“Everyone has problems,” my Dad told me from the time I was very young. “Yours might seem more obvious on the outside, but a lot of people have much bigger ones that you can’t see. Trust me.”
At seven years of age this was a difficult concept for me to comprehend, never mind believe. Oddly enough, I had no problem believing in Santa, even though I had never met the real deal. I even remember believing on good authority that Santa had a direct line to God, much like the red telephone in the Adam West Batman serial. I had visions of the head elf seeing me nabbing an extra chocolate bar after dinner some evening at the end of October and reporting back: “Rollicking reindeers, Santa! That Larney kid is on a sugar craze!” And poof goes my Nintendo 64.
The problem of mine that Dad was referring to was the fact that I have had a physical disability since birth. In the course of the delivery my brain was deprived of oxygen for a couple of seconds and what resulted was three weeks in an incubator and a lifelong reminder of the event. I now live with a mild form of cerebral palsy, a fancy way of saying that my neurons aren’t all firing in the directions that they should.
Diagnosis of the CP didn’t occur until I was two years old, at which point my parents registered me with Cerebral Palsy Ireland (which has since changed its name to the more optimistically focused ‘Enable Ireland’). The powers that be in CPI were adamant that I wouldn’t function in mainstream school, but my parents pushed the envelope so far that it fell off the table. This was a pretty gutsy move, all things considered. My mum was a primary teacher and my dad was a solicitor. Neither of them had any medical training and this was in the very early nineties, where the closest thing we had to the internet was Sky television or long distance calling from an Eircom phone box on O’Connell Street.
Luckily, the gamble paid off, although not without blood sweat and tears. I remember a Eurocamp holiday in the south of France, again aged about six or seven, where Mum and I sat at the rickety plastic table in the sun outside our tent for two hours every day while I got caught up on learning to read and my brothers went off to enjoy the slides at the campsite pool. Pure torture.
I say the gamble paid off. What I mean by this is that despite all the odds, I enrolled in mainstream school and, when the time came, my parents sent me to the school my dad had gone to when he was a boy. I loved sport as a child, and this school was one of the south Dublin rugby schools (which will remain nameless as I wish to avoid hassle with the fuzz).
To attend a rugby focused school, as a sports mad child with a disability, creates a unique sense of unbelonging very quickly. I had played football at home with my dad and imagined myself playing for Leinster one day. I am sure many of the guys in my class held the same dream; and all of them are now doing jobs entirely unrelated to playing sport professionally.
However, in school a natural order was formed around the notion of who was good at sport and who wasn’t in our little microcosm. Most people have the realisation that they will never make it as a sportsperson late enough in adolescence, when they are faced with the truth that the competition level is so brutally high. It is hard enough at that stage, but I made this discovery aged nine, and it was particularly tough. The other boys took no prisoners in sport, and so it was only a matter of very short time before I had the rude awakening that I wasn’t fast enough, my coordination wasn’t quite good enough….in short, I just wasn’t enough. That sense of unbelonging crystallised around the sport issue and I really took a hit to my self-esteem.
Then came the fateful day. A rugby match with another school. A drizzly Saturday morning in November, and I was once again set up on the right wing of the D team, teams being as they were listed alphabetically according to ability. Why the right wing you ask? To keep me out of the way so I didn’t drop any balls.
So there I am, running back and forth observing the game unfolding before me on that cold November day, the rain steadily increasing around me, my shirt soaked through and sticking to my skin, my hair a wet mop pasted to my head. And then it happened.
The game has a minute left and the ball bounces out for a lineout. We’re all about eleven or twelve, so we’re not at the stage of boosting anyone yet. The ball is slick with water and after it’s thrown in from the sideline it bobbles loose in the lineout as several hands grab for it. Somehow it falls into my hands five yards from the line. Nobody, including my own teammates, is expecting me to have the ball and before anyone realises what’s happened, I’ve blindly stumbled forwards three yards through the lineout, which has broken up into a muddled group of youngsters staring around for the ball. As I move forwards towards the whitewash, ball tucked under my elbow and still unable to believe my luck, the fullback spots me as I roll towards him. He lunges at me, misses, and my trailing left arm catches him across the face as he goes down like a bag of hammers. Off balance myself, I topple over the line, holding the ball to my chest as I fall to the ground for a try. My teammates are around me at once, screaming and cheering. The referee blows up for a try, and then a longer whistle for the end of the game. The other team is standing around complaining of foul play. One of them is saying that I clotheslined his teammate “like a WWF wrestler” which honestly, I took as a compliment. The referee, though, looks set to rescind the try, until my captain says, with all of the wisdom of an eleven-year-old; “Here, ref, you can’t do that, it was an accident, he has a disability, he can’t help it.”
A moment of silence from everyone on the pitch, and the parents on the sidelines, and the beleaguered referee blows one long whistle and puts an end to the game. My teammates carry me off the field, and later, Dad buys us two strawberry milkshakes in McDonald’s on the way home.
It is, I will grant you, an unconventional tale of someone turning their greatest weakness into their greatest strength, and it was only a Saturday morning primary school friendly on a wet winter day, but from that day forth, as I progressed on through the rest of primary and into secondary, my sense of unbelonging dissipated, and people still spoke in wistful tones of the Legendary try of ’02 until we graduated.
Seán Larney is the winner of the (un)belonging Best Essay Prize.