The little one leads, the older one follows.
It seems unlikely, when I think about it, that Alphonse could have made a friend all on his own. At six months short of nineteen years, Alphonse is still way behind his peers in cognition and ability. His interests are limited. Despite attempts to introduce him to more age-appropriate activities, he has shown little attention and engagement to these. Most of all, his inability to communicate hinders socialization and isolates him from much of the world.
And yet, we know only too well how he craves for interaction with those around him. He cherishes moments with loved ones and looks forward to these with breathless anticipation. Last Saturday night, as soon as he saw his grandmother walking through the glass doors of the mall where we brought him for dinner, his face lit up with such happiness he was almost swooning. My mom and youngest sister happily peppered him with kisses and he met these with equally effusive kisses and happy shrieks.
With them that night was my the five-year-old nephew, Sese. Alphonse doesn’t see Sese often but on the occasions that he does, he looks at his little cousin with a mixture of puzzlement and bewilderment. When Sese was a toddler, Alphonse felt threatened by him and would exhibit an “alpha male/ leader of the pack” behavior when the little one came to visit. He stomped his feet, walked in circles to mark his territory, and roared as loudly as he could to frighten the little one. But Sese, perhaps buoyed by the forgiving reactions of the adults around him, simply laughed these off.
We really didn’t need to force any interaction between them; the little one persisted in getting Alphonse’s attention many times. Whenever possible, he sidled towards his big cousin, unafraid, nuzzling him like a little cub. When he started talking, he talked to Alphonse like an equal and asked him questions about everything. “Do you like this, Kuya?” “Want to play in the the tent with me?” After a while, Alphonse’s reticence wore off and he started nodding “yes” and shaking his head “no” to answer Sese’s questions. The little one, however, is more than just persistent. He is clever, too, and found that the real way to Alphonse’s heart is to blow bubbles. It’s a skill Alphonse has yet to master so he asks others to do it for him. Sese always steps to the plate to volunteer. If Alphonse feels kindly towards Sese at all, it is because this little boy taught Alphonse what a friend is- one who never gives up on someone he loves.
Prejudice is learned through modeling, association, and reinforcement of behavior. We are not born with it; it is passed on from adults to children and spread around our peers like a virulent disease. Prejudice infects our future and colors our perceptions. It fosters hate. The opposite is just as true. Dorothy Law Nolte once wrote “If a child lives with acceptance and friendship, he learns to find love in the world.” It is a testament to this that this little five-year-old could be friends with someone so different from him.
Alphonse and Sese are lucky- they have been given special gifts. For Alphonse, it is the rare gift of friendship. For Sese, it is the uncommon ability to see beyond fear and pity. From the living examples of those who love Alphonse, Sese has learned to love beyond disability.
Would that we only passed love and acceptance to all our children.