Friday, January 7, 2011
Ever since we were in kindergarten I've been helping my next door neighbor, Stuart. I say "help" because Stuart has Down Syndrome. It took a few years of teasing, but the other kids finally realized that although he looks different and is slower than others, he has a heart of gold.
That's why I got angry when the new guy, Chris, started teasing Stuart. At first, it was minor. Chris would look in Stuart's direction, point and laugh. I told Stuart to ignore it, but soon it escalated to leaving mean notes on his locker and tripping him.
About a month after Chris arrived I finally had enough. I was headed to the office to talk to the principal when I saw my mom coming down the hall. "Sarah, I've come to take you to the hospital. Stuart is asking for you. He had an allergic reaction because he put pepper on his food at lunch."
"Pepper!" I exclaimed. "He can't eat pepper. He knows that."
At the hospital, I ran to the nurses' station and saw Stuart's mom crying. We hugged and she said, "I'm hoping you can get him to tell us what happened."
Hooked up to an IV and very pale, Stuart smiled as we walked into the room.
"Hi, buddy. How are you?" I asked.
With a scratchy voice he said, "Are you mad at me?"
I smiled. "Of course not." Calmly, I asked Stuart why he'd put pepper on his food.
"I can't tell." Stuart squirmed and clutched the covers. "I don't want you to get in trouble."
Stuart's mom look at me questioningly. "Stuart, Sarah won't get in trouble. Tell us what happened."
Stuart furrowed his brow. "I went to the cafeteria and a guy got a tray and put salt and pepper on the food. I told him I didn't want to eat it." Crying, Stuart continued. "He said you'd get mad at me if I didn't. He laughed when I started coughing. I couldn't breathe and they had to call the ambulance. I was scared! Sarah, why did you want me to eat my food like that?"
"Stuart, I wouldn't do anything to hurt you. He lied. Who brought you the try?" I asked.
Stuart coughed. "That guy who teases me."
Stuart's mom still looked confused.
"He's this new kid who picks on Stuart, but I never thought it would go this far."
"Why'd he want to make me sick, Sarah?" Stuart asked.
"I'm not sure what his problem is, but I'm going to find out!"
Stuart was released the next day. He was nervous about going back to school, but excited because I was going to take him to the community center for track and field practice for the Special Olympics. I arrived on the field and my anger erupted, the minute I saw Chris. Two inches from his face, I yelled, "Are you proud of yourself? You could have killed Stuart!"
The coach rushed over. "What's the problem, Sarah? This is Chris and his brother, Timmy. He's a new member of the 100-yard-dash team."
I stared in disbelief at the boy standing next to Chris. Smiling, he put his hand out. "Hi, my name's Timmy. What's yours?"
Suddenly everything became clear. "Nice to meet you, Timmy. My name is Sarah."
Biting his lip, Chris looked at me. To his brother he said, "Timmy, why don't you go introduce yourself to Stuart."
Timmy raced off and Chris sputtered, "Please, let me explain."
"No, explanation is needed," I said sarcastically.
Chris tried to continue. "You don't know what it's like _____"
"Don't bother making excuses!" I interrupted. "Let me make things perfectly clear. First, you're going to tell your parents about the pepper _____"
Chris cut in. "But I _____"
"I'm not finished yet. Second, the teasing at school will stop or I'll tell everyone what you did. I love Stuart like he was my brother and I won't let you hurt him again, just because you're embarrassed your brother has Downs."
I heard Timmy's sad voice behind me. "I embarrass you, Chris?"
"No, Timmy, you don't embarrass me." Chris put his hand on Timmy's shoulder and they walked off the field.
"You really love me like a brother, Sarah?" Stuart asked.
I smiled. "Yes, I do, Stuart."
Hugging me he said, "I love you, too."
"Ugh, you're crushing me." We both laughed.
Is Chris really embarrassed that Timmy has Downs?" Stuart gazed in Timmy's direction.
"Maybe he never took the time to get to know Timmy. He doesn't realize how special his brother is," I explained.
Later, Chris sat down on the bleachers beside me as I watched Stuart run. "I'm sorry," he said.
"I'm not the one you should apologize to." I continued to watch the field.
"I know," Chris said weakly.
"Why were you cruel to Stuart when you have a brother with Downs?" I asked.
Sighing, Chris said, "At first it was no big deal. Timmy and I were the same age, mentally. We played together until my friends started noticing how different he was. My buddies thought he was weird and wouldn't hang out with me unless I left him at home. I thought we would get a fresh start moving here. When I saw Stuart, I thought someone would find out about Timmy and it would start all over again."
I stared at Chris. "Has there ever been a time when he didn't make you smile? Haven't you noticed that no matter what you say of do it him he never gets mad? Downs kids don't have a mean bone in their bodies. If you'd spend some time with him you'd see how special he is."
"Sarah, are you ready to go home for lunch?' yelled Stuart from the field.
"I'll be there in just a minute," I yelled back. Climbing down the bleachers, I turned to look at Chris. "You're Timmy's hero! Isn't it time you started acting like it?"
The next day at school, as we sat down to lunch, Stuart looked nervously at his tray of food. From his tray I took a bite of his lasagna and he smiled. When he looked past me, his smile disappeared. Turning, I saw Chris and Timmy walking toward us.
"Hi, Stuart. Sarah," Chris said. "Stuart, I want to apologize for putting that pepper in your food. That was a mean trick. Will you accept my apology?"
Stuart looked at me and I smiled. "Sure," he said. "Why is Timmy here?"
"Timmy is starting school today," Chris said. "Who better to give him the tour than you?"
Stuart shouted, "Wow! That's great! Let me show you where to get your lunch." He grabbed Timmy's hand and they headed to the serving line.
Chris sat down next to me and we watched as Stuart and Timmy helped a girl who dropped her tray. She thanked them and they got smiles and pats on the back as they passed by the lunch line. Chris turned to me. "You're right. He is special, but he's not the only one."