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A Real Boy
“My baaaaaack! My aaaaarm! Ooooow!” The distorted moans tore me from blissful slumber to the horrible living nightmare I thought I had escaped when my head hit the pillow. This was my first night of hell on earth, and the worst was yet to come. The invitation to spend spring break in Malibu, California (as a paid camp counselor) had been terrific, the condition that I had to do so here was the sick joke of it all. I was in a dank cell on a county jail style bed, awake at three a.m. after a day of toil. My charges: Omar, a fourteen-year-old with cerebral palsy, Steve, a sixteen-year-old with Down’s Syndrome, and the ten-year-old Brandon, whose mental challenge seemed more like a demon possession.
Camp Malibu offers its campers, all of which are children with disabilities, the chance to experience fun at summer camp. For its counselors, one of which I was, it offers a humbling drudge through five teeth-gnashing sunups. I had signed up for a five-day hitch, and things weren’t looking good in those wee tuesday-morning hours. Omar, who was virtually paralyzed, had fallen out of his bunk, and his body was bent in half against the wall. I hoisted him back to a comfortable position, and crept back to my own poor excuse for a place to sleep, so as to not awaken the Dragon Brandon.
I had had no previous experience at all working with these types of children, as all the other counselors had. They were adaptive recreation majors from college. I was a fool from high school. The three kids in my charge made for a dizzying experience. Omar was the best behaved of my three kids, had been to camp before, but was the one who required the most help. He was unable to go to the bathroom or dress himself without help. All 150 pounds of him was mine alone to heft as I transferred him from wheelchair to bed, bed to toilet, toilet to wheelchair. Steve was the most independent, but I had to keep a continual eye on him to ensure he wasn’t headed for another town. He needed no help with his hygiene, but was always there to tattle on Brandon.
Brandon was the source of continual grief from day one. On the bus ride to camp, he ate my lunch. When we arrived, he wandered down to a nearby farm. He had never spent a night away from home, and his mother had chosen me, not grandma, to wean him from her side.
The first evening, after getting everyone to sleep, I was so overcome with homesickness and helplessness, I dropped to my knees and prayed while tears beat at the doors to my eyes. I needed strength. By the end of it all, I would get more than I needed.
My only reprieve from the routine of dragging Brandon, herding Steve, and following Omar’s power chair from activity to activity was nap time. Brandon never slept, of course, but kept his two partners awake with his singing, yelling and playing with the light switch. I would be outside the door to the cabin, which seemed like a cross between a housing project and a prison, desperately sucking nicotine from a pinch of tobacco. This was my hour of bliss and expectoration, when I could reflect on the ridiculousness of my situation.
Why was I here? Why me? I didn’t know what I was doing. I didn’t have the patience for normal children. Let alone these! I felt completely alone, constantly coughing back tears and slurping my tobacco, as I fought to find a solution to the problem. I needed to be home. To be free from the immense 24-hour responsibility for three kids who demanded attention. I needed to get up, because nap time was over.
Meals were the worst, because Brandon cried for his mother, who he missed. I had to plead with him to eat, while helping Omar contend with utensils, and keeping Steve from consuming the entire table. At lunch time on day two, I almost broke. I was at wit’s end. There was no help. I was confined in a world where only the four of us existed. I was the captain of a ship of fools. My microcosm of mongoloids had driven me to near insanity. Brandon had slammed home the final blow of frustration, laying on the floor, bawling wetly.
This was my marine boot camp. The place where they break a boy down to nothing, and build him back, from boots to cap, a man. A fighting machine. A killer. The war drums of the holy spirit thrummed in my head. At lunch time, day two, the strength I had prayed for arrived. It was time to be built up. Breaking down was done. I was a soldier.
In that instant, while Brandon wailed and blubbered, my patience wore through and my fuse popped. This was no time for unecessary compassion. “Off the floor, NOW!!” I was taken aback by my own tone of voice, as was everyone in the room. But their silence almost instantly gave back into murmur, with smug smiles. I had realized what they already knew. Kids with disabilities aren’t those kids, nor are kids without disabilities normal. The kids I was in charge of deserved to be treated like other kids, not coddled. The writhing, crying demon had broken me down and forced me to realize that I was just like him. He was just like me. Brandon’s disability didn’t excuse his behavior. He was a real boy.
From that point on, I continued to rebuild myself, learning constantly, drinking in the intrigue of not just my three, but all the children at camp. They all were fascinating mysteries, begging for discovery. They weren’t just there to make you uncomfortable when their mothers brought them to McDonald’s. They were people, and each one was a person. Like me. My fight with myself and with Brandon was over. I smoothly completed the week, and as the bus roared back home, rode and reflected. I had learned about myself while learning about people with disabilities. I was not the “man” I thought I was when I turned fifteen, or smoked a cigarette, or any other “manly” practice. The experience of a week with the world’s most special citizens had taught me this. I, too, am just a regular person.
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