“C’mon Meg, you can try this pair on!” I was in 2nd grade and my family and I had just moved to Islamabad, Pakistan. For the first two weeks, we lived with another American family from Arizona until our own accommodations were ready. To my delight, they had two daughters, a girl my age named Kirsten and her two-year-old sister Eve. On our second night, I walked out in bare feet to find water and unexpectedly (and to my horror), I stepped in what turned out to be Eve’s puddle of pee.
Potty training for Eve had not been going well and everyone in my family would have their own encounter with her puddles before the end of that fortnight. But other than that, having Kirsten as a built-in friend was terrific. We quickly bonded, and one day while trying to escape Eve, we decided to hide in Kirsten’s mother’s walk-in closet. Inside Kirsten noticed a pair of her mom’s sparkly purple high-heeled sandals. Without hesitating she put them on, trying her best to balance. As she wobbled across the floor, Kirsten pointed to a pair of shiny black pumps. “Hey, wanna try these?”
Having to think fast on my (tiny, one-toed) feet, I pretended to laugh and instead offered my shoulder for her to lean on for balance. “Hey, let’s see what’s for dinner,” I began to walk toward the door. In fact, I couldn’t wait to get out of there. I was years away from having the maturity to express my truth: There were no factory-made shoes that fit my misshapen feet. I was reminded again of that fact in that first week at our International School. My mother had taken the position of ballet teacher and in that first class all the girls arrived wearing adorable black ballet slippers. I looked down at my brown functional shoe-boots and was overcome with sadness and anxiety.
I was fascinated. Already a fan of the sitcom, “The Facts of Life,” I was looking forward to a new episode before bed. The show was mindless, lighthearted and predictable. And, as a pre-teen, I absolutely loved it. Mrs. Garrett was always the doting housemother trying to give sage advice to anyone who would listen at Eastland, a fictitious private all-girls school. Tootie would be cute and sarcastic, Blair snotty but captivating, and Natalie, relatable and witty.
But to my surprise, this episode was different. In what was dubbed as “a very special episode,” Blair’s cousin Geri Jewell who had Cerebral Palsy appeared. Not that I had ever known or even understood the term. But it didn’t matter. Instantly, I sat up fascinated by the sight of anyone with any type of imperfection. Jewell’s speech was noticeably affected, and her muscles seemed to have involuntary spasms. But what surprised me the most was her attitude. She was both self-deprecating and hilarious. While her bodily movements were shaky, her attitude was smoothly comedic and enjoyable. Several years later in her autobiography, “Geri,” Jewell explained her approach on set. “It did help children get comfortable dealing with a person who has a disability, and taught them the value of a good sense of humor.”
That night I went to bed thinking a lot about cousin Geri on the show. By using humor, she allowed us to gain insight about what it was like to be her, making us all feel comfortable about her perceived abnormality.
I recently took a trip to Las Vegas to celebrate my older brother Peter’s birthday with family and close friends. While at the airport, the TSA agent handed me a special green card that signaled permission to keep my shoes on for the security line. In that moment, I couldn’t help but wonder if she gave me the card to make my life easier because of my physical difference or if the card assignment was truly random? Did the agent try to put herself in my shoes in that moment? Looking down at my black suede shoes with accompanying fringe, I smiled to myself; little did the agent know that in fact I was wearing our eleven-year-old daughter Savanna’s shoes after she outgrew them this summer.
While on the plane I decided to watch a TED Talk I had recently posted on the DHIFI Facebook page. Maysoon, Zayid, a comedienne from New Jersey who was born with Cerebral Palsy was sharing her life story being different. “I have CP,” she began, “which means I shake all the time. I’m like Shakira meets Mohammed Ali. I didn’t get it because my parents are first cousins, which they are.” She paused and continued. “Guess what, although you might not realize it, at some point in your life you’ve dreamt of being disabled.” And then, without missing a beat, she added, “Just think about Christmas eve at the mall….circling for parking spots and the only one you see is the disabled spot. You begin to fantasize how you could possibly have it.” While everyone laughed, I turned my attention to the audience. They were not only engaged, but at ease. Using comedy, she was able to help put her audience in her shoes.
Zayid then provided insight into how she’d been able to become successful. It certainly resonated for me. She continued. “My parents raised me in a way that didn’t involve the word can’t—that no dream was impossible. My father would always say, ‘Maysoon, you can do it—yes you can-can.’ And because of their encouragement, I even went to dancing school and tap-danced on Broadway. My parents reinforced the notion that I could do anything.” It was a message that I recognized from my own life.
Zayid’s comments remained with me throughout the weekend: As usual, strangers passed me and stared, sometimes furtively and thinking I didn’t notice. Others offered help constantly and without any indication that I needed it. Zayid’s talk reminded me that in fact, it really doesn’t matter that our differences are, uh…different. The key to managing the reactions of others is to welcome them in, and to help them understand what it is like to be us. Rather
than fearing or scorning the judgments of others over that weekend, I chose to smile when people stared or offered help, and threw out as many “if I had a thumb, it would be up”-type jokes along the way. And perhaps best of all, on my way back home when the next TSA agent once-again excused me from having to take off my shoes, I thanked her graciously and proceeded to walk through to retrieve my bags at the end of the conveyer belt. Then, a woman on the security line next to me said something aloud to me which summed it all up. “Wow! Good for you. If I could only be in your shoes! This is such a pain.”
I certainly have been traveling a lot. The prior weekend I was in Washington D.C. to speak at a couple of events and took the opportunity to spend some quality time with my parents. When my mom asked me whether I’d be interested in seeing the Red Shoes at the Kennedy Center, I practically jumped in delight. As I watched the ballerina gracefully move on the stage, I grabbed my mom’s hand and an old memory appeared. Like Zayid, my parents had raised me with a can-do attitude. Realizing how much I wanted to wear ballet slippers so I could dance with Kirsten and my other friends in her ballet class, my mom took me to a local shoemaker and had tiny custom-fitting slippers made. Putting herself in my shoes, my mom clearly knew what mattered most.