1. display (something) ostentatiously, esp. in order to provoke envy or admiration or to show defiance.
“First day of school! First day of school! Wake up! C’mon, first day of school!” Nemo had just belted out excitedly to his dad Marlin. “I don’t want to go to school. Five more minutes,” responded Marlin. Instantly, every adult in the Larchmont, NY movie theater laughed in unison.
I was sitting with my husband John next to our son Ethan, hoping he would continue to sleep so we could make it through the movie. Admittedly, even in my early thirties I loved watching certain computer-animated releases. Pressuring John to join me, I had explained to him that I heard this one was also appealing to adult humor, despite it being a movie for kids. So we brought our eleven-month-old baby for cover.
The film continued. “What’s wrong with his fin? He looks funny.” My stomach tightened as the fish “kids” noticed that Nemo was born with one fin smaller than the other. But this was a PG-13 movie, and so the protective parent, Marlin, jumped in to explain that Nemo was born like this. Pearl, another fish-kid then highlighted her own difference saying, “See this tentacle? It’s actually shorter than all my other tentacles but you can’t really tell.” And then another, named Sheldon chimed in (and then sneezes), “I’m H20-intolerant!” This time the entire audience roared with laughter.
I glanced over at Ethan, still thankfully sleeping, and couldn’t help but think about our shared physical condition. He was still a year or two away from realizing that he had only one finger on each hand like me, and a similar deformity on both feet. At some point soon thereafter he’ll start to understand how this will impact on his life experience. I stared back at the screen. “I’m obnoxious,” another fish-kid named Tad offered. As the audience laughed, I became tense. What would Ethan’s first day of school be like each year? Would Ethan learn my “trick” to ask kids about themselves, distracting them from his deformity, until they realized he was actually just another kid like them too? Or, would he be shy and introverted, easily embarrassed by others’ curiosity?
As we strolled Ethan back to our house only a few blocks away, I knew one thing was certain. As much as “Finding Nemo” exceeded my expectations for entertainment, the likelihood that Ethan would be able to depend on others to make him feel comfortable about his difference in school was practically nil.
“So, tell me kids….” John and I had just taken the kids to our favorite bridge in ‘Sconset, a quaint village on the island. “….when we get back from Nantucket you only have a couple of days before the first day of school!” Ethan, was entering a new experience as a 6th grader in middle school, and Savanna was finally joining Charlie in elementary school. Each of them looked up. “I am curious, is there anything that worries you?”
Ethan: “Mom, I am worried about getting to each of my classes on time.”
Charlie: “I am in the same school. I am not really worried about anything.”
Savanna: “Mommy, I am worried about getting homework.”
I turned to them and smiled, feeling a mixed sense of gratefulness and anxiety. On the one hand, how incredible was it that our sons, both born with my blatant difference, didn’t seem to have their physical condition on their minds as the new year approached? I rejoiced in the fact that despite being so young, they had already learned to not be consumed with their physical difference. On the other hand, I couldn’t help feeling a bit tense. The inevitable stares and questions that inevitably awaited all three—the boys for obvious reasons, and for Savanna, each time a student, (unfamiliar with our family) discovered her Mommy was born with one finger on each hand.
Someone once told me he believed that the students most likely to be bullied are those that don’t necessarily have a blatant, physical difference. When I pressed as to why, he said that, for example, any harassment towards a kid in a wheelchair would result in swift and severe repercussions. However, he also believed that the students at the greatest risk of being bullied were actually the ones with more discreet differences: The nerds, the shy kids, those who come from a foreign country……and so on.
I was recently reminded of that conversation on a couple of fronts. Just this past Wednesday, in partnership with Scholastic’s awesome “Teen Being” blog for parents and teachers of teenage students, I published a new Teen Flaunt from a teenager, Hansel Romero. Romero had been tormented for years after he moved to the U.S. from the Dominican Republic with his family. And, while still on vacation last week, I caught an article about 15-year-old Bart Palosz, a Polish-born high school sophomore who killed himself after the first day of school. Palosz’s family had moved to Greenwich, Connecticut seven years ago. According to the piece, boys had taunted Palosz because of his accent, “almost from the moment his family moved to the U.S.” According to his sister, in addition to having his new Droid cellphone smashed, for years Bart Palosz had been pushed into bushes or down stairs. According to Beata Palosz, his older sister, the bullying of her brother had been repeated, and escalated with time. During the funeral service, Beata described that “Bart loved computers and hoped to go to New York University to study technology.” A family friend in his eulogy urged the community the following: “Bart’s death can only have meaning if the bullying and indifference that led to his feelings of isolation and despair are confronted.”
However, what caught my eye the most about the report of this teenage suicide (beyond the tragedy itself), was that Bart had recently assured his family that things had improved. As parents of three children in school, our ability to manage any issues they might be encountering depends heavily on their willingness to let us know what is really going on. Ideally, if my friend is right, Ethan and Charlie would never be bullied because their difference is too blatant. On the other hand, perhaps Savanna faces more of a risk because of more subtle reasons, like having a mother with one finger or being adopted. Personally, on or off school grounds, I cannot help but still believe that any or all of them could be fair game.
Yet, I also have to acknowledge that whatever is happening with them from day to day, John and I may be in the dark. At their current impressionable ages we still get honest and straightforward answers, but that may change as they mature. My solution is to make sure each of our kids knows how to flaunt. They need to develop a high level of dignity and the personal shield that comes with that.
Although I hadn’t thought about it until now, the dictionary definition of “flaunt” is itself actually different from mine—because that definition is about showing off in order to provoke a reaction in others. Although my version of flaunting is about displaying oneself proudly, the key is to take pride in who and what you are. Most importantly, it is the ability to be yourself regardless of what others might be thinking of you. Assuming Ethan, Charlie and Savanna have established this level of self-acceptance, of flaunting my way, then we won’t have to worry about what they might not be telling us in the future.
Hopefully then, any potential intimidation or cruelty won’t penetrate, first day of school or not.