On the morning of the Great Bear Run, a race held every spring in our Boston suburb, my son rolled around on my bed, near tears.
“I can’t do it,” he said. “I’m too slow.”
“You go as fast or slow as you need to,” I said. “The point is to be in the race, to try.”
“But what if I go this slow?” he asked, popping up to stand on the comforter, inching forward in tiny, almost imperceptible steps. “Will they let me? Not this slow!”
My son was not a natural athlete, poor coordination and low spatial intelligence being some of the side-effects of his sensory integration disorder. For years, we had followed his lead, avoiding most organized sports. But now, at six years old, his physical abilities were within the normal range, though he was still the slowest kid in any game and the least skilled at the few sports he had attempted. More troubling to me than his physical deficits were the psychological ones I feared we’d nurtured, in particular the impulse to give up on sports, board games, art, or anything else that didn’t come easily to him. So, I offered opportunities like the Great Bear Run, knowing that even when he was excited about something, refusal lurked, reminding me of the dueling polarity inside him: a yearning for success that was often outmatched by a fear of failure. It had been there the night before a playdate he’d orchestrated and in the weeks leading up to the first day of school. I calculated risk-reward scenarios, and sometimes I got it wrong, but in the end, I’d rather he try and fail than not try at all. What sports can teach is emotional resilience, and he could use the practice.
The Great Bear Run is a fixture for families in our town, with races for every amateur runner. Young children earn a teddy bear for participation, and older kids and adults can challenge each other in a one-mile race or a 5K. We’d seen signs every spring on our neighbors’ lawns, but this was our first time at the Great Bear Run, and my son’s first race.
An hour before his race, we found a place by the course, where we clapped and shrieked for the youngest runners, the preschoolers. “Is this where I’ll run?” he asked, taking a break from cheering. No, I had to tell him. His run was longer, but only by a little bit.
His course was an out-and-back, shaped like a horseshoe, which would allow me to cheer for him on the way out and again on the home stretch. He lined up alongside the sporty kids in the heat, all but him wearing sneakers, and he started in with them immediately, chatting and jockeying in that way that kids do. At his age, his preferences and aversions didn’t mark him or make him see himself as different or diminish his ambition to be in the mix. How many more years like this do we have left, I wondered, as I made my way up the course to a spot just beyond the starting line.
I didn’t know his race had begun until the line of boys was upon me, and then there he was, sweat curdling the hair at his temples in wet chunks, running a few yards behind the others. I yelled his name and his head swiveled toward me; he panted and stomped his feet, his smile like a supernova exploding before me. I’d been right to nudge him beyond his fears.
“Wow! Look at him!” said a stranger next to me. What she noticed was not that he was behind but the way he stood apart from the others. “He’s so proud of himself!”
As he rounded the horseshoe bend, I told her his name, and she and her daughter crossed with me to the other side of the course. We all shouted thunderously as he approached, melting galaxies with his smile. He sped by, lagging even farther behind the pack than he had at the start, as I hollered everything I’d been saying to him for years: You can do it. You’ve got this. You’re almost there. Keep going.
That night, he dictated a note to his big sister: “I ran in the Great Bear Run. I came in last.” It was factual, what he said. Maybe some people would hear shame in it. But his message was this: he’d tried, and now he was a runner.
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