Part One : “What’s So Special about Special”
Dylan often wished he could spend every Sunday afternoon playing baseball or basketball with school friends at the park. Most Sundays, however, his parents insisted their family join his mom’s family for an early dinner. Dylan both loved and hated these big family dinners at his Aunt Patty’s big house on Woodward Street. Today in particular was one of those times when he wished he could quietly slide off his chair and under the table.
With his big hands, his dad held high a large purple, cardboard square, the art project that Dylan’s big brother Nick had brought home from school on Friday afternoon. Upon the board, Nick had glued a bunch of popsicle sticks and bottle caps, painted about every imaginable color. “Look at this,” Dad said. “Nick really outdid himself. We’re going to get it framed and hang it in our front room.”
A big proud grin lit up his father’s face. Beside him Dylan’s mom smiled a soft, sweet smile as she glanced around the table crowded with aunts, uncles, and cousins.
Exclamations of “what vibrant colors,” “intriguing shapes,” “so much imagination,” and “good job, Nick” spread around the table. “You must certainly feel very proud to hang such a beautiful piece of art in your home,” his grandmother beamed. Beside her, Nick sat, his curly light brown hair falling in his eyes, a tiny drop of drool slid from the sloppy grin on his face.
The truth was Nick’s collage looked like a kindergarten project, not the art work of a twelve-year old. And their cousins knew this. Dylan saw his cousins look at the collage and then at each other and put their napkins in front of their faces so no one could see they were snickering. It made him angry at them for making fun of Nick, but it made him angry at Nick for being so dumb. He looked down the table to check on his older sister Rosemary, who had come home from college just for this dinner because it was Granda’s birthday. What was she thinking? She was biting her lip with her upper teeth and staring down at her plate.
Did she feel like him? Angry and guilty? Stupid even? Because, of course, it wasn’t Nick’s fault that he couldn’t create a better picture. For all Dylan knew, it was the best of all the projects done in Nick’s “special” art class. All these different feelings, mixed up with each other, made his gut churn. Even Aunt Patty’s super macaroni and cheese didn’t look good. It was all he could do to swallow a few bites. So many thoughts scrambled around in his head that he couldn’t listen to the table talk. He just wanted to go home. He couldn’t, of course. Grandad still had to blow out the candles on his cake. Cake, yuk!
Finally getting home didn’t make him feel any better. As soon as their station wagon pulled into their drive, he bolted out, into the house, and up the front stairs to his room.
“Dylan, are you okay,” his mom was knocking softly at his door.
“I’m fine. I just think I ate too much.” Too much! That was a joke. But he didn’t want to think about food. He needed to calm down. He couldn’t let Mom know how he felt about Nick and his silly art project. He was almost nine years old. His birthday was going to be two weeks after Christmas. He wasn’t a little kid anymore. It’s just he didn’t know what the big kid thing to do was. He propped himself up against the wooden headboard of his twin bed and stared across the room at his gigantic poster of the ninjas. He wished he had bad guys to fight. It would be easier than being Nick’s brother. He punched a one-two slam into space. Sometimes he’d like to do that to Nick, like other kids did with their brothers. But Nick would cry. He wouldn’t get it.
Nick was “special.” That’s what he had been told for as long as he could remember. When he thought about it that made no sense to him. Special was supposed to mean better. Like having a “special” desert to celebrate an excellent report card. For Dylan that meant a banana split at Frosty Heaven with three different kinds of ice-cream. Now that really was special.
Or special was a school field trip to Mt. Tabor. At the park, they could visit the habitat with the small, wild mammals. After that, they could spin on the merry-go-round at the that went so fast it was really scary. That’s what special was supposed to mean.
So why did all the grown-ups call Nick “special.” The truth was that Nicholas wasn’t better at anything. And he wasn’t better looking than other kids either. Not that he looked bad. Dylan would never say that, but it’s not like he was the cutest kid ever. In fact, he looked a little funny, not just exactly like other kids in a way Dylan didn’t know how to describe. He knew that was because Nick had Down’s Syndrome. Something he had been born with, not something that was his fault at all. It didn’t mean he was a bad kid. It did mean he was different from most kids, but Dylan just didn’t see how different added up to special.
He stared at the Ranger poster. Those guys were really special. They could take down bad guys twice their size.
The next morning, as Dylan walked with his friend Harley to Angelford, where they were both in the third grade, he asked, “What do you think is special about my brother Nick?”
Harley stopped dead in his tracks and turned to face Dylan, “Don’t you know? He’s your brother.”
Dylan didn’t know what to say. They walked on. Cars went by. The sidewalk became more crowded with kids on their way to school. Screwing up his courage, Dylan said, “I don’t know. I know he’s different, but why is that special?”
“I don’t know, Dylan.” Harley shrugged. “It’s one of those ways that grown-ups talk that don’t exactly make sense. Like I asked my mom why my little sister is still bald even though she isn’t a tiny baby anymore. Mom got all upset and said it was a mean thing to say. I wasn’t being mean. It’s just the truth.”
Dylan nodded. Harley had a point. Grown-ups didn’t always make sense, but he somehow needed a better answer than that.
As he and Harley shuffled silently along, he realized it wasn’t just the word special that bothered him. It was that everyone in the family gave Nick more attention and more praise for what he did than they gave Dylan. One time, Dylan asked his mom why she didn’t say more about the stuff he did in school, she murmured that he should be grateful that things came so easy to him. He had wanted to yell at her that wasn’t fair, but he didn’t, but he couldn’t help wishing she and Dad thought he was special too.
