Pilgrim's Pride by Dan Butler

As THANKSGIVING plays go, it was short. About five minutes long. So I guess you’ll be surprised to find out that it took weeks to prepare. Oh, they did all the normal things- they learned lines, painted scenery and even dyed their own costumes. But this particular group of Pilgrims and Indians feasting together was special. Because the kids are...
SPECIAL, that is. Special is the term currently in vogue for the countless physical and mental afflictions that prevent kids from being NORMAL. Normal is a term not in vogue at all anymore because nobody thinks that they or their kids are.
Mine is autistic. He played a Pilgrim. He stood on the spot taped to the floor with his name on it and spoke his line. We’d been uncertain about it for weeks. He was supposed to respond to an Indian’s question,
“Where are you from?” with “I am from England. Where are you from?” But after countless rehearsals at home we weren’t sure he’d follow the script. We’d ask him where are you from and he’d avert his eyes and mumble, “England”. It worried us because, for once, we wanted him to fit in. And to fit in with the rest of the “cast” he had to know his line.
The Home for Crippled Children changed its name to a more upscale “The Rehabilitation Institute” about ten years ago. It seemed sensible. “Crippled Children” was too limiting for the broad expanse of services offered for every age group and level of injury, disease or incapacity, stroke and burn victims, arthritis and amputees, head injuries, and, of course, handicapped children.

And a school. Where 50 school districts for miles around send their most severe cases. But once they get to TRI (The Rehabilitation Institute), they’re not cases anymore. They’re children. And all the expertise and talent of a multidisciplinary teaching team is applied to peeling back those disabilities. And endless patience. And warmth and sensitivity that blossoms into love which reaches through to that spark of a child under all those layers.
So Anna George’s class had a play with props and costumes and scenery and narration and one Indian with cerebral palsy. A functioning mind in an uncontrollable body. And the level of effort that he applied to push the right spot on his electronic speech board with his only functioning limb – his elbow- so that a disembodied electronic voice could offer beans and corn to a Pilgrim; with that kind of effort and determination you could have gotten into Harvard.
So special kids in a special place, with a special teacher, performed after a fashion. And parents who never dared hope that their unique child could ever perform in public with a group of friends. Or grin. Or laugh. Or just enjoy. Those parents huddled behind their camcorders and blinked back tears. For what could have been. For what is. For what will be. And they were thankful.
And my kid? Loud and clear. With a smile a mile wide.
“I’m from England. Where are you from?” A Ph.D. couldn’t have made us happier.
There were pictures on the wall. Some with help, some on their own, the kids had each painstakingly drawn a Thanksgiving feast (some were what you might call abstract) and in their newly acquired handwriting – at ages eight and nine ) had written the one word they had chosen to fill in Miss Anna’s preprinted, “I am thankful for...” friends, family, teacher. No one was able to articulate what they and their parents are most grateful for. That they live at this time. In this place. In a benevolent enlightened society that, as a matter of policy, is willing to move over and make room for them. It does give you perspective though, to realize that each one of the kids in the class thought they had something to be grateful for...
TRI’s motto is “Miracles in Progress.” Miracles are funny things. They happen all around us all the time. The trick is to notice them. And maybe to become a better person by appreciating them.
Something to think about when you kid comes bouncing down the stairs, roller blades in hand, announcing he’s headed for a couple of hours of pre-Turkey outdoor fun. Who ever stops to think of the multiple miracles of fluid grace and hand-eye coordination. Of comprehension and communication. Of going to the bathroom without help. Of mobility. Of normalcy.
The big finale. One kid who cannot speak did his part by exposing a poster that said, “The End.” Then the rest of the kids in unison:
“Thank you for coming. Happy Thanksgiving.” And slightly out of sync, like an electronic echo... that speech board.
Twelve happy faces. Positively beaming in response to sustained applause. Feeling proud.
Thankful kids. Thankful parents.
Be thankful.