Living in Kentucky, the beach is an exotic locale for my kids. We only get to visit at most a couple of times a year. So, when they walk onto the beach, they are in awe: the sand, the surf, the seagulls, and all the people.
They also love seashells.
I remember collecting seashells as well. I suspect we all have as kids when we’ve first visited a beach. They are a never-ending supply of free souvenirs. And, James was eager to collect as many as he could.
James sifted through the sands, dug deeper for more, and picked up seashells on our way from and back to the parking lot.
While adding to his collection, he would regularly hold one up for me to appreciate his discovery. It was during one of these exchanges, James taught me about innocence and acceptance.
You see, to James, there wasn’t a bad sea shell. He didn’t pick up just a certain kind, or only whole, complete ones. Instead, James picked up what to my eyes would be considered some that are dull, unremarkable, even broken shards of shells and sand dollars. When he would hold up these finds that I thought unworthy of collecting, I caught myself about to say something cynical, jaded, negative.
I thought to myself, “James, you’ve already got three other dull, gray clam shells.” “James, that shell is broken.” “James, find another shell.”
I didn’t say these negative comments, but I reflected on why I even had them … and why James clearly did not.
James did not see the fourth gray clam shell as dull or gray or unworthy of adding to his pile. He didn’t think the broken shell was any less than the whole, complete shells he already had. And, when he found another shell, it as often as not was another broken, or dull, or broken and dull shell.
So why was my initial reaction to critique and to try to rank one shell as better than another?
Perhaps it’s because I’m older and supposedly wiser. I have years of experience collecting seashells. I have a developed sophistication on the quality of seashells, right?
Or, maybe, it was just that I wanted to seem smarter, wiser, better.
Than my 9-year old son.
It made me also think of how James sees other people.
James and Juliet attend their local public school in a district that has an intentional assignment system to desegregate schools that otherwise may be more racially segregated if based solely on where families live. So, there is a great amount of diversity in their school. Plus, having a sister with Down syndrome has exposed James to many other children with Down syndrome and other developmental disabilities.
When James talks of the kids in his school, he will sometimes refer to “the brown ones” or a kid with “the Down Syndrome of Louisville.” But, he is doing so because he doesn’t see them as a black kid or a “Downs kid.” He’s simply referring to them by some identifiable characteristic.
But, that’s not how almost every grown up sees these kids. Instead, they are black, they are those with Down syndrome. It seems almost the norm for doctors to refer to their “Down’s patients” when talking to parents to demonstrate their experience of caring for children like theirs.
Not everyone who identifies others by race or their disability are doing so necessarily to rank-order them with others. But, we all know that there are many who do. That look at racial minorities as less than themselves, even among various racial minorities. And, certainly in looking at those with disabilities as less than others, as simply burdens.
Indeed, many of the world’s atrocities are the result of this ranking of people by others as being better-than or less-than others.
If only we could retain that innocence we all had as children in respecting one another.
Like how we all first walked onto a beach and saw the splendor in everything and every seashell, even those that were gray, dull, or broken.
Our annual photo in front of the majestic live oak at Papou’s. For previous photos (to see how big the kids have gotten), see this link.