by Nicole Hamilton
The three of us were friends and known athletes on campus. We were talking as we stretched for the first day of relay practice, when a stranger stepped forward to join us. Her name was Taylor. I instantly saw that this freshman was intimidated. Coach asked us to go on a quick warm-up lap and my two friends continued to joke about our coach's nerdy, velcro sneakers, as if Taylor was invisible. The girl did not even a crack a smile. So I slowed down a little to jog next to Taylor and quietly asked, "Do you think the coach needs to get rid of his sneakers?"
And just like that, she started to laugh.
I owe that moment to Gary. He is my big brother-three years my senior and nine inches taller. Yet, in many ways I am his older sister, which makes me dread driving him to our local Best Buy. Today he is buying a new copy of Madden. Gary politely asks the cashier how his day is going and waits for him to reply. The cashier barely acknowledges the courtesy and only says, "$21.98." I nonchalantly glance behind us and to my embarrassment, a line forms. The cashier and the people in line impatiently stare at my brother as he slowly pulls the money out of his wallet and lays the bills on the counter. When he double checks his counting, I hear audible sighs of exasperation from the woman next in line and the man next to her.
I really want to walk away from the register and pretend to admire the batteries hanging on the wall, while Gary finishes his business. He is oblivious to the impatience of people behind us and the annoyance in the cashier's eyes. I always stay close by to make sure that he does not get cheated or answer any questions that the cashier might have. I also do not want to embarrass him by taking over his wallet. After the ordeal of handing over the last dollar, the cashier says that Gary needs another dollar. The woman once again loudly groans. I shoot her a death stare and open up my wallet, then hand the cashier a single.
Gary can't help it. My big brother is autistic.
Gary and I attended the same school, but lived in different worlds. Gary was known for his athletic prowess, while I am known not just for my athletic talents, but for my dedication to my school work. My combination of strong student and athlete places me in a small category known as the smart jocks. As a member of this circle, I deal with both ends of the social spectrum. I spend a majority of my school day in classes with students who are academically the strongest in our school. After school, I am with my teammates at practices, tournaments, and smoothie shops. In each crowd, I hear an arrogance that I never embrace. This makes me the one to raise an eyebrow or scold a friend who easily uses words like "stupid" or "retard." As Gary's sister, I know his pain when someone directs one of these demeaning terms his way.
Having an autistic brother has also turned me into a great listener. This skill enables me to be a strong peer mentor. After 7 years of training, I have finally attained the title of senior trainer for my school's peer mentoring program, Natural Helpers. Students open up to me, even if I do not know them that well. All it takes is a quiet hallway and the welcome relief of a listening ear.
Gary's autism has helped build my own inner strength. I've had to overcome my own embarrassment and insecurities, just like in Best Buy, in order to help him. It has also taught me to see people beyond first impressions and reputations. The gift of sensitivity has allowed me to help others by offering them support and empathy. In turn, I have learned so much about my friends, family, and often complete strangers. And I have Gary to thank for that.
Nicole Hamilton is a freshman at Georgetown and a 2013 graduate of Elwood-John H. Glenn High School.