I have a little story to share but in order to get to the end, I need to back up and provide some of the beginning.
My son Jacob has cerebral palsy. You may already know that. He has been in a wheelchair his entire life and will always be in a wheelchair. Physically, he has many limitations. Mentally? Not a single one.
When we moved from Toledo to Sylvania, OH. he was (finally) integrated into "regular" classes through Junior High and High School and he excelled. He was well known, well liked and had many people he considered friends. Although these were not students that came to our house to hang out with him, but they talked to him daily and that defined them as friends.
Fast forward to five years ago when he embarked on his college journey. As a family, we decided the best place for him to attend was a smaller, private college a stone's throw from our front door. Literally, we could walk to campus if we needed to. The first year went well, and Jacob was acclimating to college life although it was different from what he had envisioned. Lourdes College (now University) is attended by a majority of non-traditional students: older, married, with careers...and fairly conservative. Jacob was (is) none of these things. So by his second year, he was feeling as though he didn't fit in - that maybe a different college would provide a better experience for him.
His parents (yes, us with limited foresight) thought that the school was a perfect fit. We liked that the attention he received was more personalized, that the campus was a 2 minute drive from home, that all the faculty knew our son personally. The people he interacted with on campus were kind and considerate. But he was not making any friends. We chalked that up to the school being a 90% commuter college and let's face it, you find friends in college when you live in a dorm. So we convinced him to stay into his third year.
As we tried to point out the positives of the school, Jacob became more unhappy and focused on the negatives. Frankly, we just couldn't see what he was seeing. Now let me clarify - no one was ever mean to him. The course work wasn't too hard - or too easy. He just wasn't feeling it. We let him take one class at the University of Toledo to see what it was like. And overall, he loved the atmosphere. Younger, active students - that was what he was missing. But in talking to UT about transferring, we were in for a hefty dose of reality. In order to transfer, Jacob would add approximately three additional years onto his college career as most of his credits would not transfer. The 2 schools were in different accreditation programs. He wouldn't be able to transfer - it just wasn't the logical thing to do.
So we both changed our expectations - Jacob committed to finishing out his education while trying to find some enjoyment at school (and elsewhere) and we would take a step back and realize that he was not going to be completely satisfied where he was. And it broke my heart. Not only because he wasn't going to be happy where he was, but that we realistically couldn't change the situation either. We kept moving forward, seeing the light at the end of the tunnel growing brighter. Graduation day was going to get here and then his future would really begin.
While Jacob always insisted that he had no friends at Lourdes, I saw many students say hello to him, calling him by name. I saw students become his "friend" on Facebook. Maybe his definition of friend was different than what I was seeing but certainly people liked him. He knew this also and appreciated that the people he encountered at school were nice and were kind to him. Of that he had no argument.
On to Graduation Day. Jacob had no intention of going to Commencement but that was just not going to happen. Proud Mama here wanted to see my son, on stage, get his diploma that he had worked so hard to achieve. As he was waiting to process in to the hall for the ceremony, many students and faculty congratulated him on his accomplishments (he graduated with high honors) and a couple even asked to have their picture taken with him. As we sat in the hall and students were each taking their turn walking across the stage to get their diploma, we would hear bursts of small groups applaud for each of them - friends and family members of the graduate showing them some love. And then it was Jacob's turn in line and I planned on letting out a big YEAH!!! and then something happened that warmed my heart. When Jacob's name was announced, it wasn't just a small smattering of applause - it was a room full! Many students gave him a standing ovation. Someone in the audience hollered "Go, Jacob"! And yes, there were tears in my eyes. Because the kid who had "no friends" turned out to have many friends. People who cared. People who saw beyond the physical limitations and knew the dedication and hard work that he had put into his 5 years as an undergrad. A few of those students knew he was struggling to find his place (he posts about his life occasionally on Facebook) but they let him know in those few short moments that he was recognized and appreciated.
Jacob said last night before bed that he had a good day (despite Graduation being kind of long). He heard the people applauding for him and he was touched. This doesn't change how he felt over the past few years (the grass is still greener on the other side) but through the acknowledgement of those around him - his "friends" - he felt appreciated. And don't we all want to feel that from our peers? I think sometimes, feeling cared about, can be more powerful than a fleeting friendship or two.
We can't go back and give Jacob the college experience he had wished for. And truthfully, I'm not sure he would have found what he was looking for at another school. My wish, as he makes his way in this world, is that people will take a moment to truly see the man his is - funny and warm, smart, kind and caring. I pray he finds many friends to be by his side and always appreciate him. I hope that those he encounters give him a chance and look past his disability. And I hope that the next time you have an opportunity to show some small kindness to another - especially someone who may be "different" - you applaud and let them know that they are valuable. It can make a huge difference in someone's day - and someone's life.
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