Six years ago, I was approached by a young boy after a baseball game. His eyes were filled with curiosity and life. It had been a hot summer night, and my bag rested heavily on my shoulder. Making my way to the bus, I caught a glimpse of him bolting straight towards me. He was accompanied by his father who seemed to hesitantly observe the encounter. I turned to meet the boy and found myself presented with a large smile and gleaming eyes. Statements and questions began exploding out of his mouth as he glanced from my legs to my arm. His father quickly began to react, thinking that his child was causing a scene. Instinctively, I waved him off and gave a grin to let him know it was alright.
The current situation was nothing out of the ordinary for me. Placing my bag down, I mustered up the energy to match the boy's intensity. These questions, I learned a long time ago, needed to be handled gracefully. A group of people began to gather around, and I noticed other children close to the boy's age standing in the distance watching discretely. A few of them held their parent's hands while their facial expressions portrayed a familiar story: the feeling that they were observing something strange and unnatural. Ignoring the others, I began to address the boy. The conversation began:
BOY: I saw you out there pitching. It was AWWWESOME!!! You throw REALLY hard! The way you did this, and this (mimicking my hand gestures) was so cool! Do you really have NO legs? What happened to your hand? Does it hurt when....
MYSELF: (Quickly responding) I REALLY don't have any legs!! Pretty cool, huh? Would you like to see??
BOY: UMMM YESSSSSS!!!! (Nodding so violently, I feared he might break his neck. In the distance, the other parents and children begin to peek around in anticipation.)
MYSELF: Alright!! (I lift up my pant legs. The boy reacts a little stunned and taken aback. The crowd is also shocked by my prosthetics and is further fed by the boy's reaction. I know that now is the moment to swoop in and change their perception.)
BOY: That's weirddddd. Does it hurt??? (The other children seem to agree with the boy; however, I can see curiosity flicker in their eyes.)
MYSELF: No, it doesn't hurt. These are my special pair of shoes, that's all. Nothing weird about that. As a matter of fact, I have robot legs...kind of like Iron Man.
(I can hear the other kids echo the boy. They begin to chatter, "Did you see that?" "How cool!!!" The parents begin to laugh, and I see a proud smile on the father's face. The awkward tension dissapates and the other kids begin to mob myself and the boy, throwing out a bombardment of questions.)
MYSELF: Alright guys, take it easy!! I promise I'll answer all your questions one-by-one, but first! (I point and grin at the boy) I need to finish answering his questions. (All eyes focus on him. Realizing that he cared when no one else did, he stands there triumphantly.)
BOY: What happened? (The question pierces the silence like a bullet in the air. The parents realize, without intention, the boy has asked the question on everyone's mind. They begin to glance at one another wondering how I will respond, and more importantly how will the kids.)
MYSELF: Well... (The severity of my tone changes slightly. The kids and adults crowd around wide-eyed) I was born this way... (The kids look confused, so I clarify.) When I was born, I was missing both of my feet and my left hand. When you were born, you had two feet and two hands. I am just different... It is the same way someone is born with blonde hair and another is born with brown. (I point to a blonde and brunette kid in the crowd. I can see the light-bulbs go off in their heads. Instantly, you can tell their opinions have changed from something unnatural or strange to something that they can connect, understand, and accept.)
Fast forward, this conversation continued on for several minutes. I made sure to spend time talking with each of the kids and even their parents. Eventually, the crowd dies down, and I can hear the families talking about me as they walk away. I look down, and realize the boy is still here with his father. He is holding a baseball in his hand, and his demeanor has changed. The curiosity in his eyes is gone, and he reaches out his hand.
BOY: Can I have your autograph? I would really like to have it.
MYSELF: Of course! (I took the ball from the boy, and the father hands me a pen.)
BOY: I want to tell you something... Things aren't real easy for me... I don't really have any friends. I get made fun of a lot, and people don't understand me. I want to be like you.... I want people to like me for being different... You are my hero...
(Out of all the questions and comments, this was the gut shot to the stomach. I can feel the pain building and distant memories flooding my mind. Maintaining my composure, I glance from the father back to the boy.)
MYSELF: Thank you buddy!! I appreciate that, but you know what? I like you, and you don't need to be like me. You should be like you! That is the bravest and coolest thing you could do!! Keep working on yourself, and keep working hard. You do that and people will come around! And you know what? Even if they don't, it doesn't matter because I like you...so you keep being you!!
As I handed the ball back, he smiled from ear to ear and thanked me. The boy ran off to show his mother and siblings the ball I had just signed; however, the father stays behind and starts to tell me the full version of the story. The boy had just moved here and was having a very difficult time making friends. He was the victim of constant bullying, and it was really taking a toll on the family. The father expressed to me that his boy had a good heart, and he didn't know what else to do. An avid baseball fan, he tried to take him to baseball games to get his mind off of school. With tears in his eyes, the man thanked me for what I told his son. As I shook his hand, he nodded and then went to join his family.
As I walked back to the bus, my thoughts swirled as emotion raised inside of me. The boy had no idea, but his story had struck a cord with me. It reminded me of old wounds, the deep ones, that had forged me into a stronger person. I didn't reminisce on the pain, but instead thought about how it had changed me...how it might change that boy and his family. I could see the potential in him from his spirit and understood the similarities between us when I was his age. He would endure more than most, but if he could aim his passion then he had the ability to accomplish great things. If only he had the right direction, he could change his stars. I wanted to say so much more to him, but didn't even get his name...
Sitting down on the bus, my teammate asked me what just happened. I knew he wouldn't understand so I told him it was just a fan, but I knew that this encounter would change a part of my life. Little did I know, it would start my journey to become a public speaker and the motivation behind The Cloy Concept.