“I’ll do it. I’ll take Snowball home.” It was the first day of school, and my teacher, Mrs. Applebee at Yankee Ridge elementary in Urbana, IL had just surprised us with our class pet, a fluffy white bunny. She informed us that each weekend throughout the school year a student would be able to take Snowball home, assuming parents were on board. Lots of hands went up immediately and my single finger was raised as high as it would go, but given my shortened forearms I quickly realized that mine wasn’t visible above the crowd. A bunch of kids began to stare at me following my outburst, but I felt this was worth the attention. With all of my family’s moves, we had never been able to have a pet and I wanted this bunny badly.
I straightened up my body and right shoulder to stretch as high as I could above my peers, but that just prompted them to do the same, and to call out for the teacher’s attention. Fortunately for me, Mrs. Applebee seemed to have X-ray vision and saw me through the throng. Suddenly, I heard my name.
“Meg, why don’t you take Snowball home first? I’ll call your mom during recess to make sure it’s okay.” It was the first happy moment for me. She was well aware that the day had been a bit rough for me, and it was only 10:00 am. Although I was born in Urbana, we had just moved back from Islamabad, Pakistan. In fact, by the 3rd grade my family and I had already lived in four countries in the Middle East and South Asia and unbeknownst to me, we would move away again in the next few years to Cairo, Egypt for my Junior High. Some of my friends had remembered me but given we were so young most had forgotten who I was. Under normal circumstances, being the new kid in school can be difficult. But for me, the return was jarring. Once again, I encountered kids pointing at my hands in the hallway, while others were heard saying loudly, “Did you see that girl? She only has one finger!”
When I entered Mrs. Applebee’s room first thing in the morning, she was outside of our class speaking to the Principal. She introduced herself with a warm smile, and said to me, “Welcome to our class. I’ll be inside in a second. Feel free to grab any desk not taken.” I entered and looked around. Although autumn was approaching, the temperature would climb into the ‘90’s so I was wearing a tank top and shorts. Back at the International School in Islamabad, the kids had grown quite used to my physical difference so I had forgotten when I picked out my outfit that my bare arms would invite curiosity.
I began to unpack my lunch, Hello Kitty pencils and erasers out of my backpack onto my wooden desk. Within a few seconds, a boy walked right up to me and said loudly, “Hey. You only have one finger,” as if he was enlightening me with new news. Other kids came over to see, and before I knew it, most of the class had surrounded me. For some reason, it always seemed that upon meeting me, people felt they could blurt out whatever was on their mind, no matter how it might make me feel.
On our last day of vacation on Maui, Savanna and I were looking around in the Shops at Wailea, browsing in boxes that read, “End of Summer Sale.” All of a sudden, while discussing sizes, we were interrupted by a sales clerk. “Do you always have to wear those shoes? Can you ever wear sandals or flip-flops? Don’t get me wrong. Your boots are really cute….really. Especially given your disability. Where did you get them?” Since my childhood, I have always found it fascinating how many people are easily and even eagerly willing to approach me to discuss my difference. It is as if being visibly different means that everyone that meets you feels like they have an open door to discuss it. Always protective, Savanna blurted back a response. “She got them for being on TV!” In fact, the black boots were a gift from producers of a show I had done a couple of years ago called, “My Extraordinary Family.” While filming, the producers had wanted for me to purchase pretty sandals to go with a dress for the storyline. Just like then, I had to explain to the clerk there was simply no point to trying to find sandals that fit me.
When I was little, I used to resent all the attention about being different. I yearned to blend in. However, that desire was not realistic. I have thankfully learned that each unexpected outburst provides an opportunity for a teaching moment about what it is like to be….well… me. And in fact, my difference is simply my own version of normal. From this experience I developed our “Kids Flaunt Essay Contest” with Scholastic, Inc.
Inspired by the DHIFI theme, “The things that make me different make me, me” and now in its 3rd year, the Kids Flaunt Contest is aimed at empowering kids that feel different to share their stories while inviting their peers to also recognize what makes them unique. In short, kids learn the value of being empathetic toward one another. The Kids Flaunt Contest is now nationally available to 4th graders in all public and private schools. The timeline for submissions to the contest is September 15, 2017 through November 3, 2017 and the wonderful prizes for winners and finalists are donated by the National Football League and Creativity for Kids. Over the years we have received thousands of essay from kids about their visible and/or invisible differences. Examples have included being short, wearing glasses, having red hair or a birthmark. Others have written about having anxiety, being dyslexic, having allergies or being adopted. Our Kid Flaunters are proud of their writings and share them with their classroom, family and friends. The contest provides teachers an opportunity to prompt important discussions with their students that they might otherwise not know how to introduce. Our 2015 winner was a girl from California named Callia who wrote about her brother, Tim, who has autism. Our 2016 winner was a boy, Rayyan, from Illinois who was being bullied because of his Muslim religion. By participating in the Kids Flaunt Contest and sharing their essays, students learn that being different is actually the very thing that unites us all.
Drawing upon my own life experience, I can’t help but think how much my peers and I would have benefited from such a contest in our own elementary school. While I could never stop the uninvited questions, having the opportunity to share my story and even celebrate difference would have been an invaluable gift. At the same time, hearing from my classmates about their differences would have helped all of us understand that I was not alone.
That in fact, we all are different in our own way.
In the end, although I brought Snowball home, it turned out that taking care of a large white rabbit was more responsibility than I had entertained. I grew alarmingly concerned that he had not been eating enough since coming home with me after school. The thought that Snowball might die from hunger on my watch was simply too much to bear. I pleaded with my parents to call Mrs. Applebee to come pick him up. When she arrived with her husband late that night, I handed over Snowball in his wire cage, in tears. “I’m so sorry, Mrs. Applebee. I thought I could handle this….” The woman who would turn out to be not only one of my favorite lifetime teachers but eventually Principal of our school, put down the cage and gave me a big hug. “Oh Meg, there’s nothing to be sad about. It happens all the time, with almost all my students.” And then with a warm smile she paused and turned back. “You’re no different than anyone else.”