Food for ThoughtAug/Sep 2009 Issue

A World of Difference: Celiac Disease

Defending diversity

My son Mike feels like he is different. To me, he’s like many other 10-year-old boys. He has friends, goes to school, plays soccer. But because he also has both Type 1 diabetes and celiac disease, he feels he isn’t viewed the same way as his peers.

At school, Mike gets singled out every day. He never buys lunch like the other kids, bringing it from home instead. He has to leave class just before lunch, alone, to go to the nurse to test his glucose. At the end of the day, he has to get out of school early to be tested again before heading home. He catches up to his friends afterwards, who are already on the bus.

Each new school year brings new classmates. And each new classmate asks the same old questions: How come you never buy lunch? Why do you always go to the nurse’s office? Is that a pager on your belt?

When he was younger, Mike was always very open about himself. He thought it was cool when kids mistook his insulin pump for a pager or a GameBoy. As he gets older, however, he is becoming much more self-conscious. Today, he buries his pump underneath his shirt as best he can.

Admittedly, I was concerned for Mike when he started grade school. When I was his age, I saw firsthand what could happen to kids who were considered “different.” Just wearing eye-glasses would be cause enough. If you were lucky, you got punched in the arm. If you weren’t, it was a flagpole wedgie. As kids grew older, the bullying could sometimes escalate from humiliating to downright dangerous.

So when Mike was in second grade and asked if he could take karate, I dropped what I was doing and helped him fill out the forms. I hoped that karate would give him confidence so that if he was ever in that situation he could end up being one of the lucky ones.
Mike has taken karate for the last few years and I’m glad he’s sticking with it. It has taught him responsibility, perseverance and the importance of doing his best. Karate has also given him a lot of self-assuredness. I’m happy to report that, so far, Mike has never used his skills outside of the dojo.

Maybe it’s the slice of world we live in or maybe it’s just too soon to tell—but it seems to me that kids today are more tolerant of differences than when I was a boy. Yes, there are still bullies and jerks at every age. But I hope I’m seeing an ever-so-slight shift occurring in the balance of things.

This past year, my wife received a call from a mom of one of Mike’s classmates.  She was planning to bring treats to school for her son’s birthday. As the woman explained to my wife, her son had informed her—in no uncertain terms—that if Mike couldn’t eat with the class, her son wanted no food served at all. The next day, the mom brought in enough gluten-free cookies for everyone in the room.

This young boy is a good reminder for Mike—and for all of us, really—that friendship is inclusive and accepting. It doesn’t take stock of differences. A big lesson taught by a little boy. A true friend cares about what’s in a person’s heart, not what’s buried underneath his shirt. LW

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