“Hi, how have you been, Bird?” My brother Ted looked at my hands directly, waiting for feedback. I adjusted my voice to a higher and squeakier version of itself. “I am okay,” I responded sounding purposefully sad. “But the Momma birds are not letting me or the other Bird come out and play.” The discussion with my little brother had continued for what felt like hours. In fact, it may have been hours. On that day, for that particular story, the Birds had been in a fight, gotten in trouble, and thanks to their “parents,” the Momma Birds, they had to stay inside rather than build a snowman.
Our imaginary play had first begun using puppets after Teddy and I started watching Fred Rogers in, “Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood” (Public Broadcasting Service). At some point during each segment, the Rogers’ Neighborhood trolley would leave his house through a tunnel into a land of make-believe. At first, we began to use small puppets that our parents had bought for our amusement–our favorites were Hanzel and Gretyl. Although I was fascinated with the creativity puppets allowed, the act of moving their arms required an additional two extra fingers I didn’t have. The best I could manage during our imaginary stories was to use my sole finger on one hand to keep the puppet’s head up, and the other to move the arms where possible. It never worked well.
No, I preferred using my own appendages as the “actors” (each hand, representing a Bird, my feet representing the Momma Birds). If the Birds wanted to “fly,” Ted’s ten fingers would attach themselves to either side of my hand, and spread widely so they created the appearance of wings. In time, I figured out how we could even use other characters with my hands. Drooping either finger downward so my sole finger appeared like a trunk, I would add eyes to the outside of the hand with a pen to create the image of an elephant. To be clear, the Birds and the Elephants weren’t exactly imaginary-friend material; it’s not like I was ever alone in my room talking to them. Rather, they represented freedom and equality to me. Freedom because by using my hands during our version of pretend play, I was not limited by the design of an external puppet. Equality because the minute Ted and I ducked into our version of Rogers’ make-believe world, I no longer felt as if my difference made me “less than.” Just as I always knew deep inside I was like others, when I could rely on my self-made characters I felt as if I was just as good as anyone else.
This past weekend John and I took Ethan and his friend to see the new film, Lincoln. The history buff in me was excited to check-out for two+ hours and just experience an important piece of our history. But what I got out of the movie was much richer than any history lesson. I was simply overwhelmed by the film’s exploration of the real meaning of equality. At one point we learn that Lincoln, played impeccably by Daniel Day Lewis, had been fascinated by the Greek mathematician, Euclid, who lived nearly 2,400 years ago. He internalized one of Euclid’s basic geometrical theorems: “Things that are equal to the same thing are also equal to one another.” Simple. Irrefutable. Truth.
I went home that night and pondered the implications of that statement on my own life, and that of my children. Structurally it sounds so simple, so straightforward, so accurate. But upon further consideration, life is so much more complicated. I began to think about what it is like to be born with any type of blatant difference. How it has played out in my own life, and now for our children? For one, I definitely believe that despite my difference, I am the same as anyone else—that we are essentially equal to others, even if not identically equal to them. But I can think anything I want. The problem arises from life experience. If I allow in external judgment, often I don’t feel equal to others.
This past week a blog follower whose child was born with a limb difference sent me something that I found quite troubling. Apparently, AMC TV plans to air early next year a show called “Freakshow” (http: www.amctv.com/shows/freakshow). As described in her note to me, “It showcases several individuals born with limb differences and exploits them for the purpose of entertainment.” Understandably, she was extremely offended by the promo of the new series. She plans to boycott AMC and the show, hoping others will follow her lead. Mostly, she was concerned people watching the show will then look at her child and think, “freak.” She was just as if not more concerned that this show could lead her own child to regard herself as a freak. I checked out the site, and just as she described, AMC is planning to air “Freakshow” in February because it has “truly unique people, specimens and creatures for spectators to gather and watch.”
I support any effort to remove this show before it ever airs. But, what I think bothered me the most about seeing the AMC show promo was actually the fact that the main characters are willing to put themselves on display for this type of entertainment. To me, their professed decision to wear the “freak” title proudly is just a rationalization for a shot at celebrity, such as it is. Just looking in the camera and telling us that they feel normal doesn’t do anything to blunt the negative impact of the work “freak” or the outdated and hideous spectacle of the Freakshow entertainment concept.
Although I can fully understand how another parent of a child with any type of blatant difference could feel otherwise, I personally am not worried about my own kids seeing a show like this, and then regarding themselves as freaks. I tell all them everyday how awesome they are, how their difference will prove to be the biggest asset, their greatest advantage. It will help them “weed out the jerks,” who won’t want to know them anyway, and like a magnet draw in only the most thoughtful, wonderful people into their lives. To prove my point, I even showed the Freakshow promo just now to our son Ethan. He had the same reaction to it that I did—pity for the people who feel so poorly about themselves that they agreed to do a show that describes them with such a negative connotation.
If you are born looking different, are parenting a child who looks different, or are simply experiencing your own version of it all through an “invisible” difference, remind yourself that inside we are all the same, equal to one another. If I think back to Abraham Lincoln, although his teachings may have been derived from mathematical genius, his wisdom was still grounded in something beyond logic. Lincoln understood and appreciated the human heart, the human spirit. He knew that only we have the power to define ourselves. As he so eloquently put it, “No man is good enough to govern another man without that other’s consent.”
It is your choice.