Breaking the Mold

April 1973

“I do it myselfie!”  I was barely four years old, but my strong desire to be independent was as much a part of me, as my ectrodactyly, the condition that left me with a single digit on each hand and on each foot.  I had been on the playground at “Kiddie Country” in Urbana, Illinois.  My outburst was in response to my friend Jamie who had tried to help me on the monkey bars.  As for any young child, life was so simple back then.  The big news of the week was that Jamie had just stepped in fresh dog poop on the playground, and my other friend Maia had stepped on a thumbtack the prior day.

At Kiddie Country, all of us were buzzing with excitement; we were putting on a Spring play for our parents.  I was to play a donkey.  It was to be my first public performance, and I was playing the role of an ass.  No matter, I was tickled at the thought of being on stage, and my friend Maia was assigned the same animal.  With no budget for costumes, I had already planned my outfit: my favorite red dress, and grey paper machete long ears I had made at school the prior week with a matching tail.  My role was uncomplicated: I was to move around on my hands and knees across the stage and bray.  At that age, my greatest concern was not whether anyone would notice and subsequently stare at my fingers and shortened forearms.  Rather, as I made my way across the floor, I worried my underwear would show.

As we gathered backstage watching our families file in, my teacher took (only me) aside.  “Meggie, you may not be able to put pressure on your hands for the extended period of the play.  Don’t worry, you can always stand up if you need to.”  Her comments left me confused.  Why would she assume I couldn’t fulfill the physical obligations of my role like Maia?  I looked down at my fingers, and for the first time realized that despite my desire to be fiercely independent, the way I regarded my capabilities and what the rest of the world perceived did not match.

February 2012

It was only 3:00 PM but it had already been a long day at work, and I was looking forward to that favorite second cup of coffee.  But before I could dash to the office pantry, my phone rang.  It was the nurse at Ethan and Charlie’s grade school.  “Hi Meg, don’t worry, everything is fine.”  This was the line teachers and other faculty members always provided so when an unexpected call came, you could breathe a sigh of relief.  Savanna was not yet in grammar school, so I breathed my sigh, and wondered which of my two boys we would be discussing.   “Hi.  What’s up?”  The nurse responded gently, “It’s Charlie.  He had an incident on the playground that I wanted you to know about.”  My stomach tensed, recalling the memory of Ethan bullied on the playground at the same age in 1st grade at the same school. Bracing myself, I asked, “What happened?”   “Apparently, one of Charlie’s close friends told him he couldn’t do the monkey bars because of his hands and he got very upset.  After I gave him a drink, Charlie told me he was particularly sad because this happened to be his ‘best friend’ and he couldn’t believe even his best friend would tell him he couldn’t do things.”  She continued, “Even after they returned to class, Charlie continued to cry hysterically, so his teacher brought him to me to calm down.” She waited for me to respond, not knowing the direction the conversation would take.  But then the nurse quickly added, “Oh, one more thing.  Charlie’s friend felt so badly that they both ended up crying.  Just so you know, we have already contacted the boy’s mother too.” “Thank you so much for letting me know,” I replied warmly, making a mental note to make sure to call the other mother later.  “At the end of the day, Charlie is going to learn that just because someone has an opinion about you, it doesn’t necessarily make it true and more importantly, it shouldn’t matter.”  My mind drifted to my favorite saying, “What you think of me is none of my business” from my dear friend Judy who had passed a couple of years ago.  We got off the phone, and I reflected on the conversation and Charlie’s ironic outburst.  Last I checked, unlike his younger sister Savanna, Charlie had not yet tried to swing on the monkey bars, but I knew that wasn’t the point.

Later that evening, in the privacy of Charlie’s room, we discussed the day’s events.  “Charlie honey, if someone, even a friend, thinks you can’t do something, either prove them wrong, or show them something you can do really well, so they focus on your other talents.”  Charlie had the earned reputation of having the neatest handwriting in the 1st grade.  I was already prepared to add to the list if he needed examples to use in the future.  Instead of responding with a smile, he instead dove into one heck of a pity-party, crying uncontrollably.  We spoke for a long time, until he fell asleep.

As I left to find John, I reflected that we had more work to do with Charlie on the subject.  I also realized that while my six-year-old may look like me, he wasn’t me.  I had spent much of my childhood trying to prove to everyone else I was capable of anything I put my mind to doing—that was my natural disposition.  Charlie tended to be more sensitive, and with all my insights, I still needed the reality check that every child is different, and my own son deserved for me to understand that my own approach to resolving similar challenges might not necessarily work perfectly for him.  At least at this age, I could be there to help Charlie explore how best to navigate through these types of experiences in a way suited best for him.  Most importantly, I was committed to helping him embrace and ultimately embody Judy’s powerful message.  He might not travel my identical road to get there, but the goal needed to be the same.

That evening, I called Charlie’s friend’s mom.  As soon as she picked up, she began to apologize profusely, telling me that her son was still extremely upset at the thought of hurting Charlie’s feelings, and asked what she could do to make him feel better.   I quickly let her know that Charlie was fine, and this type of experience was simply something he would need to work through since it would not be his last.  I could practically hear her relax over the phone.  Before we got off, I did offer one nugget.  “You asked me if there was anything you could do.  If you are willing, perhaps tell your son that the next time he sees someone that looks different, rather than making assumptions about his or her capabilities, simply take a breath and wait and see.”  She thanked me for the thoughts, and we got off the phone in good spirits.  After all, just because the “just take a breath” message I’ve been trying to convey in my recent writings has been aimed at adults, doesn’t mean it can’t work for kids, too.  I think it’s worth a try.

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