The Great Escape

As a kid I lived right across the street from a school for mentally handicapped kids. I used to watch them playing during their recess while I was washing dishes. It was a pretty regular routine: I’d come home from school, make Kraft Cheese and Macaroni, scarf while watching Bugs Bunny cartoons, and while washing my dishes in the kitchen afterward watch the kids across the street scream and run around, same as we always did.

One day, when I was a freshman in high school, I was at the sink, scrubbing away and watching the kids, when I saw that one of them had managed to place himself in a spot where no one on the playground could see him. There was a small dome-shaped hill between him and everyone else; he was hunkered down on the ground right up against the cyclone wire fence surrounding the school. I knew the grounds of his school like I knew my own backyard; after hours and on weekends, my friends and I goofed around on their playground equipment. Their shortened basketball hoops made us feel like the giants we aspired to be.

I knew that no one on the playground could see the kid. And it was obvious no one was looking for him, either. And from the way he was all crunched down and gripping the fence, he seemed to be aware of this.

As it occurred to me that he was planning to escape, a red rubber ball shot from the playground and rolled up the grass covered hill, coming to a stop at its exact top. A heavy girl from the playground, delighted by her ball’s mischievous behavior, followed it. When she reached the top of the hill the girl bent, picked up the ball, stood, and saw the kid.

“Kevin!” she screamed. “What are you doing there?”

Without even looking behind him Kevin then stood, clutched the fence, and started climbing.

“He’s doing it!” I cried.

But it wasn’t pretty. It seemed clear this was Kevin’s premier fence climb. He was all flailing limbs and huge red Keds. I wouldn’t spend as much energy climbing a mountain as he spent scaling that five-foot fence.

At the very top of the fence–wobbling, looking like some strange hulking creature from the sky—the boy froze, staring down at the grass far, far beneath him.

“Kevin!” screamed the girl. Taking that as his cue, Kevin leapt off the fence, flailing into midair like a man frantically drowning in nothing.

“Holy crap!” I cried.

He hit the ground flat on his side, like a sack of potatoes dropped off a truck. He did not move at all. The girl screamed, let go of the ball, and ran back toward the playground.

“He’s dead!” I said.

But he wasn’t. Like he’d been jolted with an electric prod, Kevin popped his head up off the ground. He clambered up to his feet.

“He’s escaping!” I hurriedly dried my arms as I bolted for the front door.

From our front lawn I watched Kevin make his getaway. You’ve never seen a guy run so hard to go so nowhere. It was like his feet and arms had never before gotten together to discuss the fine art of running. Each of his limbs seemed to have its own different idea about how best to go about that.

Nonetheless, Kevin was on the move. He made it across the parking lot onto the sidewalk. Pointing himself in one direction, he began to pump in earnest: red Keds slapping the pavement, knees practically knocking himself in the head, elbows threatening to take out passing cars.

I looked back at the school. The girl who’d seen Kevin jump was yanking on the shirt of a playground attendant, a blond guy, college-age. With her other hand she was pointing toward Kevin, now closer to me than them. But the attendant wasn’t listening to the girl; he was engaged with talking to another kid.

I looked back at Kevin. If he got about forty more feet down the sidewalk, the houses on that side of the street would block him from the school.

I started bouncing up and down on my toes.

I looked back at the school. The attendant was now paying attention to the pointing, screaming girl. The din of the playground prevented his too readily hearing her. I looked back at Kevin. Twenty feet and he’d be hidden. Back at the school. The attendant was now looking at … me! Jerking my head skyward I assumed a totally nonchalant position, like I’d just stepped out of my house to casually see if anything unusual was happening with the sky. Not much was—so, what the heck, maybe I’d now look around to see if anything just so happened to be happening across the street.

By then the attendant was at the playground gate. He was coming out.

Kevin was barreling full force down the sidewalk.

I could walk backwards faster.

With the easy, loping bounds of an athlete, the attendant ran to the sidewalk. Arms on hips, he stood looking up and down the street.

Kevin wasn’t exactly hard to spot.

The attendant begin jogging down the street toward his errant student. As he approached Kevin he slowed, and reached out his hand to Kevin’s shoulder. Kevin stopped the instant he felt the hand touch him. He dejectedly hung his head, panting. The attendant talked to him. The two of them turned and walked back toward the school, the attendant’s arm around Kevin’s shoulders.

As they were directly across the street, the attendant looked at me. I had forgotten that there something else about the sky that I had meant to check out, so I looked to that.

Then I watched them finish their slow walk back. Back to school. Back to normal. Back to life, where nobody ever really escapes from anything.

Just before Kevin entered the schoolyard gate he stopped, turned his back to the attendant, and faced me. With a smile that took up his whole face he threw his long arm up in the air, and waved to me, like I was standing on the deck of an ocean liner, and he was wishing me bon voyage.

