I grew up in small town America, where farmland ruled and the center of town consisted of a gas station, pizza place, and barber shop. At a young age, I doubted my town’s ability to entertain me and to teach me life’s secrets. As a young teen I was certain that I must flee to the city to expose myself to the hidden wonders of life. My daily routine of riding the bus to school, sitting in class listening to lectures, traveling home to complete homework, quickly became monotonous. Although I was an honors student, I felt there was more to life than the lessons taught within the confines of the school’s walls.
The summer going into my freshmen year of high school, one of life’s wonders was brought to my doorstep. A family of three moved into the small ranch across the street from my home. I didn’t know it at the time, but the young boy in the family was about to teach me some of life’s most important lessons that even the best teachers of my high school could not have taught as well as him.
Charlie was eight when he became my neighbor and life educator. Our first encounter consisted of him running from his mother, into my backyard and onto our trampoline. His mother followed him at a sprint, screeching his name in an attempt to get him off of the trampoline. I ran outside, expecting someone to have been dead due to the extreme trembling fear in Janet’s voice. Instead, I found Charlie grinning from ear to ear, jumping as high as he possibly could. Janet pulled Charlie from the trampoline, holding him in a bear hug, a few tears running down her face. At first glance, I internally accused Janet of overreacting – her son was almost ten years old and had simply been jumping on a trampoline. However, after looking at Charlie in his mother’s arms, I noticed his round facial features, plumpness, and child-like mannerisms and realized that Charlie was a victim of Down Syndrome. When Charlie noticed me standing on the patio, he escaped his mother’s embrace and ran to me. Although I was stranger, he stood close, examined me, and then gave me a tight hug and asked if I wanted to play. From the moment I said “yes” to our first play date, Charlie and I became more than neighbors, we became best friends.
Despite his youth, lack of formal education, and overall disability, Charlie taught me more about life than I could have asked of anyone. His never-fading smile and eagerness to live life to the fullest made me feel guilt for the numerous moments of anger and frustration I felt daily. He made me realize my overreactions and the absurdity behind my tantrums about new clothes, having a car, and grades in school. His overall love for life encouraged me to experience my small town lifestyle and showed me that I didn’t need the exhilarating city life to have fun. Spending time with Charlie playing basketball after school or visiting him at recess made me see more than the material things life has to offer. He made me appreciate the basics. During his younger years, Charlie could not join a basketball team, yet had a strong passion for the sport and was dedicated to becoming a better player. He and I spent fifteen minutes a day shooting in his driveway, because he complained that his shot wasn’t “good enough.” His eagerness to improve taught me to stop complaining about the two hour basketball practices I had every day, and made me push myself to take advantage of every opportunity I was given. During our basketball “practices” together, Charlie pretended he was the coach and made me participate in the drills and plays he created. He made me experience childhood again, and showed me the importance and innocence of imagination.
Life may have restricted Charlie from having the same abilities and opportunities as myself, yet he chose to live his life to the fullest. His constant enthusiasm and conscious choice to take on life’s challenges without fear and with a smile, showed me that I had no excuse to not do the same. So, it wasn’t the fifty five minute lectures in high school or hour-long homework assignments, or the hundreds of text book pages that I read throughout high school, that made a footprint on my life. It was the moments spent and memories made with Charlie and the life lessons he taught me that truly made an impact on my life, and it is because of Charlie that I believe in the everlasting strength of life lessons.
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