“I know I was going to refer to them as Daniel, David and Rose, but I think I need to use their actual names. I need to keep it real.” My husband John looked up at me, perplexed. “Really? Are you sure you want to be so public about our lives?” The prior month Ethan had been taunted on the playground as he entered 1st grade. As difficult as the experience was for him, it was excruciating for me, his mother. I was not just hurt, I was desperate to feel like I was well…..doing something.
I felt at that moment a powerful need to write about our life experience —the stares, the comments, the not so unexpected outbursts. I became convinced that for the sake of our family, I needed to share. If I could provide insight about what it was like to have my children walk into a room and be treated like a freak, then it would be worth the risk.
“Okay, they’re all yours Meg.” I turned back and smiled. All four of the first grade teachers had prepared a unit on “Differences” and Savanna’s 1st grade teacher and I had agreed that it might be a wonderful opportunity for the approximately eighty students, six and seven year olds to hear me speak. My presentation included a slideshow, as well as a children’s story written by Ethan about his own experience being bullied by older kids in 1st grade, and illustrated by Charlie, our third-grader who joined us that morning.
Before I began, I noted Charlie, who shares my condition, sitting with his hands in his pockets, smiling yet clearly self-conscious around all of the children he had never met. I then looked over at Savanna, who looked at me with pride. It is near impossible to describe how a child so young can give a woman in her forties strength, but with her one glance of warmth and support, I felt ready. Feeling all one-hundred and sixty eyes staring, I raised my one finger high in the air so all could see. “Good morning everyone! I am so thrilled to be here today. Raise your hand if you can tell me how you look or feel different than your friend next to you!” Instantly, to my delight, eighty hands shot up.
“If you think about it, when you have someone that looks as different as I do, who needs power point slides?” I grinned and continued. Throughout my discussion, my method was to purposefully push myself to make sure my hands were always showing, making small jokes throughout my speech, helping everyone (including me), to feel comfortable. At one point I glanced back at Charlie, happily noting his hands were now resting on his legs, outside of his pockets, and they stayed there for the rest of the period.
Later that afternoon, when I returned to school for pick-up, the children filed out of the building, saw me and greeted me so warmly. “Hi Mrs. Zucker…..Hello Mrs. Zucker…..Mrs. Zucker….Hi!” Tickled, I raised my hand once again, smiled back and waived.
“What book should we read to them?” As the kids, John and I were doing the mad before-school breakfast routine, it occurred to me that Savanna had yet to choose a book for us to read to her class for her birthday. “How about ‘Rude Giants’ Mommy?” Our plan with the teacher was to read first thing in the morning after drop-off. As John and I walked up the steps to her school, I could feel myself mentally preparing in a way that reminded me of the days I used to sing on stage as a teenager. “Hello everyone!” I purposefully smiled and waved with my one finger. “Now before we begin, does anyone know what Zucker means?” Only Savanna raised her hand. I continued. “Yes, she is right, it means sugar… and because the school doesn’t allow us to bring in sweets for birthday celebrations, let’s hope having us here will be sweet enough for all of you!” The students smiled, and I began reading with John about Gerta the cow, Beatrix the Buttermaid and some very rude giants.
After the story was over and the class thanked us for coming, it occurred to me how incredible it was to have an entire class of seven and eight year olds enjoy having a one-fingered mother read to them without anyone even batting an eye. Of course, I was careful to approach the event with confidence and set the right tone. But it did not escape me that the real reason all the kids felt so comfortable with me was because I had proactively spoken with the entire grade about celebrating difference the prior year.
A few days later, a friend of mine shared an article, “He’s Not Scary, He’s a Little Boy,” written by Alice Meyer, a mother of three boys from San Antonio, Texas. In it, Meyer described her toddler, Jameson, who had been made fun of and singled out due to his being born with a craniofacial difference. As a mother of a child who looks different, she offered a plea: “If you are the parent whose child says another child looks funny, tell your child, “I’m sure he’s a very nice boy. Let’s go meet him.” Meyer’s plea immediately reminded me of my own article, “It’s Okay to Stare” (not my chosen title), in Parents (December 2011). Meyer described how little children would approach her with Jameson, blurting out things like, “He looks scary,” just as his or her parent whisked the child away in embarrassment. Meyer’s piece was heartfelt, straightforward and candid, especially as she revealed that while she doesn’t hold anything against these children, or their parents, she simply can’t help but feel hurt.
Although I imagine it must be counter-intuitive for most parents to share their innermost concerns about their children, what resonated with me about Meyer’s piece was that she realized by pouring her heart out and sharing Jameson’s story so candidly, the magnitude of its impact was enormous. In fact, the piece was shared by thousands, with approximately 500 comments from around the globe within days. In my opinion, one particular comment summed it up:
“Thank you for this truly moving article. I do not have your son’s disorder, although I have been bullied and picked at my whole life merely because I am different. Truth is, everybody is different. But different does not mean bad, or less of something. It only means DIFFERENT. I feel sorry for what your family (and your son) is experiencing because of intolerant people, but I think you did the right thing by sharing your story. Hopefully it helps those people to become open-minded towards difference and act differently in the future. And if not, well… you will grow from it, just like I have. Thanks again.”
Purposefully sharing our personal life experience has been more than worthwhile. Most importantly, it has shifted the conversation from privately exchanged feelings of hurt to open communications, learning and development. To me, that is more than worth any risk.