The teenaged lifeguard; tall, lean and curly-haired, stood on the edge of the wave pool blowing his whistle — at me.
I saw her face in his; though she was his senior by at least 20 years, with straight brown hair and a brisk uniform. She was resolute to get Wil’s boarding pass — from him.
Though the airport incident happened over 2 years before the wave pool incident, time came together in their parallels.
When a pool or a plane is involved, Wil is the happiest guy on the planet; until he’s not. Both travel and swimming fill Wil with excitement, unless it brims over to overwhelm; rendering him stuck on the spot.
In the airport, Wil was well on his way to overwhelm. I saw it building, so did my best to keep him distracted and on-the-move. But the heaviness was taking him over. Wil has never had a problem going through security, so I didn’t anticipate an issue. But when we approached the podium, either Wil read this security guard’s demeanor, or overwhelm finally overtook him. He sat on the ground, smack dab in front of the security guard’s podium. Not the wisest choice, but there we were.
I offered to hand the security guard Wil’s boarding pass, but she refused. He had to do it. I explained he was overwhelmed and had Down syndrome. That wasn’t enough for her. A grown woman chose a stand-off with a then 13-year-old boy with Down syndrome.
Fortunately, a few podiums over, another security guard was witness to what was happening. She asked how she could help. I explained our situation. She reached her hand out to Wil, he accepted it, and she walked us down to another podium. I heard the stolid security guard, upon our leaving, say to the security guard that helped us, “I was just doing my job.”
“I understand we need to get out of the pool,” I said to the curly-haired lifeguard. “My son won’t get out on his own. Just give me a minute.” (I sent up a silent prayer that a minute was all we’d need.)
I crouched down next to Wil and explained that it was dangerous to stay in the water; that a storm was coming; that when lifeguards hear thunder we need to get out; that we need to respect the rules; that they are there for our safety.
I knew my words wouldn’t motivate Wil out of the water now, but they would have meaning later should this happen again. Wil doesn’t fully grasp danger, but he does have an ironclad memory. When I preface a pool trip with the words “we have to get out if there is thunder” these will no longer be empty words. Experience gives Wil meaning to the words, thus being the best teacher.
A pretty lifeguard with white-blond hair stood only a few feet from us. Wil, being a teenager, would certainly respond better to her than me. I walked up to her and said, “My son isn’t wanting to get out. When he’s like this, he does much better with people who are not mom. Would you mind asking him to get out. Maybe offering him your hand?”
She willingly agreed, and approached Wil with an outstretched hand. Wil lifted his head, but couldn’t quite motivate himself to fully reach back. Though he stayed in the pool, I could see she had released some of his resistance.
Two female sheriffs that were nearby approached Wil.
“Would you like a sticker?” They held golden star badges up for Wil to see. I appreciated their efforts, but there was no way a sticker was going to prompt him out of the water (but maybe a trip to the clink would!).
Then another teenaged lifeguard, with auburn hair, walked up to me and said, “Can I help?”
The clouds parted and angels sang! No, that didn’t happen. Or else we would have got back to swimming. But that’s exactly how those words felt.
Three little words; only 8 letters in their entirety. And yet, I knew they were more than words; there had to be experience behind them.
The auburn-haired lifeguard, with a calm, friendly demeanor, reached her hand out to Wil and said, “Would you like to come with me?” Wil must have read her demeanor, because he stood up without hesitation and took her hand. He then looked at the blond lifeguard and took her hand too. Wil walked out of the water hand-in-hand with the two lovely lifeguards. Then the sheriffs gave Wil his stickers. I hope curly-haired whistle-blower was watching 😉
With Wil now out of the water, my main focus was to keep him moving forward. If this were not the case, I would have circled back to ask the auburn-haired lifeguard what inspired her to ask to help (same with the helpful security guard). What experience is in their back-pocket to step in and offer help?
Could it simply be a strong desire to help? Possibly, but my guess is it goes deeper than that. Is it gained from the experience of inclusion during their school years? Is it gained from experience with a family member or friend with a disability? Is it gained from experience as first being an observer then learning from situations such as these?
What transforms a stolid whistle-blower into an asker? What opens a mind from “doing my job” to “can I help?”
These are key questions that lead to the progression of acceptance and understanding of people with disabilities.
Within each of these questions, and likely within each of the answers, lies one common theme: experience.
And that gives me hope, because we can all learn from experience, if we choose to.