“Help! Can anyone hear me?” I shouted out as loudly as my seven-year-old body could possibly scream. While our younger brother Teddy stayed with my parents in Manhattan, Peter and I had joined our grandmother, Ruth, to spend the day at PS 18 in the Bronx with her third grade class. We had been hearing of Ruth’s teaching adventures ever since either of us could remember.
Most summers, our family would make the trip from Illinois to New York City to visit our relatives. Spending time with our maternal grandparents was a top priority for all of us. We arrived in the East while Ruth’s school was still in session and this was the year she felt we were finally old enough to visit her at work. Peter and I were not even ten yet and we were excited to have a New York adventure. Our grandfather would drive us to a bus stop where we’d catch the bus from Yonkers down to the near the grade school. It was all a thrilling adventure.
And mostly, the day had lived up to expectations. From the instant we entered the class, I had forgotten to hide my one-fingered hands, my shame. Clearly Ruth had proudly spoken about us at length throughout the school year and her students looked at us as if we were practically royalty….or, at least, that was how it felt. Only, after lunch I realized I had to go to the bathroom so badly I simply couldn’t hold it in any longer. Whispering to my grandmother the issue, she walked with me to the hallway, pointing to the girls’ bathroom a few doors down from her classroom.
However, the simple trip to the toilet became its own adventure. After washing my hands, I attempted to grab the door-knob to leave, but the door was heavy and seemingly jammed. As I twisted and turned the knob, with each finger firmly affixed on either side, I realized I couldn’t open the door. I was stuck and with no other option, began to scream for help.
“Grandma, remember when the doorknob was jammed at your school when we were kids and Peter ran to the bathroom to my rescue?” It was a hot summer weekend and like many, John and I had driven with our toddler, Ethan, from our house in Larchmont, NY to meet my grandparents. Even after all these years, they had stayed in their same one-bedroom apartment in Yonkers, a short five-minute ride to nearby Bronxville’s ice-cream parlor and playground that Ethan loved the most.. “Meg, that isn’t what happened. You had trouble opening the door.” Now eighty-three, she turned to me with a soft expression. “It may have been hard for you to open….” As Ethan dashed across the playground, I decided to change the subject. I recalled that my grandmother had been excited to have reconnected over the phone with one of her favorite students from the seventies, Danny, so I asked her when she was planning to meet him. As she responded with enthusiasm, my mind drifted. I was positive that all those years ago it wasn’t me; the doorknob simply was jammed.
“Never fear Mom! Great blog material is here.” Since September when Ethan started middle school we have been anxiously awaiting his “Intro to Keyboard” unit in music class. Ethan was always the light-hearted one-fingered sixth grader. Yet, however he was managing on the outside, I suspect he was also coping with the unknown. When the unit started last month and they learned basic notes, Ethan enjoyed the theory behind the composition enough, and soon learned with relief that he could plunk away using each of his two fingers at once.
However, as the weeks went by, the reports would get rougher. “Mom, today we were all told we couldn’t use our left hand at all.” The result was other students relied on multiple other fingers from their right hand, and Ethan would adjust with only one in a limited adaptation. Other days I would call home from work and hear brief updates about the approach the teacher would have for the class. “Pinky! Ring!” According to Ethan, his teacher would call out different finger-types, some representing different notes for the class to memorize. Sometimes they were called out purposefully so the class knew which finger (er, note) to use or not for a particular song. When I asked Ethan more generally about his teacher and then what he did in that context, he was quite matter-of-fact. “My teacher is really nice, and I kind of just stuck out my same finger anytime he called anything out.”
The following morning after that last conversation, I dropped Ethan at school on the way to work, and couldn’t help but wonder what might possibly be going on in the music teacher’s mind. Given my suspicion that Ethan was his first one-fingered student keyboard player, I presume this too was unchartered territory for him and he was doing his best to adapt to the circumstances. I checked in with Ethan to ask if he was nervous about the exam approaching the following week. His positive attitude was contagious: “Mom, I actually have it easier than you might think. With only two fingers, I actually have fewer notes to memorize than everyone else.”
This past Monday was the day of his keyboard test and of course I wanted a full report. “E, what happened?” Ethan explained that although he thought he did his best, he only got a 45 out of 48 while most of the kids received a near perfect score. And then admittedly, I fumed a bit inside. “What the heck?” I thought I said to myself but then John looked up. To me, Ethan did his best, couldn’t his teacher see that? I mean for goodness sake, the kid only has one finger and he pulled off playing an entire song on the keyboard! Regardless of how he sounded that day, it must have been at least worth a comparable grade to his peers, given his circumstances, right?
Later that evening, I read an article by a woman named Elizabeth Power that kept me in check. According to Power, “It seems as if parents of children with physical differences and disabilities raise their children in one of two ways: Expecting the child to adapt to the world or the world to adapt to the child. Power (herself born with a congenital condition) offered further insight by describing how Temple Grandin (the woman with autism acclaimed as one of Time Magazine’s ‘100 Most Influential People in the World’) was raised in a family who said, ‘you can’ instead of ‘you can’t.’ She added, “Expecting the world to adapt to the disabled child fosters pity and entitlement by placing the disability in the center of the child’s life at the expense of learning how to live in the world everyone else lives in.”
The timing of Powers’ piece couldn’t have been better for me to read this week. How easy it is, even for me, to gravitate to a place where I feel like our kids deserve special treatment. After all, no one really ever gets where we are coming from, even when we are in the same room; even when we are listening to the same music, so to speak. But in the long run, being treated in any special way never works in our favor. Powers is spot on–it not only breeds unwanted pity and resentment, but it creates a feeling of entitlement of success and reward in our children no matter what, simply by trying. I don’t want to raise any of our three children with such a sense of entitlement.
Now with my marbles back in place I listened to Ethan tell about his day in gym class when they had to run 6 laps around the track but he only got through 5 ½ within the allotted time. His grade was lower than he had hoped. Rather than seething inside this time, however, I congratulated him simply on his achievement. I got him to realize that although he was third from last, that was an accomplishment in itself and that although others watching him run that day might have described him as slow, I wanted him to understand that at least for our expectations of him, he had done wonderfully. I don’t need for the teacher to grade him leniently—he needs only to be inspired to try hard.