Also published at Minnesota Public Radio.
© 2012 Andrea Morisette Grazzini
David is a crooked young man, maybe 30. He wears a helmet and clearly he has some sort of neurological damage. His speech is limited, and comes with difficulty; his reactions are slow and labored. His gait seems clumsy, it’s very uneven.
But David is a man of passion and in the simple act of engaging his energies David catalyzes other people, empowering all around him. One can’t help but imagine that David would be a star in the eyes of theoretical physicist, Stephen Hawking, who also happens to be disabled.
Hawking, the star narrator of the Empowerment-themed Paralympics Opening Ceremony recently, would know. ”However difficult life may seem,” Professor Hawking instructed 60,000 people gathered in a London stadium to watch disabled athletes, “there is always something you can do and succeed at.”
He should see David in action. Not least because boy, can David shoot! Believe it or not, his passion is basketball. Though most people would never stop to watch him play. This is a problem, because not noticing gifts like David’s in action leads to things like budget cuts for services to people like him.
In fact, for a long time nobody did notice him. Not necessarily because they were being unkind. Perhaps they were trying not to stare. Problem is, by ignoring David they missed out on what he has to offer. With a little support, David was woven into some pick up games made up of teens, kids and the occasional adult.
He can’t break to the net, isn’t the best guard. And far prefers offense to defense. Sometimes he seems confused and, during check, takes the ball when it’s the other teams.
But David laughs and cheers–even trash talks a bit. Plays hard, too. Make no mistake: David means to win. In short: he has fun that’s so infectious, all who play with him have fun, too. It should come as no surprise that his rag-tag teams win more often than not.
It helps that David doesn’t lack for confidence. He’s proud of his abilities for basketball and allows his capacities for leadership to show, too, in his characteristically quirky and unavoidably charming way. He’s taken to escorting others: burly young men, shy preschoolers, middle-aged moms by the arm like a gentleman onto the court. Succeeding in breaking through their polite defenses by flattering them with his full-on attentions. Before they know it, they’re playing pick-up basketball with David.
What becomes clear is that David is good. Remember, he has an excellent shot. But just as unexpected is David’s gift for getting people in touch with their own goodness, too.
Playing with him other players’ games–and characters, too—are visibly strengthened. They notice each other more, and are more prone to pass. They’re less aggressive; but less self-conscious, too. They try little things they normally wouldn’t. It’s as though they’re thinking: “Hey, if David can try, why can’t I, too?” They develop stronger basketball skills. And, most strikingly, more powerfully–truly impressive social skills.
They cheer for each other much more. As they do, they build on each others strengths more, too: constructing a mutually-reinforcing net of connections between all that dissolves the lines between misfits and mavens, as all develop from imperfect individuals (as all people are) into team players. Together.
Lets be clear: the likelihood these players would ever willingly engage with each other, no less with a person as obviously different and seemingly disabled as David on their own is, lets face it: about zero.
There’s another detail that should not go unnoticed in this unexpected glory-story.
Remember, David has serious challenges. Were he not supported by social services, including the aide who drives him from a nearby group home to the basketball court and sits courtside watching him, David wouldn’t be able to engage his passions.
Indeed, there are communities who would seek to restrict not only his care, but would go further and refuse to support the cost of his community health club membership, writing it off as too frivolous for a man in his “condition.”
Some fight to keep group homes like the one David lives in out of their area, for fear David or others could harm their children or, again, would cost too much. Others disown any responsibility for the care of David and others like him. Pushing their needs off to unknown and unidentified others, with little knowledge of what trials David’s family and others face, hoping the problems David and so many other real (and gifted) people like him will go away if they are just ignored.
Many policymakers fail to even see David and others like him as worth their time. Tied, as much of it is, to Corporations, and so busy fighting for tax-breaks for billionaires and such, it never dawns on them that throwing a few more dollars at David might be a good way to invest in future political and corporate executive’s skills.
They forget that day after day on basketball courts they don’t see, developing leaders are learning one of two things: either how to work together with different others, or how to gang up as well-homogenized bullies.
If it were left up to people like these, David would be lucky to play a little basketball on an isolated driveway. Let alone bring his gifts for bringing out others’ abilities in shared communities. Without David’s passionate actions bringing them together, these many different players would likely never engage with one another. Except that David makes it happen, and then, so do they: growing together by engaging their abilities and disabilities—some quite clear, others less visible but still there—by making a simple game happen.
Led by a simple, imperfect young man. For his part, David could care less about superficial appearances and social norms. It’s as if he knows better, and like the disabled scientist Hawking does, knows far more than first physical appearances suggest. As Hawking put it in his Opening Ceremony comments, “We are all different, there is no such thing as a standard or run-of-the-mill human being, but we share the same human spirit.”
Spirit. Yes, David has that in spades.
Perhaps more could learn lessons by paying less attention to superficial measures of deeply flawed methods of social power. And more attention to real people of lasting power, like David; and Stephen Hawking, who says, “What is important is that we can create. This creativity can take many forms, from physical achievement to theoretical physics.” Or from basketball to pro-social genius.
It seems not only would they grow, but they’d have a lot more fun while they were at it, too. Something we all need more of if we are to succeed together. Like (reframing here a bit) the imperfectly perfect David—and, those privileged enough to play with him.
Remember, they usually win. All they need is a little support.