How "Glee," Down Syndrome and Bowling Changed a Tween's Life.
by Abby Margolis Newman
As a mother of three boys - two teens and a tween - I am as guilty as the next mom of being (at times) overprotective, of (sometimes) coddling, of (on occasion) hovering like the very incarnation of that awful term, Helicopter Parent. But at the same time, I care deeply about raising boys who are not only aware of the larger world around them (in which there are many, many people less comfortable and lucky than they are), but who participate in that world, who care enough to try to change things for the better - in any small way they can.
So I've been thinking a lot about values lately - more specifically, about instilling good values in my youngest son, who is 11, in spite of several obstacles: we live in an affluent town in northern California; he and his friends, in aggregate, own a whole lot of materialistic crap (expensive baseball mitts, cell phones etc); and many of our generation of parents seem to be focused ever-inwards, toward our families and our children's crazy schedules, which can produce kids who perceive themselves as the center of the universe.
This is how my youngest son, Henry, and I ended up going bowling last week with a group of people with Down Syndrome.
We are huge fans of "Glee" in our house. As any "Glee" fan knows, there are two characters on the show who have Down Syndrome: Becky, who was drafted onto the cheerleading squad by the irrepressible Sue Sylvester (played brilliantly by Jane Lynch); and Jean, Sue Sylvester's sister, who lives in a residential facility for people with Down Syndrome.
There have been a few beautifully-wrought scenes between Sue Sylvester and her sister, whom Sue clearly adores. Henry cries when he watches them (as do I). He can't explain it except to say, "I feel really sad for her." Henry is a very sensitive guy - one of his best qualities, in my opinion, which will serve him well with girlfriends later in life - and he often expresses his worry about kids he meets at school or in our community who are clearly "different," including those with Down Syndrome.
I thought it might be a good idea - or a terrible idea, maybe - for Henry to spend some time among people with Down Syndrome, to help them in some way and at the same time, help Henry understand that many of them live happy and full lives. And my experience of watching "Glee" with Henry made me see that there was something about people with Down Syndrome, particularly, that touched him deeply.
So there we were at Country Club Bowl, with a large group of residents from a live-in facility for people with Down Syndrome and other developmental disabilities. Henry and I were supervising a group of four people sharing a bowling lane - and Henry donned the traditional ugly shoes so he could bowl too. The first thing we both noticed was that most of the residents seemed happy, constantly smiling - Henry observed that this set them apart from the non-Down-Syndrome population in a positive way.
Among our group was Lorraine, a cheerful young woman in her 20's, and her boyfriend, Charlie - a young man who was almost totally blind. Lorraine and Charlie, when they weren't bowling, sat huddled together, holding hands. Tim was a tall guy with an awkward, loping walk - but an incredibly smooth and accurate bowling technique. And O'Ryan (pronounced like the constellation, to Henry's delight), though he did not speak at all and kept mixing up our lane with our neighbors', wore an ear-to-ear smile the entire time.
Henry jumped right in, offering high-fives to each person who bowled. He gave frequent words of encouragement and pats on the back. Anytime it was Charlie's turn, Henry helped set up the ramp for the ball, held Charlie's arm as he approached it, and gently set his hand on the ball so he could propel it forward. Henry seemed neither intimidated nor sad, just focused - and he instinctively knew how to help without my telling him. The residents smiled even more at this 11-year-old redheaded boy who had come out of nowhere to bowl with them and to be their cheerleader.
On the ride home, Henry sat silently for a few minutes, and then he started talking. "Mom, we're really lucky," he said. "We live in a beautiful place, we have a great family, we can afford to buy things we need. You and Dad aren't divorced, and I get along with my brothers. Not everyone has all that." He paused, then added, "That was really fun! They all seemed so happy."
Frankly, I was a little stunned. This had been my fervent hope: that Henry could come out of his comfort zone to understand how much he had to offer to others who may need a little help, people who don't have all the advantages he has. I wanted him to feel lucky for his life, yes, but I also wanted him to see what he is capable of giving. Henry seemed happy, too. He's already asked me when we can do it again.
A little community service certainly isn't a cure-all for tween self-involvement - but for Henry, a couple of hours at the bowling lanes were a perfect antidote.