Lessons from James:
A Sibling’s Reflection On Learning to Think Outwardly
My brother James wasn’t able to attend my high school with me. To tell you the truth, he didn’t attend high school at all or make it too far beyond the second grade. James has an intellectual disability that makes his life very different from the average independent adult…
•Can he drive a car? No;
•Can he read? not really…
•Will he ever be able to live on his own? Probably not…
•Can he hear a song once and memorize it? Yes.
•Does he have 4 girlfriends? uh huh.
•Does he say what everyone else wants to say? Yep.
•Does he change the perspective of everyone around him? pretty much.
When I was growing up, so much of my focus was inward… will I finish my Latin homework, will I get into college, will I be able to cut enough weight to eat skittles and still wrestle in my match, will that girl ever call me back,? You know… that kind of “stuff” that is probably running through the heads of many adolescent guys right now…understandably… My focus was inward and small worries often blinded my perspective. Again, I couldn’t see the dots and didn’t trust that they would connect.
Given the typical concerns of being in high school, I didn’t really know how to appreciate my brother James, much less, incorporate him into my world. Having a younger sibling can seem embarrassing at times, regardless of their situation; having a younger brother with disabilities was hard to understand and harder to explain.
Once again, it was all about me, and how James’s situation would make me look… while he was dealing with more difficult questions such as: why can’t I go to school with my brother? Will I get beat up when I go to my job? How come I have to take these medicines all the time? Why don’t I have any friends?
Eventually, as I grew up a bit more, and started driving and going out more with my own friends, I started to be saddened when I left the house, and James asked if he could go with us. He didn’t have any plans for the night, but I would still normally have to say “no”… Again, how difficult it would be to take him out with me!; after all, there were going to be girls there!
Finally, I couldn’t take it any more… and I said with trepidation, “yes, James you can come out with us tonight”… That opened the floodgates!
At first, people didn’t know what to think… They would wonder: “Who is this kid that keeps telling my girlfriend she is beautiful?” or “Who is this guy that drinks all of the cokes in our fridge?” or “Why’s Kempton’s little brother always asking if I will buy him toys?” or “Who is this guy that tells his older brother and little sister that he loves them in public?”
However, slowly but surely, it became a lot more fun to take James out with us. People began to know him and get used to his quirks and – they even became addicted to them! He became a staple at parties and events, we would be quoting him at school, and my friends would take him out with them fishing, to FCA, the movies, and even on dates with their girlfriends ….even when I was out of town… When a friend and I hiked one of the Smoky Mountains with him, he even convinced my friend to carry him half-way – what a salesman! He ended up carrying us as he took our minds off the tedious climb.
My sister, Anne, and my parents felt the effects too… and we began to reference his sayings as “James-isms”. He had brought out the best in all of us… being with him, we stopped worrying about ourselves and really focused on James’ ability to rise above his disability. Dots were connecting. We were all beginning to look outward.
Thinking back, my situation is really not unique. I didn’t do anything special. We all have James’s in our lives. People who seem to need our help that actually end up helping us…
Make the most of your time with those people. You’ll become outward-focused and your own troubles will start to fade away. In other words, a few James’s can help you start connecting the dots.
The good times with James would continue for a while until it became time to begin the next chapter in life. My senior superlative had been “most likely to take his brother to college.” However, when it became time for me to go off, James could not go…All of a sudden, with all of his friends gone… he was thrust back to a world without a community of peers. It didn’t make sense to him. While we were all off having a great time and moving forward, he began to regress – gaining weight, not wanting to leave the house, and becoming depressed. He didn’t understand what had happened to his social life. He was dealing with inward struggles. The dots were once again, out of alignment.
However, the dots came back together… James, who had brought so much to our family, our community of friends, who had such a difficult time when we all left him, got picked up by another member of the our community. Barry Banker partnered with his wife’s family to continue the legacy of a school in Kentucky for adults with special needs. Sacrificing time and energy, Barry has poured himself into that school and helped to serve many special people. He has dedicated his career to an outward cause and, in turn, has a sense of fulfillment that is contagious. At that point when James was really struggling, Barry brought him in. James moved to Kentucky, and all of a sudden was back in a social network. He considers his school, Stewart Home & School, to be his college and his home. He is learning many new skills, was crowned homecoming king, and again, has multiple ladies in his life…
Once again, I challenge anyone reading this piece to listen to those calls to help others…. As you look around your community of family and friends, consider who has supported you, and think about those people who need your support. Act on those thoughts…. I am telling you – the dots will connect.