Like his geography project was the only one in the class that had received 100 points, the best grade a project could get. That was special, wasn’t it? He’d worked hard to create a diorama of an arctic environment into which he placed igloos and the animals that lived in the artic as well as building up mountains and painting eagles on the sides of the exhibit. He’d spent his own allowance on the small figures that he had placed inside the box. His teacher had told him, it really looked like the frozen north. But all Mom and Dad said when he brought it home was, “Nice work.” They put it on a shelf with other projects he had made over the years. Why hadn’t they taken his project to Aunt Patty’s house?
No sense asking Harley. He already said he didn’t know. After they hung their coats in their lockers and filed with the other kids into their classroom with its tall windows, his mind was still filled with the same question. He couldn’t make it go away. He stared at his teacher. Miss Winterbrook. She was really nice. She really liked all her students. She never yelled at them. She was always patient about waiting for kids to get the right answers.
But if he asked her, would she send him to the school counselor? When any kid had to go to the school counselor, everyone else knew about it. That was awful because then other kids started wondering if you were some sort of weirdo or if some bad thing happened at home. He knew that was true because he’d been one of the kids to wonder and ask other kids about such things. He didn’t want to risk getting sent to the counselor.
It was all a mess.
Then on Sunday, he got a brilliant idea.
Part Two: “What If Things Were Different?”
Dylan’s brilliant idea was this. Grown-ups thought Nick was so special because they didn’t think he could be bad. To them, he was this sweet kid who loved everyone. Always this stupid smile on his face. That’s why they didn’t care that he wasn’t so good in school and couldn’t learn the rules of most of the sports the kids on the block played. He could only join “special” Olympics, as far as Dylan could tell, all the rules were changed to let kids like Nick win.
But he knew better. Nick wasn’t always such a good guy. He could lose his temper badly. Dylan had heard his mom and dad talk about the tantrums. His parents worked hard to help his big brother stay calm in situations that frustrated him. Mom and Dad were so good at it, in fact, that most people had no idea about Nick’s temper. But Dylan knew.
Sometimes when they played board games in the basement rec room, he went right ahead and won. Nick would yell, “Not fair and shove the game board off the card table crashing all the pieces onto the floor. Dylan knew his parents couldn’t hear them from upstairs. Dylan was supposed to “make allowances” for Nick. But sometimes it was just plain fun to beat Nick at a game and watch him lose it. What if his grandparents or his parents’ friends saw Nick lose his temper? Would they see he wasn’t all that special? Just different. Even weird, maybe?
Once the idea caught hold. Dylan couldn’t let it go. He began to hatch a plan.
Even though he and Nick attended different classes at their elementary school, at their small church Sunday School, they were in the same class. It would be the perfect plan to get Nick mad at Sunday School, the very place every kid should be on their best behavior. They didn’t play games at the church school, but there had to be a way.
Two weeks later Dylan saw his chance. Ms. Anne, their teacher, had shown them a short film about different kinds of families. “All families are created to reflect God’s love,” she said, “No one kind of family is better than any other family.” She then told them her own story about growing up being raised by her grandmother because her parents had died. That sounded really sad to Dylan, but Ms. Anne made it seem like she’d been very happy growing up. Finally, she asked them to draw the best picture they could of their own families. She would be hanging their drawings in the hall for the adults to see when they picked up their children. She gave them thirty minutes to complete the task.
Dylan loved to draw. All the adults said his pictures were far more realistic than those of most kids his age. Gleefully, he set about creating a detailed scene of his home kitchen. He drew his dad and himself seated at the table. His mom was moving away from the stove, taking off her apron, and his big sister Elizabeth was carrying a casserole to the table. He even drew their cat, Midnight, under the table. When he finished, he took his drawing and wandered over to Nick’s table. Nick was laboriously working on stick figures on his page. There were five of them – all different sizes. Dylan knew they represented Mom, Dad, Elizabeth, Nick, and himself. “Nice work,” he said in the sing-song tone he often heart adults used with Nick. Nick looked over his shoulder at Dylan. His eyes squinted with suspicion.
“Here’s my picture,” Dylan said and place his on top of Nick’s.
Nick stared at it and then said loudly. “I’m not there.”
Dylan leaned over and looked. “Right” he whispered, “I didn’t want to put you in my picture.”
“Why?” Nick’s voice was a high squeak.
“It looks better without you,” Dylan murmured.
“That’s mean,” Nick shouted. He grabbed Dylan’s beautiful drawing with both hands and ripped it in half. Just as he was about to tear it again, Ms. Anne was next to them. She gently grasped Nick’s wrists. “Let me have the drawing,” she said quietly.
“No, I won’t,” Nick shouted. “Dylan is mean. I hate this picture.” He crumbled it in his fists. And then he threw himself down and started kicking his heels against the floor.
Dylan got scared. Sure, his plan was working, but things were getting out of hand.
“Can I help?” a deep voice sounded from behind him.
“Oh, Bob, thank heaven, you showed up.”
“I heard the yelling in my office,” explained Reverend Pilcher the church’s youth minister as he squatted beside Nick, who by this time lay on the floor sobbing.
While the minister helped Nick sit up and wiped his tears away with a big white handkerchief, Ms. Anne pried the drawing from his fists and smoothed it out. Her brows drew together as she studied it. When she looked at Dylan, her whole face was scrunched up. He reached for his drawing, but she shook her head.
He should have guessed it would turn out this way. Now he was the one in trouble, not Nick.
When they got home, though, their parents punished him and his brother for “causing a scene” at church. They were both confined to their rooms except for school and mealtimes for a whole week. Still, Dylan felt awful. And his head was still full of questions.
So, he was relieved rather than upset when Ms. Anne told him the next Sunday that Reverend Pilcher wanted to see Dylan in his office.
So what happens when Dylan meets with Reverend Pilcher? Check back next week to read the end of the story.