‘He’s special. He’s just different than most kids’

Published 11:00 am Friday, May 28, 2010

I finished reading “The Great Gatsby” with my English 11 classes last week. It’s a book I never tire of reading, even though I’ve probably read it 12 times. I might be partial to it because F. Scott Fitzgerald was a St. Paul native, but there’s something about his prose that just thrills me.

Nick Carraway, a recent Minnesota transplant to Long Island, narrates the novel. His Midwestern sensibilities contrast with the opulent lifestyles, heavy drinking and crazy partying on display at Jay Gatsby’s mansion next door. But over time Nick becomes accustomed to all the guests who — despite not knowing Mr. Gatsby personally — come to his house regularly, quaff back Gatsby’s champagne, gobble his caviar, and generally treat his property like a barn.

But when Nick’s more sophisticated cousin Daisy and her husband join him at one of Gatsby’s parties, he suddenly become conscious of the unseemly scene again, saying, “It is invariably saddening to look through new eyes at things upon which you have expended your own powers of adjustment.”

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Sad and sometimes embarrassing. You bring your girlfriend home from college for the first time; she meets your crude Uncle Barry over pre-Thanksgiving dinner drinks, and you want to lovingly clap your hands over her ears when he commences with the fart jokes. He’s not really like this, you want to say, except you’d be lying because he really is like this. It doesn’t make him a bad guy, just a guy you’d rather not have your girlfriend meet until you’ve secured a more solid commitment from her. You see him now as you fear she’s seeing him, and unfortunately a joke is uttered and heard before you realize what’s happened. God love you, Barry.

More seriously, I remember being 12 or 13 years old and my parents asking my younger sister Jill and me to take our little foster brother and sister to the playground. We had just arrived at a campground for the weekend, and my mom and dad wisely recognized they could set up the campsite faster without little ones in their hip pockets.

Michael, 4, and Crystal, 3, had been with us for almost a year. Michael had some developmental disabilities that weren’t nearly as striking at age 3 as they would become when he grew older.

We’d been at the park for only 15 minutes when Jill grabbed both of the younger kids by the hand and announced we were heading back. I protested, pointing out the obvious, that we hadn’t been there long enough.

“We have to go!” she snapped, walking straight ahead. Seconds later she was crying, soft weeping at first, sobbing soon after. I was thoroughly confused.

Once back at camp, Jill got herself together and asked me, “Is Michael retarded?” I replied with what I both knew and had been told: “He’s special. He’s just different than most kids. You know that.”

She explained that a boy seeing Michael at the playground had snidely commented to his companion, “look at the retarded kid” and laughed as if Michael were some kind of spectacle.

My sister was forced to look at Michael through the eyes of an insensitive youth who didn’t know him, who didn’t love him, who hadn’t the opportunity to “expend his own powers of adjustment” when evaluating him. And it was very saddening.

So is the fact that this sort of thing continues in varying degrees throughout our lives. We tend to be more accepting and understanding with those most familiar to us than with strangers and acquaintances. We are typically more patient and generous with friends and more hasty and judgmental with others.

Shortly after the birth of our first daughter, I was given some advice by a fellow teacher, Betty Buffington. She told me that when I have a student who insists on being a jerk in class, who shows little interest in following directions or acting like a civilized human being, before becoming angry or losing my patience, I should remember that someone loves that student — or should love that student — as much as I loved my new my baby girl. She suggested that I always try to think of who that student is in the eyes of the ones who love him or her.

That’s some profound advice. And in some cases, it’s a lot to ask, but think about how much more peaceful our world could be if we would all make a conscious practice of considering why people are the way they are, if we’d look past their most obvious weaknesses or detractions and try to focus instead on their goodness and gifts. It’s not to say that anything goes, or that we shouldn’t address negative or harmful behavior, but we might be always mindful that there is more to everyone — Uncle Barry, Jay Gatsby, Michael, or me — than our shortcomings, blind spots, or natural limitations.

Jeremy Corey-Gruenes is a teacher at Albert Lea High School and lives in Albert Lea with his wife and two daughters.