“Er, sure I love to skate. I guess I just don’t feel like doing it now. I’m just gonna watch. Maybe I’ll join in later.” I had just been dropped off at a roller rink in nearby Savoy, IL, only about 15 minutes from my home in Urbana. My friend Maia was having a birthday party and, as all the other eleven-year-old girls rushed to find their rental skate size, Maia’s Mom had noticed I remained near the entrance.
Minutes earlier I had waived my single right finger and stared at a partial view of the back of my Dad’s head as he drove away in our old Chevy station wagon leaving the Skateland parking lot. Then, all of a sudden, the car stopped and he cranked down his window. Had he realized I’d never skated before? Did he worry whether the roller skates could even fit my oddly-shaped one-toed feet? If so, he hadn’t even mentioned it before—perhaps it just occurred to him. “Meg, you forgot Maia’s present in the back seat. Grab it.”
As Maia and my other friends rolled around in circles to Rapper’s Delight, I felt a range of emotions: jealousy, that my physical difference precluded me from easily doing everything my friends could do without hesitation;. frustration, that I was too embarrassed to admit I hadn’t ever skated; and fear, that even if I found the courage to try there would be no skates that would fit my tiny feet.
So I sat on the bench with a feigned interest in the party, but feeling miserable.
Recently I had the honor and privilege of teaching a “Kids Flaunt” essay writing workshop to elementary-age students in San Francisco. The workshop was sponsored by a non-profit organization called 826 Valencia that is dedicated to literacy and helping students improve their writing skills. I had arrived in the city early that weekend and was excited to teach the workshop on Sunday morning. My husband, John, and I spent that Saturday touring and exploring nearby downtown Berkeley while I contemplated the topics I wanted to explore with the kids. It was then that we had a chance encounter with a woman in her early twenties standing on a street corner who had a sign that read, “Honesty Project. ” Intrigued, we waited silently as she described the goal of her project. “I’m here to offer something totally honest about myself…..something you wouldn’t know about me.” But after hearing her surface-level response, unexpectedly, I found another inspiration for my planned Sunday workshop.
The following day at 826 Valencia, parents dropped off their kids and I organized the group of students around a large table together facing one another. I began, “Hi, my name is Meg Zucker and today’s writing program is going to be much different than anything you’ve ever experienced since I am different than anyone you’ll likely ever experience!” In that moment, I purposefully stuck my one-fingered hands on the table for each child to observe. I encouraged each of them to “fire-away” with any question they had about my appearance and how I managed day-to-day life. Knowing that young kids are never shy to ask things that teens or adults might view as inappropriate, I wasn’t surprised when the questions followed. “How do you write?” and “How do you drive?” and “How do you get dressed with only one finger?” The questions continued for almost fifteen minutes until, after a momentary pause, I decided to ask each of them a question instead. “So, what makes any of you different?” As expected, the students looked at one another and offered a simultaneous shrug.
“Has anybody ever heard of something called an “Honesty Project?” In that instant, perhaps for the first time since our lesson had begun, they stared with confusion at my face, instead of at my hands. I proceeded to describe the woman we had briefly met at Berkeley, the sign she was holding and what she decided to share with me and John. One girl leaned in still not satisfied, “So, I don’t get it…..what did she tell you?” I answered, happy that my point was about to be made, since it would be applied to our Kids Flaunt workshop. “Actually, she didn’t have much to say. She shared that sometimes she gets embarrassed and even ashamed about ‘something’ which makes her throat and upper chest becoming a bit blotchy and crimson red.” They looked at me blankly, still waiting to hear more but there wasn’t more. I continued. “You know what? It wasn’t really much of an ‘Honesty Project’ to me, since she didn’t seem to have the courage to tell us much of anything about herself….at least nothing that really mattered to her.”
I then asked the kids again, “Are any of you different? Now try to be honest…you may not think you have differences that are visible, but you might be surprised. And of course, there are other differences that we can’t see too. Those are the things you have to be willing to share with us, that might not be obvious like my two fingers.” Although they all shook their heads in the negative, I wasn’t finished. “Ok, please raise your hand if you’re shy.” Three hands went up. “Okay, now please raise your hands if you wear glasses.” Two hands shot up. “Now, please raise your hand if you were born in a different country.” One hand went up. “Is anyone a single child?” Two hands. “Who has an accent?” One hand. We then proceeded to discuss other invisible differences, like having a different religion, accent, or even a family member who might have an invisible difference. Next I proceeded to read them the Scholastic Kids Flaunt essay contest winner from last fall, written by 9-year-old Callia Kanaaneh about her brother, Tim, who has autism.
After hearing me read Callia’s piece, the kids started to get going, newly expressing a willingness to be…..well, honest. “My teeth are really bad,” exclaimed one of the shy girls out of the blue, as she opened her mouth for all of us to see her crooked set. “Oh, yeah” said one boy. “People think I am shy, but I actually stutter so I keep quiet.” In that moment I couldn’t help smiling as the exchange reminded me of a scene from the movie Finding Nemo. At one point, Nemo the clownfish is explaining that he’s not ashamed of his ‘little fin’ calling it his “lucky” fin, which prompts the other young fish to respond honestly and supportively with their own differences. Hearing each of the 826 Valencia students readily fess up with their own differences made me want to recite my favorite line from that part of the film when ‘Tad’ the fish blurted out, “Oh yeah, well I’m obnoxious!”
Then, after a slight pause, another girl named Vienne, jumped in quietly, bracing herself. “I have eczema, and I never tell anyone about that…” Then the boy with the self-proclaimed stutter jumped in. “Hey, I have eczema too, it’s not that big of a deal, at least compared to stuttering.” Immediately, her entire body seemed to relax, realizing that by finding the courage to reveal what made her, her, she was immediately rewarded. The two students started to talk freely about their common experience with eczema, in front of all of us.
I decided it was finally time to repeat my question. “Okay, let me ask you again. Are any of you different?” To my delight, all hands shot in the air. I then handed out sheets of paper with the image of a peacock, the DHIFI logo, where students could fill in each feather with any blatant or invisible difference they had shared with the group. The kids spent the last hour of the workshop writing their own Kids Flaunt essays, choosing the one topic about themselves that they thought they could best use to help other kids feel better about themselves. I watched pleased as Vienne, wrote her essay about her eczema, and the boy near her decided to write about how he manages with his stutter.
By the end of the workshop, I felt a sense of great satisfaction and only wished the woman conducting her Honesty Project at Berkeley had been present to learn from these wonderful kids and perhaps even be inspired because of our discussion.
Now back on the East Coast and reflecting on my own life experience, I realize how much my younger-self could have thrived from a workshop like the one I held in San Francisco. In just one afternoon, the 826 Valencia students showed a willingness and even an eagerness to share private thoughts and fears, with the honest truth as their guide.
After a while, Maia had noticed I was sitting by myself. “Hey. Are you sure you don’t want to come out there with us? I really want you to come”…..then staring at my face, she read my mind. “And even if you don’t know how to skate, we are all falling on our butts out there anyway!” Feeling swayed by her encouragement, I decided to come clean. “I’ve actually never skated and I’m not even sure any of the skates even fit.” At that, Maia grabbed my sole finger in her hand and together we went to the rental window where I happily discovered that their smallest size resembled my own little shoe-boots. Out on the rink that day I may have been mainly holding the wall and constantly falling down, but it became merely the first of many moments of skating with my friends during my childhood and teenage years that followed. My willingness to face my fears and be truly honest about myself had clearly paid off.