I was in the last few months of my 1st grade school year at Yankee Ridge Elementary in Urbana, Illinois. It wasn’t an ordinary Spring, however, because all the teachers were mainly focused on the Bicentennial celebration. This was ‘huge,’ according to my teacher, Mrs. Amdor. The ceremonies and festivities would continue on into the summer, culminating in a community-wide celebration. Although I participated in all the activities, that didn’t mean I actually understood what any of it really meant.
All I knew was that the 1st grade class was asked to create a red, white and blue paper mache’ horse. We had heard that the local paper, the News Gazette, was coming to Yankee Ridge to cover our patriotic efforts. One afternoon when it was time to go to recess after putting the finishing touches on our horse, my close friend Jen and I decided to stay back in the classroom and help Mrs. Amdor clean up. It was in that moment that the journalist from the Gazette arrived for the photo. “Sorry, but I’m in a bit of a rush,” he said before he had barely entered our classroom. “Can’t you just wait for fifteen minutes until the rest of the students return?” My teacher tried her best but instead, the journalist pointed in our direction, “How about these two girls?”
When the article was published in the paper the following day, each class got a copy of the article featuring us and the paper mache’ horse. Suddenly, Jen and I were the subject of new attention. On the playground, a bunch of kids from other classes took notice of my deformed hands for the first time. “Hey, why do you only have one finger?” Hearing the exchange, Jen instinctively beckoned for me to come. Although I began to follow, I felt the question deserved an answer, and turned back for a moment. “Silly! I was born this way!” The answer was straightforward and simple because it was the only one I had.
I rushed into Ethan’s music class where he sat with our nanny. As a working parent, it was hard for me to join him during the day for extra-curricular activities. However, I had left work early to join the last class for the season. “You’re just in time. We are about to begin.” The music teacher beckoned me over to join the rest of the parents, nannies and siblings. And with that, the nursery music class began to play jingle bells on drums, harmonicas and triangles. As I watched our son Ethan front and center, happily playing a rainbow-colored xylophone and smiling up at me from time to time, all I could feel was joy that I had made it on time. The class ended its holiday ‘concert’ with the Rudolph song and I began to get up and walk toward our 4 ½ year old. Before I could reach him, I noted another little girl, presumably the sibling of one of the students, rush right over to Ethan. I just knew what was coming. “Hey, why do you only have one finger?” I beckoned Ethan to come to me, but I saw him hesitate. I could tell that he felt the question deserved an answer. “Oh, I was born this way.”
The other night, Savanna and I were spending time together while John, Ethan and Charlie were out. We finished reading various versions of the children’s book series, Pinkalicious and I pulled out my iPad to watch YouTube videos of the Muppets with our seven-year-old. After watching Beeker’s rendition of “Ode to Joy,” (a family favorite), we noticed an online advertisement for a new Muppets Holiday Spectacular airing in the U.S. on Thanksgiving night. The ad included a picture of Kermit the Frog and Lady Gaga. “Mommy, doesn’t she sing, “Born This Way?” I replied, “I love that song, but have never seen the video. Let’s find it.” A search produced a link but instead of getting the Gaga video I got one of Rion Paige, the contestant on ‘X-Factor’ singing the same song on the show. Rion is mostly blind in her right eye and also was born with a rare condition called arthrogyrposis multiplex congenital, causing abnormal muscle development. For Rion, the condition translated into a lack of movement in her wrists and hands.
When I first saw 13-year-old Rion perform Carrie Underwood’s “Blown Away” a couple of months ago, I was taken with her warm, positive nature, beauty and natural talent. It was also clear that not only were the judges appreciative of her musical gifts, they were also instantly ‘blown away’ at the sight of the physically imperfect yet confident girl standing in front of them.
Pointing to the picture of Rion, Savanna practically shouted out, “Mommy, let’s play that one!” We watched Rion wow the audience with a passionate rendition of “Born This Way.” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BXLPZQ1w79E. Even as she was nailing the performance, I found myself intrigued with the simplicity of her outfit. A pretty grey sleeveless shirt, (clearly flaunting her small hands), a pair of jeans and boots. Rion’s take on the song was to strip it down, revealing it more as a slower ballad. She clearly knew what she wanted to convey.
Out of curiosity, I decided to check out what Lady Gaga herself wore in her video of the same song. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wV1FrqwZyKw. The contrast was huge. In Gaga’s elaborate video she wore a shimmery bra and panties and danced erotically. The video then also flashed back and forth to images of Gaga as fantastical characters – an out of this world ice queen, a female skeleton, and so on.
I returned to the Rion video and saw that all four judges were mesmerized as she slowly, and with passionate precision, belted out the song’s lyrics. It was a powerful and authentic performance, in no need of extra glam. At that moment I guessed, “I bet I know what Rion was thinking.”
From the moment Lady Gaga’s song was released in 2011, it was embraced in some respects as a relatable national anthem. That makes sense, given its message can appeal to most anyone, blatant difference or not. However, for anyone that walks this earth looking as different as my sons and I do, “Born This Way” is not simply a song with lyrics we connect with. They are words we have been using all our lives. I suspect, as Rion Paige stood up on the stage in front of millions, she was thinking the same thing.