Ben is twelve, going on seventeen. He is hairy, smelly, eats more than I can afford, and likes to laze around on his bed, watching YouTube videos and listening to music. He also whinges when I tell him to practise his bass guitar, but then plays for hours at a time. He regularly walks in the house with the mud dribbling off his soccer boots onto my (inevitably) recently vacuumed hallway.
He goes to our local primary school, in Grade six, but soon enough, it will be time for high school. He’s excited about the prospect. We’ve looked at a few schools together, but the one he loves is the one I went to, as well as his Nana, Great-Grandma and Great-Great-Grandfather. I suspect he’ll be the first of the fifth generation at the school. The principal told me he thought Ben would be “an asset to the school”. He’ll also be the first with Down Syndrome.
He’s not scared at all. I’m terrified. The kids at his local primary school have known Ben since they were all little, and they knew no different. They might have noticed he didn’t talk much, and that he had his own pillow in the corner of the class so he could have a lie down at the end of a long school-day, but occasionally some of the other kids would use it too, in Grade one or two, at least.
As he’s grown up, the birthday party invitations have slowed down. A lot. He doesn’t have a clique or group that he hangs out with at lunchtime. His best friend at school, the most beautiful girl in the world, Riley, enjoys his company, but in the words of Dave Hinsburger, an American disability advocate, “You will always be more important in the life of someone with a disability than they are in yours.” Ben has had a crush on her for years.
An occasional comment from an unthinking teacher at his school however, reminds me that Ben doesn’t have many friends at school. And they might subtly discourage him from playing school sports, but we work through these things, and there are enough great teachers and kids there, that I don’t think he’s bullied or teased any more than the other kids.
But here’s the thing. These kids have all grown up with Ben in their lives. When he starts at high school it’s going to be a whole ‘nother ball game. And they’ll all be teenagers. And they’ll be nasty, and cruel, and he won’t have any friends, right?