June 3, 2008

My Greatest Influence

“Oh, good, he’s asleep. All I have to do is relax and watch TV,” I thought to myself as Hart’s mother went to pick up his twin. Suddenly, a little boy came trampling down the stairs at full speed. We hadn’t been formally introduced and, at ten, I wasn’t sure what to do. “Does he understand English? Is he going to start crying?” the thoughts raced through my head, while this little six-year-old boy just stood there in his Spiderman t-shirt observing me like I was an alien.

“Your mom just went out to pick up your brother, but she will be home soon. Do you want to play a game?” The little boy turned and ran frantically back up the stairs. This was the beginning of my relationship with the boys across the street. The first time their mom told me they were “special” I assumed she was just bragging about her children. It wasn’t until years later that I truly understood the full meaning of that phrase.

People assume that for a person to influence you, they must be older and wiser. In this case, they are neither, Hart and Jeff are not older, wiser, nor one person, yet they have been the greatest influence on my life. Through them I have learned compassion, patience and how to help others. Since the beginning, the boys have encountered problems many of us will never face. Being adopted from Russia at the age of two and later being diagnosed with fetal alcohol syndrome, they have opened up a world I would otherwise never have known. They have taught me never to judge and to accept people for who they are.

The twins have always been in special schools. Learning new tasks takes the boys longer because they lack concentration and need repetition. Because of these disabilities, it was necessary for me to develop patience. Like “normal” children, the boys manage to get into mischief, be it fighting with each other in the backseat or breaking their toys, but unlike normal children the boys cannot stop themselves without intervention.

Hart and Jeff have a hard time listening. When I get frustrated with them and lose my temper, they don’t understand why. Because it is a key element in sustaining peace, I have gained a considerable amount of patience. Jeff’s favorite game is pretending he is a bus driver. He gives each child that comes on his bus candy and a new toy. Yes, this is in his imagination, but the generosity is genuine. His ambition is to build houses for children who are homeless. The boys care for all those around them and appreciate what they have. As their father said at their Bar Mitzvah, “the boys want to help others because they have seen how much help was given to them.” From their example, I have learned that compassion can bring happiness not only to others but to you as well.

Every year the boys go to a special camp for a week. After learning about this camp, I volunteered to be a counselor. Unable to get into the children’s camp, I worked the week for mentally handicapped adults. My campers were two young women with Down syndrome; my assignment was to be their caregiver and constant companion at swimming, dancing, eating and having fun together. It was difficult at first, but by the end of the camp, I was glad I had volunteered. Being there made our campers feel like normal people; no one stared or made rude comments. The barriers between special and normal disintegrated as the week went on until we all viewed each other as friends.
Through my introduction into Hart and Jeff’s world, I have grown as a human being and have learned the fulfillment of helping others and the rewards of giving of my time and of myself.

This past January I accompanied the boys to the Special Olympics. As I watched one compete in figure skating and the other in speed skating, I realized not only how proud I was of them, but also that this journey we took together has allowed all of us to grow. As Hart was putting on his Dracula cape for his solo, he turned to me and said, “Tahra, I’m glad you came with us”. That’s a long way from running up the stairs in fear.

______________ Tahra E., our neighbor and longtime caregiver, wrote this essay for her college application. Reprinted with Tahra's generous permission.

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