(Got home late, wrote quickly, to bed early, big lecture tomorrow. Blog very rushed, not even proofed.)
She sat at the end of the row, her chair tilted so her back was to the wall, she never took off her coat, her arms crossed in front of her. She created barrier after barrier after barrier. The class was on abuse prevention, but that encompasses a lot of different aspects. From voice to choice and all the stops in between. The class is designed to be fast and fun and has maximum participation. She watched as person after person got up to do roll plays, to read to the group, to teach. It was obvious that she had a yearning to hear the applause in her own ear, earned for her own accomplishment, but she couldn't do it. Simply couldn't. Something inside her stopped her. Some fear, some memory, some thing, made it impossible for her to do what she yearned to do.
I knew what she felt. I was a shy, terrified young man. I expected only failure from myself, I never put myself in situations of risk. I knew I would be laughed at. I knew all would end in disaster. I could predict the future, and only certain thing was that there was a bucket of shit in the sky and it was waiting to tip all over me. I would watch others try things, others succeed, others earn applause and praise. I even saw others fail, and laugh about it. I didn't understand them. I still don't. My heart ached to see her try and succeed, because in seeing her I saw myself only mere years ago. No, I don't have Down Syndrome like she does, no, I don't have an intellectual disability, no ... but I had, was she had - terminally low expectation of self and extremely high expectation of ridicule. Those two things destroyed the quality of my life and even worse the quality of the relationship I had with others, and even worse the quality of relationship I had with myself.
So I offered her a chance at every turn when she was laughing and applauding another. She would freeze with terror at the idea and say 'no' clearly. I never asked twice, asking a second time to a clear 'no' seems a bit like coercion to me. But I asked and offered often. Nothing came of it. The 'will' was in her eyes, but the 'won't' was in her heart. I knew she was torn.
Then, as we were nearing the end of the day we played 'THE JOE CHALLENGE' which is a really fun game and most people get up to play it. She was offered. She said 'No'. Then I noticed that, as she was against the wall, there was a clear walkway up to her. I said, 'Would you like to take THE JOE CHALLENGE sitting there, Joe could come to you?' It was enough. She nodded. Slightly. Quickly. She surprised herself with the agreement to participate. Fear tightened its grip across her shoulders. But Joe smiled at her, she smiled back.
THE JOE CHALLENGE is a game about social distance, Joe walks towards her and she needs to say 'STOP' before he is two arms lengths away. With every step that Joe took, I chanted internally, 'say stop, say stop, say stop' and then she did. It was measured. She was perfectly right on. The whole room, knowing that something big had happened, I love when all the hearts in an audience becomes one big heart, erupted in cheers for her. Cheers! At first she covered her face in shock. Then she threw her head back and laughed a laugh that was unrestrained.
Then, oh my Gosh, then, she hugged herself.
I turned to wipe away tears. I remember the first time I hugged myself too. The first time I saw an accomplishment and in awe and gratitude hugged the person who made it happen ... me. That first hug, led to this day, to this career, to this life.
I am a lucky man. To have felt my own embrace. To have seen another embrace, needed, than given.
The journey has been long for me, I know it will be long for her ... but I know what waits for her ... and I couldn't wish anything better for anyone.