wage, rent an apartment, and are content?
I don’t know. I just know this is a subject I ponder a lot these days. I came across this post recently on a blog I follow: Beyond a Waitress, and it got me thinking about the future I envision for each of my kids at this point in my parenting career. Daisy and Annabelle have followed Kevin and Joey into the GATE program at school, but I put a lot less stock into it than I used to. Of course I want – and expect – all of my kids (including Finn) to do their very best at whatever they undertake, but I no longer believe that being bright and putting forth one’s best effort means they will shine. Or at least, maybe my definition of “shine” has evolved. Maybe the “shining” is actually in the trying, the quiet but persistent display of character, rather than in the achievement. Maybe the reward is the process itself, and not the end result – the house, the car, the vacation.
I often think of Joey and Little League. He’s been passionate about baseball since he was six or seven years old, and there was a time when I think Michael and I thought that with his level of passion and effort, surely it would pay off one day and he would become a star player. This past season, Joey struggled to keep up with some of the other boys in his division. I think it became clear to us and to him that he’s just not going to be a standout player – but it doesn’t matter. He loves the game as much as he ever did, he displays excellent sportsmanship and is supportive of his teammates no matter what. He has character. We love watching him play because he loves to play – not because he’s a stellar ballplayer. There is a profound value in that.
So, Joey is never going to be a Major League Baseball player, and Kevin is probably never going to be a famous author or filmmaker. I suspect that all of my kids will lead pretty average lives. Average isn’t bad – average is just average. What’s wrong with that? As long as they are happy, compassionate, decent people, I will feel that I did my job well. Right?