In Brooklyn, New York, Chush is a school that caters to children with learning disabilities. Some children remain in Chush for their entire school career while others can transfer into conventional schools. At a Chush fund-raising dinner the father of a Chush child delivered a speech that always be remembered by all who attended. After extolling the school and its dedicated staff he cried out, “Where is the perfection in my son Shaya? Everything God does is done with perfection. But my child cannot understand things as other children do. My child cannot remember facts and figures as other children do. Where is God’s perfection?”
The audience was shocked by the question, pained by the father’s anguish and stilled by the piercing query. “I believe,” the father answered, “that when God brings a child like this into the world the perfection that he seeks is in the way people react to this child.” He then told the following story about his son Shaya: One afternoon, Shaya and his father walked past a park where some boys whom Shaya knew were playing baseball. Shaya asked, “Do you think they will let me play?”
Shaya’s father knew that his son was not at all athletic and that most boys would not want him on their team. But Shaya’s father also understood that if his son was chosen to play it would give him a comfortable sense of belonging. Shaya’s father approached one of the boys in the field and asked if Shaya could play. The boy looked around for guidance from his team mates. Getting none, he took matters into his own hands and said “We are losing by six runs and the game is in the eighth inning. I guess he can be on our team and we’ll try to put him up to bat in the ninth inning.”
Shaya’s father was ecstatic as Shaya smiled broadly. Shaya was told to put on a glove and go out to play short centre field. In the bottom of the eighth inning Shaya’s team scored a few runs but was still behind by three. In the bottom of the ninth inning Shaya’s team scored again and now, with two outs and the bases loaded with the potential winning run on base, Shaya was scheduled to be up. Would the team actually let Shaya bat at this juncture and give away their chance to win the game?
Surprisingly, Shaya was given the bat. Everyone knew that it was all but impossible because Shaya didn’t even know how to hold the bat properly, let alone hit with it.
However, as Shaya stepped up to the plate, the pitcher moved a few steps to lob the ball in softly so Shaya should at least be able to make contact. The first pitch came and Shaya swung clumsily and missed. One of Shaya’s team mates came up to Shaya and together they held the bat and faced the pitcher waiting for the next pitch.
The pitcher again took a few steps forward to toss the ball softly toward Shaya. As the pitch came in, Shaya and his team mate swung at the ball and together they hit a slow ground ball to the pitcher. The pitcher picked up the soft grounder and could easily have thrown the ball to the first baseman. Shaya would have been out and that would have ended the game.
Instead, the pitcher took the ball and threw it on a high arc to right field, far beyond reach of the first baseman. Everyone started yelling, “Shaya, run to first. Run to first.” Never in his life had Shaya run to first. He scampered down the baseline wide eyed and startled. By the time he reached first base the right fielder had the ball. He could have thrown the ball to the second baseman who would tag out the still-running Shaya.
But the right fielder understood what the pitcher’s intentions were so he threw the ball high and far over the third baseman’s head. Everyone yelled, “Run to second, run to second.” Shaya ran towards second base as the runners ahead of him deliriously circled the bases towards home. As Shaya reached second base the opposing short stop ran to him, turned him in the direction of third base and shouted, “Run to third.” As Shaya rounded third the boys from both teams ran behind him screaming, “Shaya run home.” Shaya ran home, stepped on home plate and all 18 boys lifted him on their shoulders and made him the hero as he had just hit a “grand slam” and won the game for his team.
“That day,” said the father softly with tears now rolling down his face, “those 18 boys reached their level of God’s perfection.”
The story quoted above is “Perfection at the Plate,” a work of Rabbi Paysach Krohn which appeared in his 1999 book, Echoes of the Maggid. Echoes is a “Chicken Soup for the Soul” type work, described by its publishers as “heartwarming stories and parables of wisdom and inspiration.” It is the fifth such tome in the Maggid series. Rabbi Krohn says that the story is true and that he was told it by Shaya’s father, who is a friend of his. (The “Chush” school mentioned in the piece is the Jewish Center for Special Education on Kent Street in Brooklyn, a school that caters to Yiddish-speaking children of Orthodox Hasidic Jews.)
The true value of any inspirational tale lies not in its veracity (or lack thereof) but in its ability to move those who read it to improve some facet of themselves. As with many other glurges, we find this story’s premise a poor one, and its message one likely to do more harm than good.
What to make of an incitement to bestow upon people with disabilities a pat on the head instead of granting them acceptance for who they are, even when that means accepting the limitations placed upon them by their infirmities?
The story of Shaya’s grand slam positions the 18 boys who fooled the child with a disability into thinking he’d done something miraculous as great-hearted lads who reached into the depths of their souls and therein found the kindness with which to lavish upon a youngster with a disability. We’re supposed to look up to them and want to be like them. Yet to do that, we’d have to fail to understand the nature of what they did — rather than accept Shaya for who he was, they pretended he wasn’t a boy with a disability. Were this story taken as the model for how we should all behave around people with disabilities, those struggling with very real physical and mental shortcomings would never get to show off what they can do nor experience the honest praise of admiring teammates and co-workers for their actual contributions, because pity-driven exercises in make-believe would rob them of their every chance to be seen as actual people.
Can a child with a disability hit a baseball as well as a perfectly-abled one? No. But can that same child learn to work within his disabilities to the point of achieving real accomplishments he can take honest pride in? Absolutely. And that beats all the pity-driven home runs in the world.
Said the father in the story, “I believe that when God brings a child like this into the world the perfection that he seeks is in the way people react to this child.” This story counsels that “perfection” be one of pity and dismissal of the actual person. And that can’t be right.
Variations:A February 2006 variant tacked on a coda asserting the child had since died:
Shay didn’t make it to another summer. He died that winter, having never forgotten being the hero and making me so happy, and coming home and seeing his mother tearfully embrace her little hero of the day!