Once there was a boy.
There wasn’t anything particularly unusual about him when he was born, but his parents, like most parents, believed him to be the most perfect baby.
He was a rough-and-tumble child, as boys tend to be — active and talkative and social.
Somewhere along the way, he developed little quirks — the “right” person had to take him out of the car seat, his shoelaces had to be tucked inside his shoes, only the red sweatshirt with the colorful trucks appliquéd on the front would do.
One day, his parents visited his classroom and they noticed that of all the students’ stories framed in colorful construction paper and hanging on the walls, only his was a scrawly mess of misspelled words and awkward cursive.
“Should we be worried?” they asked his teacher.
“No, he’s fine.”
They asked the school to test him anyway. The tests revealed a few “issues,” but nothing that required special attention, the school said. He just needed to try harder.
But it didn’t get better in later grades and his quirks, which came and went, got progressively more challenging each time they returned.
His parents had him tested again, this time privately. Now, suddenly, there were learning issues and IEPs and 504s and tutors.
He was still the most perfect child, just different.
He knew he was different, too, because the world doesn’t know what to do with “different.” It wants to look at the differences as if they were bad, not different, and keep pointing them out. Some kids called him stupid, although he wasn’t. He often laughed along with them, but inside it hurt. Some teachers got frustrated with him. Sometimes, his parents did, too.
In high school, he started making some bad choices. Teens like to push the limits, and he really started pushing.
“Why are you smoking pot?” his mother asked him. “To experiment? To fit in? Because it feels good?”
“It feels good,” he said. “I don’t feel so bad about myself.”
This was not the answer she wanted to hear.
So his parents did whatever they could. He switched schools and repeated a grade, he had tutors and took piss-tests, he agreed to see a doctor and pop pills to help with his attention issues, and he saw another doctor to help him stop obsessively washing his hands until they were lobster-red and raw.
He hated it. He hated his brain, he hated that everything was so hard, he hated that he was different. He didn’t want to be different.
But he never gave up.
He could have. Others did. Some continued down the bad paths until they were snatched from their beds in the middle of the night and sent to wilderness schools; others ran away, preferring the streets to their multi-million-dollar homes; others chose death.
But he never gave up.
One summer, after backpacking with a small group of boys in the Wyoming wilderness on a leadership trip, something happened. Maybe not an epiphany, but a transformation nonetheless. “Mom,” he said on the phone, calling home the first time he could in five weeks, “I feel so accomplished.”
And so he was.
Then he graduated high school — a pimply face under a tasseled cap; a tall, lanky body swimming beneath a borrowed blue polyester gown; a cocky grin that quietly proclaimed, “Yes!”
“You know," he said recently, "there’s a lot that can go wrong when you’re a teenager."
Yes, there is.
But he, this most perfectly different child, never gave up.
He is my son.
And he is my hero.