My Bleeding Heart

It’s been a while since I’ve written. It happens from time to time. It’s either because I’m so busy, or too sick or I just haven’t had anything stir my passion enough that justified writing here. It’s been a bit of all of that of late but the past week has really stirred me.

When I was a kid I didn’t know that we were different to other families. I didn’t know there were different classes of people and that you were treated accordingly. I just treated everyone the same. I was the kind of kid who brought all the strays home. I was the kid who cried when we saw a dead animal on the side of the road. All I ever wanted was to be happy and to be included.

I was excluded from very early on though. My father left when I was very young and we had a step father. I wanted so much to be accepted I would forgive his crimes and abuse. Every time we were referred to as the step children or my mother’s children in that family I would feel myself hanging onto a rope trying to climb my way up. He only ever taught me exclusion. He was a racist bastard, always belittling us for the clothes we wore or the friends we chose or the music we listened to. He would call it n*gger music. I hate that word. I hated him.

I wasn’t the cool kid in school. I was a lot of things but not cool. I think I experienced almost every kind of exclusion there is throughout my life. Social exclusion, racial exclusion, even in my life as it is today, disability exclusion. I wanted a different life for my children and the last thing I wanted was for them to be anything like the people who excluded me in my lifetime just because of who I was, the colour of my skin, the country my parents were born in or that I use wheels instead of legs sometimes. I want my boys to grow up into the kind of men who will be great community leaders and embrace the differences in their community.

So when my child is excluded I teach him to stand up for his rights. I do that by standing up for him. Even when it means I will be shunned by the community I am fighting for him to be included in.

There have been a few occasions in different environments but none that stunned me more than the sporting club we’d been members of for over a year. He’s 11. He’s got his father’s genes and he is a bigger kid. I don’t want him to be fighting the same chronic illnesses his father is that can be prevented by managing his weight. So as well as trying to manage his diet and teach him good food habits (a battle and a half when his father teaches him bad habits), I wanted to ensure he has regular exercise. In the summer we swim. In the winter we tended to hibernate, so I went looking for a sport that would suit him.

Mr11 has already experienced exclusion on a social level mostly because of his learning disabilities and behaviour disorders, but no one knows more than I do how hard he works at trying to “fit in” and how much it hurts him that he doesn’t. He’s a great kid. Very compassionate and so witty. He has his struggles though and I was worried about finding a sport that would be understanding to his needs.

I was introduced to a club in the Queensland Christian Soccer Association. I liked their values and thought it would fit well with his needs but most of all they promoted inclusion of kids with disabilities. So it seemed, since he had voiced an interest in soccer, this was worth a try. For the first year it was brilliant. He had his moments of struggle but it seemed that the coach and the team really tried to ensure all the kids felt included. It had a very inclusive feel about it and he loved going to training every week and playing games. They were a strong team. Went through the whole season undefeated. For the first time in his life he felt like he was good at something. He knew he wasn’t the strongest member of the team. Many of the other kids had been playing for several years but he enjoyed it and he was active. The following year something changed and I know he doesn’t cope well with change, but he seemed to be handling it. The team had been boosted from a division three level to a division one. The competition was much more difficult. For the first time he experienced loss and even though other team parents feel differently than myself, I was glad to see them lose. It broke down the cockiness they had developed from not losing. Mr 11 needed to experience being a good loser as well as being a good winner. He did pretty well.

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About half way through the season, he came home from training one night, visibly upset saying he hated soccer and he was never going back again. When he calmed I managed to find out that another team member had said to him, “You’re not even a good player I don’t know why you’re on the team.” He no longer felt included. Instead he felt blamed. He saw this as meaning it was his fault they lost.

It took me a good four days to convince him he was not to blame. They played as a team, they won as a team and they lost as a team. It was no one person’s fault if they lost and certainly in no way was it any one person’s doing alone if they won. That he had strengths and weaknesses just like any other member of the team. I convinced him to play that weekend but he did so begrudgingly. I could see his heart wasn’t in it. Until they won and he was singled out by the coach for playing well. I had hoped this was proof enough to him that the other kid was wrong.

Even when they didn’t win I hoped that he enjoyed himself on the field. That he saw it as fun as much as competition. After all it was one of the key values the club and the association promoted and we all know if kids don’t enjoy it, they won’t exercise. Many of the clubs had struggled to maintain a steady membership. So what happened next was so shocking to me I had no choice but to speak up.

We had made our way to an away game. A field with no toilets, no food, no coffee and the weather turned. On arrival it began to rain. We sat there in the cold wet only to have our child along with three other subs benched for the whole game. This had never happened before. I was so disappointed for him. For them all. I could see how disappointed they were that they didn’t get a play. Most of all I was disappointed with the coach’s reasoning. He wanted to put a scoring team on the field and his language suggested that to win this was required and if this was required it “might be the way it has to be.” So effectively he was telling those four kids they weren’t good enough to play on the team.

I am not a religious person. I followed the club’s code of conduct and values out of respect. I didn’t feel that respect was mutual. The club’s values were not being shown to these kids. So I complained. My complaint was met with a that’s the way it is response, so being the kind of person that I am, I took the complaint further with club management.

I was reassured that this wasn’t the kind of practice they supported and that it would be resolved. I have to say I was really pleased with the club’s response and handling of the issue. They needed to handle it and be aware of it because if this kind of behaviour infiltrated the club it would destroy the very values and ethics the association was based on. Most of all it would drive members away. Many of us were there because other competitions and sports were too competitive for our kids’ needs. It wasn’t a selection based on skill kind of competition. It was to get more kids involved in sport.

The coach was not happy with my complaint, nor that the club reinforced this practice was against their values and wouldn’t be allowed. The next thing that happened, I can’t guarantee was accidental, but nonetheless I can’t help thinking it was fate. We received an SMS that was about us and not intended for us.

I was referred to as a “bleeding heart parent” with a “cotton wool kid”.

I was disappointed. Shocked. Most of all, I was angry. It couldn’t have been further from the truth. If I was really wrapping my kid in cotton wool then I wouldn’t have pushed him to play sport in the first place. I’d let him lay in bed playing Xbox all day. I wouldn’t be trying to protect him from losing by telling him it’s okay to be a cheerleader on the bench. I wanted my child to feel what it’s like to lose in competition. We can’t always win. We can’t always be the best at everything. Most of all, as a team, we have to support each other’s weaknesses and build on them. No, my kid was the one with the bruises and grazes. My kid has no idea what cotton wool is. He’s also the kid who has a parent who stands up for him and teaches him to stand up for himself. To stand up for what’s right.

I’m kind of fed up with this bleeding heart bullshit. If I stand up for disability rights I’m a bleeding heart. If I care about what happens to others I’m a bleeding heart. If I do whatever is in my power to stop injustice from happening I’m a bleeding heart. If I stand up for human rights I’m a bleeding heart. Until those rights are yours and then you want me on your side.

I’m pleased to say Mr11 is back to playing. He might only be a sub (when everyone else decides to turn up of course, when they don’t then he’s good enough to play the whole game), but he plays. He gets on that field when he’s sick, when he’s scared and when he’s indifferent. He faces his challenges and faces his fears. No cotton wool required. I’m so damn proud of that kid. Most of all, I can sleep at night knowing he’s proud of me. Because even though I feared I would be ostracised by the parent clique of win or die sideline parents (and some have made it pretty clear that’s how it is), I still stood up for him and what was right.

My bleeding heart beats just fine. How’s yours?

Me and My boy
Me and My boy

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