“The mediocre teacher tells. The good teacher explains. The superior teacher demonstrates. The great teacher inspires.” William Arthur Ward
I looked around the cabin. There were sixteen girls in total, all around fourteen and fifteen years old. We had just sat outside by the lake surrounding the High School Girls Division at Interlochen National Music Camp in MI and watched the sunset. It was our first night of an eight week session. Having experienced the phenomenal talent and energy at Interlochen as a teenage camper myself, I was thrilled to have gotten a job as a counselor in the High School Division for the summer before my sophomore year in college.
Earlier in the day, as each girl arrived and said goodbye to her parents, I greeted them with a smile and a hug, “Welcome to the best summer of your life!” I would call out, sincerely. Their reactions to me and my two fingers (total) spanned the spectrum. One was completely taken aback, even visibly staring. Most others took a quick look but then carried on with pulling their trunk and other personal belongings into the cabin. Finally, several did not even flinch, stare or quite frankly, seem to notice my difference. With all the commotion going on, it is quite possible they didn’t, at least not in that moment.
“Girls,” I said loudly enough that the cabin became quiet, and for the first time we could hear the sounds of nature outside the windows. “Everyone climb in your beds. I want us to get to know one another. Let’s go around the room and I want each of you to share something about yourself that would be interesting to everyone else. I will start, to get it going.” As much as I was interested in hearing from each camper, this activity was completely pre-calculated. Here was my chance to get my physical difference out in the open. But I purposefully only wanted to take a few minutes about me and then move on. “For those of you wondering, the reason I only have one finger on each hand and one toe on each foot, is because I was born this way. No one else in my family has ever been born looking this way, so I am not sure what caused it.” Back then, I still didn’t even know the name of my condition (ectrodactyly), nor did I believe it was genetic. I was sure my mother never took the drug Thalidomide, which was used about that time to treat morning sickness but actually resulted in unexpected and severe limb deformities in newborns. Rather, as far as I knew, there was no reason for my condition, although I remember even believing at one point that perhaps my mom ate some bad fish while pregnant with me and somehow that could’ve affected my development in utero. As I continued to talk, the girls remained completely silent. “The most important thing for you to all know is that we can talk about my difference as much or as little as you want. It can be all together or one on one. Mostly, I want you to all know that it is simply a part of me, but nothing that I allow to hold myself back. I can do pretty much everything…okay, well maybe not the flute!” At that point, a burst of welcome laughter came out from the girls. I smiled, and with that we went around the room so I could hear a litany of stories—two girls that were adopted, one that was afraid of the dark, another so grateful to have gotten a scholarship to come, one whose family was moving to California at the end of the summer, and so forth.
Right before I closed my eyes that night, a huge sense of relief swarmed me. The conversation with the girls went well, as I had expected. Throughout the summer, my relationship with each girl in my cabin blossomed, and often they would even leave me anonymous notes on my bed…just because. After all, by the time a girl was a teenager, she had much more important things on her mind than the fact that her counselor was born digitally challenged!
Recently, my good friend Larry remarked, “Meg, I am almost surprised you did not become a teacher. With all your life experience, there is so much you could have done to impact kids you would have taught, just by being you!” The timing of his words was uncanny. Recently I posted a Guest Flaunt from a woman named Kristy Desilets who is a 5th grade teacher in Boston. Kristy’s “difference” is that she was born missing one of her hands. In the piece, Kristy acknowledged that “having half the fingers of the average person is different, and differences do attract attention, initially.” She went on to describe her “show and tell” strategy on the first day of school of every year. Essentially, she gives a two-minute talk about her (lack of) hand, and then opens up the floor for questions. Once questions are asked, Kristy explained, the class can move on “with no one left wondering or distracted.” Now in her fourth year in the same school system, many kids have heard about Kristy’s physical difference before even entering her classroom. In some respects, there has even been such a positive reaction that one of her student’s tells her how much she loves Kristy’s difference.
I met Kristy for the first time in Boston at the Helping Hands Foundation event in January. Right after I presented, Kristy quickly approached me and informed me she was an elementary school teacher. What she doesn’t know is that from the moment we met a pang of jealousy passed through me. To put it in perspective, teaching was in my family’s blood, at all levels. My father was a Political Science professor, my mother taught English at Bronx High School of Science and before she passed, my grandmother had taught grade school children in the Bronx. Once my older brother Peter and I even visited her school. I was fascinated how my grandmother was able to take total control of the room, with her students hanging on her every word. I also recall getting stuck in her school’s bathroom—the door too heavy for my small hands to open independently—but I digress.
As Kristy spoke to me with animation about her class and her particular desire to meet my own 5th grader, Ethan, my mind raced back to a time years before, when I myself was initially drawn to the field of teaching. But it was not meant to be. The reason? I could not fathom having to have students come up to me constantly asking me about my hands (and feet, given my tiny shoe size). And although I knew that over time the children might become comfortable, the next year would bring the same stares, the same whispers, the same questions. Although it is ironic that Kristy and I developed the same type of “two-minute” talk before discussing our difference with a group as I did back at Interlochen that summer, I was not even willing to open myself to that unless the ‘kids’ were teenagers.
Years have passed, and although I had purposefully decided to pursue a legal career, ensuring I would be surrounded by adults at least professionally, it only now strikes me how the decision to “hide” rather than “flaunt” my difference has had more ripple effects than I could have anticipated. The irony is, when I used to think about being a teacher, I imagined my classroom filled with inspiring quotes on the walls. My favorite was from A.A. Milne, when Christopher Robin says to Pooh, “Promise me you’ll always remember: You’re braver than you believe, and stronger than you seem, and smarter than you think.” I always imagined it would be plastered on the wall for my class to admire and digest as we progressed throughout the year.
Thankfully, wonderful people like Kristy have had the ability to embrace who and what they are, long before I ever was able at the same age. If we are most fortunate, strong, self-loving and confident people like Kristy become teachers, allowing our children to benefit from a life experience and insight no teacher’s manual could ever mimic. When I think about the true lessons she offers her pupils from year to year, Kristy and teachers like her need no inspiring quotes or special gimmicks on a classroom wall to motivate.
Rather, they inspire the instant they enter the classroom.