****

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About John Shore

John Shore (who, fwiw, is straight) is the author of UNFAIR: Christians and the LGBT Question, and three other great books. He is founder of Unfundamentalist Christians (on Facebook here), and executive editor of the Unfundamentalist Christians group blog.  (In total John's two blogs receive some 250,000 views per month.) John is also co-founder of The NALT Christians Project, which was written about by TIME,  The Washington Post, and others. His website is JohnShore.com. You're invited to like John's Facebook page. Don't forget to sign up for his mucho-awesome newsletter. If you shop at Amazon, help support John by entering the site through this link right here--Amazon will then send John 3-4% of the cost of anything you buy before exiting the site again.

 

  • Kara K

    Very sweet story. You do spin a good yarn. And since proofreading is in my blood, I did notice the verb that escaped. “By then the attendant at the playground gate.” ;)

    • Anonymous

      Yes. good. thanks. got it.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1554973255 Erika Beseda-Allen

    this is awsomness!

  • Shadsie

    The “tall but small” hill is a strange choice of words – sound a bit contradictory, then I imagined maybe “narrow” was what you were getting that. My twitchy inner-editor noticed that, but that’s about it… that is, if you wanted to make use of people’s twitchy inner-editors.

    Hmm. I think the last (not fan-fiction) short story I wrote involved me getting turned into a zombie.

    • Anonymous

      better now. thanks.

  • Sbedgewater

    Great story! I worked with the mentally ill for years and never tire of the stories they generate.

    • Anonymous

      We prefer not to be called “mentally ill.” Please call us “cognitively disenfranchised.”

      • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=513409898 Ethan Rogati

        Most of the time I, with Bipolar Disorder 1, just feel disenfranchised. Of course, my cognition doesn’t help things. =)

        • Shadsie

          Same here.

          Though, as I’ve said elsewhere, it’s not the end of all things, it’s just being different. I try to enjoy it somewhat while sticking my tongue out at all the normals. Well, when I’m in one of my better mooods.

      • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=513409898 Ethan Rogati

        By the way, since I forgot, awesome story. Sometimes I feel a lot like that kid.

      • http://heckledtrio.wordpress.com Helly

        “We”?

      • J.C. F.

        Similarly, people prefer not to use the rather old fashioned expression “mentally handicapped” – In the UK it is “Learning difficulties – though I don’t really like this expression as it could encompass everything from developmental delay to dyslexia.

        I agree with the term “disenfranchised” as that is what society does to learning disabled.

  • http://ricbooth.wordpress.com Ric

    “like I’d just stepped out of my house to casually see if anything unusual was happening with the sky.”
    hysterical.

    • Anonymous

      You always zero in on the one thing I especially like, Ric.

      God, I hope you seek help.

  • http://www.facebook.com/narnar Natalie Willoughby

    I really enjoy your sweet, super random stories, John :)

  • Mary Lynn Tobin

    I liked: “Kevin was barreling full force down the sidewalk.
    I could walk backwards faster.”

  • Ace

    Darn, if only he’d been a faster runner, he could have gotten away and gone for some ice cream!

    You should have tripped that playground minder and taken him for double fudge sundaes if you ask me. ;)

    • Ace

      (the escape artist, that is, not the playground minder.)

  • Chellee

    I forgot to breathe while reading about Kevin. I’m now feeling a little woosie. ;) I’m so glad Kevin is safe. And you….young man…..need to quit examining skies and next time you see someone escaping….you go get them. Ok??? Oh wait…you do that every day with every article. Us cognitively disenfranchised “Kevin”s of the world are “gone after” each time you validate our “craziness”. (and our beliefs. ) thanks.

  • http://luwandi.wordpress.com Beth Luwandi

    The precision with which you describe Kevin’s movement makes me feel like I’m in one of my frustrating dreams.
    Thank you, John. Another sweet read.

  • Meg

    I think I run like Kevin. LOL. Great story.

  • Anonymous

    Hey, guys. Thanks for the love on the story. I don’t much like doing this sort of thing, insofar as it hurts to have to do something that means so much to me in such an absurdly short amount of time. You shouldn’t spend three hours writing a short story; you should spend three weeks or months. But I woke up this morning really wanting to write this, so I just … pumped it out, basically. And it came out well; I’m pleased with it. Anyway, too much information, I know. I just wanted to thank you for reading and responding.

  • Anonymous

    Sort of sweet, and I hope you do not take this the wrong way, but as a mom of a child with special needs I have one small suggestion. People first language is a much gentler kinder way. Instead of a Mentally Handicapped Kid, try a kid with mental disabilities or something similar. It is an easy simple thing that will make a world of difference in so many lives.

    Thanks.

