Archive for August, 2009

Special Olympics: my pal Joey

August 21, 2009

August 17, 2009
By David Farside

The recent passing of Eunice Shriver reminded me of an experience I somehow misplaced in my memory of childhood. Shriver devoted her life to public service and was committed to eliminating discrimination against the mentally disabled. In 1968, she and Ann McGlone Burke nationalized the Special Olympics for those with special needs. Because of her efforts, her likeness appears on the 1995 commemorative Special Olympics dollar, immortalizing her as the only woman to have her portrait appear on a U.S. coin during her lifetime.

At the opening of the Special Olympics in 1987, held in South Bend, Ind. and speaking for all of the mentally disabled, she told the participating athletes they have earned the right to participate. She said they have earned the right to play on any playing field and to study in any school. They have earned the right to hold a job and to be anyone’s neighbor. It’s these remarks that take me back to my childhood memories.

Every summer from 1944 through 1949, I spent at least one morning a week swimming at the Rutgers University pool. My father worked at the university and our family had access to the gym and athletic facilities. I usually had most of the pool to myself except for a few members of the swim team.

One morning, a man and his son entered the pool. The son appeared to be about 16 years old, which made him eight years older than me. He seemed bewildered and really unsure of his surroundings. He looked different than most kids. He was slightly bent at the waist and was wringing his hands as if he was either bewildered, afraid or praying. His eyes and lips were large and his head was always in some kind of circular rotating motion, like the hands of a clock. He slowly entered the water and I swam close to him to say hello. Little did I know he would become a friend who would teach me something about life.

His name was Joey. His father was a professor in the music department at the university; my father was a house painter. He lived in the upper sixth ward of prosperity; I lived on the edge of the roughest neighborhood in central New Jersey. He was withdrawn and an introvert and I was outgoing and an extrovert. The only thing we had in common was curiosity and friendship.

Joey wasn’t always an introvert. At one time, he loved being around kids his own age and couldn’t wait to go to school. But that soon changed. In the late ‘40s, if you were mentally disabled, you were discriminated against and excluded from society, classified as an idiot and associated with the category of being deaf, dumb or blind. The kids teased and laughed at him. Even some parents didn’t want their precious children to be exposed to anyone like Joey. But Joey was far from being an idiot – he was a genius.

One morning after our swim, we stopped at the university’s marching band practice room. I never saw Joey so excited. His father was there and Joey grabbed my hand, tugging and pulling me into the mini-auditorium filled with hundreds of musical instruments. He excitedly pushed me into one of the seats next to the piano and motioned for me to sit and stay put.

Joey sat down in front of an old, upright piano next to his father and they started playing chop sticks. I thought how neat it was that Joey was that interested in music. It was even neater to hear him play.

His father moved next to me, leaving the piano in Joey’s hands. The gradual crescendo of “sticks” to Mendelssohn seemed effortless. Joey looked over at me with a big grin, a twinkle in his eye and a nod of his head. Joey’s love for music, life and his father resonated in every note. He was so happy and proud.

His music was his language of communication with his outside world. All I had to do was try to understand it. It was his statement to me that his life had meaning. He had a right to live and be part of society without being a victim of discrimination or prejudice. His genius earned him the right to live, play and study anywhere he wanted.

Unbeknownst to Joey, the auditorium started filling up with band members getting ready for rehearsal. When the music stopped, everyone applauded. All the musicians gathered around Joey and told him how amazed they were at his talent. The attention frightened him and he started to run out of the room. His father and I caught up with him, calmed him down and brought him back to the piano. We all chanted, “More, more.”

Joey just stood there for a few minutes. Through his tears of happiness. he asked, “You really want me to play for you?” The key word was “wanted.” For the first time in his life, someone other than his parents wanted him. Then he started to play a medley of classical pieces as if he had been preparing for this moment for years.

Thanks to Eunice Shriver, the Special Olympics created a unique channel for mentally disabled athletes to communicate with their outside world. But most importantly, it’s an opportunity for them to feel wanted, like my pal Joey.