Column: True courage on display

By Elizabeth B. Splaine
Posted 1/9/20

It is said that in order to understand another person, you must walk a mile in their shoes. In this often challenging, divisive culture, the Barrington Times is creating a new column in an effort to …

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Column: True courage on display

Posted

It is said that in order to understand another person, you must walk a mile in their shoes. In this often challenging, divisive culture, the Barrington Times is creating a new column in an effort to promote communication, camaraderie and understanding of others’ circumstances. “In Their Shoes” will highlight the unique story of a person or persons whom the reader might otherwise not know about or understand. 

In this first column, you will walk a mile in my shoes.

We all have life moments that help to shape who we become. Some are joyous. Others are hideous, but they remain wedged in our psyches. The following is one of my life moments. Well, it’s not entirely mine. In fact, it really belongs to my middle son, Jesse. But the impact the story had on me and who I have become is indelible and undeniable. It changed everything. In an instant.

A voice student of mine was in the world premiere of a children’s opera called Summer of the Swans, a story about a mute, autistic boy named Charlie who is sent to his grandmother’s house for the summer as his father deals with the recent death of the boy’s mother. When life becomes too overwhelming for Charlie, he runs away in the middle of the night to the pond where he loves to observe the swans. The story focuses on Charlie and how terrified he is alone in the dark. Of course, in the end, his family finds him and necessary lessons are learned.

As I said, my student was in the show, as was I, so Jesse decided he wanted to be involved as well. Because he wasn’t a huge fan of singing, Jesse was cast as mute Charlie. Rehearsals went well, as did the performances. Then the company went on the road to perform at various schools in an effort to promote and educate.

At a middle school, approximately two hundred children were gathered on the bleachers. We were introduced and our producer talked about opera and summarized Summer of the Swans, then asked if there were any questions.

An eighth grader raised his hand and stood. He was a tall, broad kid who snickered with his friends prior to taking the microphone to ask his question. I rolled my eyes internally as I assumed he would ask a ridiculous question meant to entertain his friends and get a good laugh. But instead he said, “Yeah. I have a question for the kid who played Charlie.”

My maternal hackles went up. Jesse had been bullied by kids like this his entire life. I gritted my teeth, ready to jump in if necessary. The kid continued, “What was it like to play Charlie and how did you relate to how he felt?”

Over four hundred eyes focused on my ten-year-old, diminutive son. He took the microphone and turned his incredibly large blue eyes toward me. The look was so intent, as if were asking me for something. My eyes searched his, trying to discern his need. Finally, I simply nodded. I remember thinking, “You can do this, Jess. You got this.” He took a deep breath, blew it out and then spoke directly into the microphone.

“I know exactly how Charlie felt because I have learning disabilities too. I know what it feels like to be different. To be left out and bullied. That’s how I knew how to play the part.”

My mouth fell open as the eyes of my beautiful, brave boy found mine. Since he had been diagnosed with multiple learning disabilities at the age of five, we had battled- each other, the school, the doctors. Anyone who stood in my son’s way of success was a target as far as I was concerned. Yet Jesse had never owned his differences. In his effort to fit in, he had never said anything aloud about his challenges. I was astounded that not only had he spoken aloud, but that he had done it in such a public place, with a microphone no less!

Time stopped and sound evaporated for me as we stared at each other. As tears rushed to my eyes, I could do nothing but nod and smile through my tears. Until panic set in.

I looked back to the boy who had asked the question. Was he going to laugh? Make fun of Jesse? High five his friends? My core hardened as I anticipated his negative reaction and the fallout it would cause in my amazing son who had taken such a risk in speaking publicly.

Then something truly astonishing occurred. The boy started clapping, and the entire crowd followed. And then, without warning, everyone stood and applauded Jesse, who beamed as if he’d won an Olympic medal. The standing ovation went on for some time as Jesse’s mouth twisted in embarrassment. But I could see his pride. Something had changed in him…and in me.

True courage is displayed when one acts in spite of his fear. My son exhibited great courage that day, and every day since when he chooses perseverance over acquiescence. Life is a challenge for him, as it is for many of us. For different reasons, perhaps, but a challenge nonetheless.

Now that you’ve walked a mile in my shoes, I’d like to hear about your journeys. In order to carry out our mission of understanding and empathy, The Barrington Times needs your help.

If you feel that you have a unique story to tell or circumstances from which others can learn, please email elizbsplaine@aol.com to arrange an interview. For example, I’d love to chat with a group of seniors to identify particular challenges they face in our community. I’d love to interview our hard-working town employees to discern how the citizens might make their jobs easier. No topic is too big or too small. Your opinions and perspectives matter.

You can choose to remain anonymous or we can highlight your wonderful uniqueness by using your name. It’s completely up to you.

We’re all different. Indeed, it is our differences that make us remarkable. But we are also amazingly similar. Let’s celebrate those similarities by identifying those around us who feel unique and coming together in appreciating them. Who knows, we might learn something along the way. 

 

Note: Jesse Splaine authorized and approved this column.

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Jim McGaw

A lifelong Portsmouth resident, Jim graduated from Portsmouth High School in 1982 and earned a journalism degree from the University of Rhode Island in 1986. He's worked two different stints at East Bay Newspapers, for a total of 18 years with the company so far. When not running all over town bringing you the news from Portsmouth, Jim listens to lots and lots and lots of music, watches obscure silent films from the '20s and usually has three books going at once. He also loves to cook crazy New Orleans dishes for his wife of 25 years, Michelle, and their two sons, Jake and Max.