    • Anonymous

      I do appreciate your sensitivity; and I share it utterly. Before I wrote this story, I did research for a solid hour looking for any term other than “mentally retarded” to describe this kid. As insufficient as it is, “mentally handicapped” is virtually the only commonly accepted euphemism (see: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Intellectual_disability). “Mental disability” is much too broad a phrase.

      • Anonymous

        Understood, but it was not the term describing the disability. More the way it is used. Put the person first in other words. Child with special needs instead of special needs child.

        Person with a mental disability instead of a mentally disabled person.

        Any term used (besides retarded these days anyway), is fine just put the person first in front of the diagnosis.

        Thanks so much for listening and replying so quickly! I never expected a personal response.

        • Anonymous

          Oh, I getcha! Right; that makes great sense. But … man, that stuff is so tricky. Because what would my title be, then? “The Kid Who Was Mentally Handicapped Who Almost Escaped?” “The Kid With Mental Handicappedness Who Almost Escaped?” Anyway … you do make a terrific point, and I won’t forget it.

          • Ace

            How about just, “Kevin’s Daring Escape Attempt from His Demeaning Captivity!”

            Honestly, the mental handicap thing is just a detail here, you have a kid who made a rather bold attempt at escaping a depressing institutionalized setting (which, let’s face it, most public schools, especially those aimed at children with disabilities at the time you observed this, are), but sadly got caught.

            But it’s still nice to see his spirit hadn’t been totally crushed by his jailers, which is why the story is so charming. We can all identify with a boy who just wants to go strolling around the neighborhood freely instead of spending the afternoon playing in a glorified pen.

          • Anonymous

            It’s funny that you sort of automatically think he’s in a depressing institutionalized setting. I indicated nothing of the sort, except for the fence. All you know besides that is there are a lot of kids there, they greatly enjoy their recess, and the guy who’s watching them is (if anything) alert and kind.

          • Ace

            Schools are, by definition, institutions. And nearly every public school I’ve walked into (literally a few hundred, due to the nature of my job), has been at least a tad bit depressing. It’s not a great leap of imagination.

          • Ace

            Schools are, by definition, institutions. And nearly every public school I’ve walked into (literally a few hundred, due to the nature of my job), has been at least a tad bit depressing. It’s not a great leap of imagination.

          • StraightGrandmother

            John I was pretty sure I mentioned this to you previously. Remember me talking about my daughter who teaches children with autism? Best always to say “children with autism” in place of “autistic children.” You always want to put the person first and the disability second.

            I am not aware of what the disabilies these children had at that school but perhaps, cognatively disabled, or mentally challenged comes to mind. “The mentally handicapped kid who almost escaped” could be “The boy who was mentally challenged almost made his escape” OR “The boy who was cognitively disabled came thisclose to escaping.” Just a few different ideas for you to conside.

          • http://mine4thetaking.blogspot.com/ FreeFox

            I’m pretty sure I mention this before, too, SG… but I am troubled by that appraoch. I know it’s the way peeps usually do it, pussyfooting around the obvious, but it seems not only dishonest, but also… hm… look, you wouldn’t say of someone “she is a person who is especially cognitively enabled” if you mean “she’s smart” or “the boy who benefited from phenotypally genetic advantages” is you mean “he’s cute”. We do not need to distance peeps from positive attributes, and we don’t stress how they came by such benefits unfairly and without having particularely earned them. We only do it with attributes we deem demeaning and shamefull.
            And that is why finding such euphemisms only make it only so much more plain how you really fel about them, how you really think they have to be dressed up prettily, hidden behind verbal cosmetics.
            I cannot speak for Kevin, of course, or for the “children with autism” your daughter teaches, but for myself I was most certainly not an “at-riks child”, I was a criminal, I don’t have “sexual identity issues”, I’m queer, and I’m not “physically challenged”, I’m a cripple (and from my own stupidity as well.)
            I loved the story as Mr. Shore told it, with the ungainly limbs and the ineptness at athletics… if this had been the story of a mentally and cognitively un-challenged kid, why, what would have been the story? We all have our limits, some less and some more constricting. Kevin’s were pretty stiff, but did he let that stop him? Nah, he rose to the “challenge” – consider the clever planning and the determination. And when he was found out by the girl, did he falter? No, he redoubled his efforts. Would that we all had the guts to struggle against our own bounds so determinedly.
            The power of Mr. Shore’s story is that is one of heroism. Not the selfless heroism of someone jumping into a raging river to save a drowning kid, but the heroism of standing up for your individuality, for your pride, for yourself.
            Would you take that away from Kevin by shaming him into hiding his limits? By calling “special” what he so clearly fought to overcome? Nah… let him be retarded and a klutz… but an honest, fiery, willful, heroic retarded klutz who stood up for himself. :)

          • pentiptycene

            I like what you said. On my first day of college, the professor told us: “always distrust people who tell you ‘you can’t say that’”.

