Daily Archives: 10/05/2012

The difference between CAN’T and WON’T


When I was fifteen, my high school Latin teacher taught me a valuable lesson. It was one of those “Dead Poet Society” moments in class, where the teacher gets off topic to teach you a “life lesson.” She must have been frustrated this particular morning with our negative attitudes. So she had us all stand with our arms straight out at ninety degree angles. She explained that she would be coming around to each of us to try to push our arms down. She told us to try as hard as we could to not let her and as we attempted to keep our arms straight out to repeatedly say “I can.” This first portion of the exercise took a good fifteen minutes as she found her way to all 24 of her students. Not ONE of us was able to keep our arms up.

She then explained that we would be repeating the same exact exercise but changing one small part. Instead of repeating the words “I can”, we were to confidently repeat the words “I will.” This time our dear Mrs. Spencer (“Spence,”) didn’t bring one arm in that room down. I admit that I didn’t really get that much from the exercise that year. Only that my teacher was having a “teacher moment” and wanted to teach us about determination and positive attitudes. But as I went on to college and later started a career I began to get it.  That “can” being able to do something is different than “willing” something done.  “Can” is uncertain. “Will” is definite. That there are so many who “can” but choose not to. This is why, when we stand and take vows of marriage, or confirmation, or are sworn in to a job, the response is “I will”, not “I can.”

I bring this up because since Annie was born I have learned that this lesson is much more relevant in a surprisingly unexpected way to my life with Down Syndrome. That it also applies to the negative derivatives of those words. When Annie was born, the word “won’t” seemed to be the only word in my vocabulary. So many won’t’s, so many impossibilities. Won’t’s were oozing out of my mouth with every sentence that first week. She won’t get married. She won’t go to college. She won’t be able to go to school with her siblings. She won’t talk the right way. She won’t be happy. She won’t play a musical instrument. She won’t ever drive a car. She won’t learn Italian. She won’t be easy to potty train. She won’t, she won’t, she won’t.

I realize now, that these things are “uncertain”, not “definite.” There is no way to know for certain what Annie will or won’t do. How can anyone predict the definite’s in life?

Of all those “won’t’s” I was so worried about, all but one are still uncertain. She is definitely happy, most of the time anyway. As for the rest, we will see. There is no way to know.

As far as Annie is concerned, I have completely removed “won’t” from my vocabulary. I have replaced it with “can’t.” I know this sounds super negative, but that’s what I have to do. You see, Annie has a lot that she “can’t” do RIGHT NOW that many babies her age can. She can’t walk. She can’t crawl with her belly above the ground. She can’t drink from a regular cup. She can’t be swung from her arms. She can’t run. She can’t climb stairs. She can’t stand. She can’t feed herself with a spoon. She can’t, NOT YET, anyway.

I choose to replace the “won’t’s” with “can’t’s” because my High School Latin teacher taught me that “can’t’s” are capable of being defied. They can be budged, squashed, trampled. “Won’t’s” don’t budged. And I won’t live like that.

So can she get married someday? Unknown.

Can she go to college? Don’t know.

Can she attend the same school as her future siblings? No clue.

Can she play a musical instrument or be an important member of a sports team? Uncertain.

But my guess is she will. I know now that the things I thought completely impossible are possible. Guaranteed? No. But definitely possible.

As for all of her current “can’t’s,” we’re almost there. We don’t know when, but we know the day will come when we’ll be announcing, “Look, Annie can walk now” and “Annie can feed herself with a spoon.” We know all of the things she can’t do right now, she will do someday. And we’re always ready to celebrate her “can’s.”

She already has so many!

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