          • StraightGrandmother

            Well Free Fox I have to amicably disagree with you. When the adjatives are positive I guess it doens’t matter much, “A smart boy” for example. But for persons with disabilites if all your life you only ever hear about your child, “Autistic boy” it would kind of grate on you. NO! You would say he is MY BOY FIRST, his disbability is secondary to who he is. I don’t think it matters much to those of us with full capabilities, but to the family (parents and brothers and sisters) I dare say it matters quite a LOT. If you only ever heard of your brother in the refence of “Autistic” First and foremost every time you also would revolt.

            Let’s take you for instance what if every time we read “Criminal” Free Fox, “Crimal” Free Fox, “Criminal” Free Fox, etc. etc. See once you were a criminal, but it is not core or central to who you are, especially who you are now. You would not want to see “Criminal” in front of your name for the next 70 years. It is the same way with people with disabilities, they also do not want first and formost to be first identified with a disability and them as a person second. It makes sense Free Fox and it is the polite way to write.

          • http://mine4thetaking.blogspot.com/ FreeFox

            Hm. Yeah. I do see what you mean. I certainly am not in favour of adding unnessary pain to anyone. I just have to wonder (from my own experience, no less) if the way to be delicate with words in regards to the truth is always the right way to go.
            Maybe it is only the apparently unquestion feeling of righteousness of the polictically correct that bothers me. Not because I think the bigots and “revilers” are right, good grief, but because I think… anasını satayım… this is so hard to put into words…
            Let’s not take “criminal” as an example, because that has the whole additional question of responsibility. And I feel strange talking about Autists, since I neither am one, nor do I know any personally, so I don’t want to presume too much. So let’s for the sake of argument stick with cripples and faggots. At least I cannot accidentally step on anyone’s toes that way. But I think the principle holds for the rest.
            There is three things to being a cripple or a fag. One is the pure physical truth. My hand is maimed. I like shagging blokes. No way around it. Then there is the judgement implied. Being a fag might make me an abomination in the eyes of some god-fearing bigot, being a cripple might make me worthless (or less worth) in the eyes of someone idolizing physical perfection. Lastly there is the words. The words can point to either the physical fact or the social meaning. Political correctness is supposed to shield some of us from the hurtful implications within the words. And yeah, that is a good thing. Name-calling is mean and should be avoided.
            But I think the danger is this: Are you always so certain that you want to protect the person from the cruel word… or do you want to disguise the physical truth…?
            Politeness is a way of lying. I’m not opposed to lying, it greases the pistons of society, and things would break down or lock up if we stopped using them. But one always has to keep an eye on them, see where they stop being a useful lubricant and turn into either a firehazard or something that clogs up the pipes and poisons the water.
            So, yeah, let’s call them “people with autism”, as long as we don’t forget that they have autism, and that no matter how much we wish it weren’t so, it is pretty defining for most of their lives, and the only truely good way to deal with it is to accept and love and cherish them the way they are, autism and everything else.

          • StraightGransmother

            Criminal Free Fox, (ha-ha couldn’t resist) Relative to your closing paragraph,

            “So, yeah, let’s call them “people with autism”, as long as we don’t forget that they have autism, and that no matter how much we wish it weren’t so, it is pretty defining for most of their lives, and the only truely good way to deal with it is to accept and love and cherish them the way they are, autism and everything else.”

            I was quite pleased with your thoughts. I don’t think there is a problem that we will ever whitewash a defining charachteristic if it is relevant to the surrounding topic. Just in the case where the charateristic is beyond the person’s control, as a disability is, let’s just always put the person first and the disability second, it makes sense. Thank you Free Fox, former criminal.

          • Guest

            (deleted)

  • Anonymous

    Sort of sweet, and I hope you do not take this the wrong way, but as a mom of a child with special needs I have one small suggestion. People first language is a much gentler kinder way. Instead of a Mentally Handicapped Kid, try a kid with mental disabilities or something similar. It is an easy simple thing that will make a world of difference in so many lives.

    Thanks.

  • http://fason.deviantart.com fason

    :D

  • Anonymous

    Sweet, with a happy ending.

    Thanks you, I needed that today!

  • ms.glove

    “Kevin was barreling full force down the sidewalk. I could walk backwards faster.”

    It takes quite a bit to make me literally laugh out loud, but you achieved it with the line above, so much so that it caused my daughters to find out what was so funny. They are 14 year old twin girls who barely speak to me on most days, much less laugh at something I (the lamest Mom in the world) was in hysterics over, so this was HUGE! Thanks, John. I need all the bonding moments AND laughter I can get these days:).

    • Anonymous

      beautiful. thank you. tell your daughters I said hi.

  • Mimicross22

    You have a gift! Thank you for sharing your word-smithing with us.

  • http://mine4thetaking.blogspot.com/ FreeFox

    Aye. Great story, well told. Ta!


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