“I don’t think you should try that. You don’t have ten fingers!” I was nine, standing next to my older brother Peter at Orchard Downs. Peter was older by fifteen months. Nearby, at the bottom of the hill stood our parents, with our younger brother Teddy between them. They waved for us to come down on our sleds. Located about one mile away from the University of Illinois campus and only blocks away from our house, the hill at Orchard Downs was a rarity given the flat landscape of Central Illinois.
The comment came from a boy who appeared to be around my age. I had noticed him staring at my one-fingered hands as I approached the top; they were particularly freezing that snowy cold winter day. Although my parents tried their best to find mittens that would fit me, invariably they’d fall off, leaving my hands bitterly cold and exposed. And so, by the time I arrived at the entrance of Orchard Downs, each mitten had been stuffed into my coat pockets.
I looked up at the boy and felt a shiver down my spine that had nothing to do with the temperature. I replied, “I know how to hold a sled tight just like you.” He flashed a look that easily read, “I doubt that……”. Although it wasn’t really worth my time, I wanted desperately to explain how sledding was in fact easy for me. As always, the key was for me to be creative in my approach. The prior winter had been my first time at Orchard Downs sledding and I quickly realized that I needed to wrap the rope at the front of the sled around at least one of my fingers to secure my ride, while guiding myself with the other.
But before I could say anything further, Peter intervened. “Hey, we sled here all the time. My sister can do it too.” Although he didn’t say it aloud, his own stare was an effective, “Back off of my sister.” In that moment Peter beckoned me to follow him to another area a few feet away to position our sleds for a run.
I rode down and approached my parents with Peter’s slide going slightly faster than my own. I felt frustrated. Why did everyone around me jump to assume I was incapable of doing things and enjoying myself just because I looked different?
I can’t but help but thinking about our son Charlie’s first thought to me on the morning of January 1st: “Mom, it’s hard to believe it is 2017! It doesn’t seem real. I wonder what the year will bring but I wish for good things… I am excited!” We had just concluded a crazy family road trip from New Jersey through D.C., Virginia, North Carolina and to Atlanta (to see my brother and his kids). We left on Christmas Eve and made it back to spend New Years with friends in Philadelphia.
In anticipation of our trip, Peter had been sending me promotional emails about a snow tubing attraction at Stone Mountain. Having only been there over the summer, I couldn’t imagine how they could set up for this tubing/sledding activity in Atlanta. But I realized I hadn’t played with Peter in the snow for a very long time.
The day we arrived, it was a balmy 70 degrees in late December. A conveyor belt took the hordes of aspiring snow tubers to the top of a long ramp. At
the top I turned around and instinctively grabbed Peter’s hand to hold. There was nothing like being together, not only enjoying decades of a wonderful sibling relationship, but now watching the same level of warmth and love amongst our children. It was in this state of mind that I arrived at the top, planning to take my first run with Charlie in a two-person tube. Although both of our boys share my genetic condition, at that moment only my difference happened to be perfectly visible. Charlie had been wearing one of Ethan’s hand-me-down shirts, with the sleeves a bit too long and therefore his hands were mainly hidden. Next to us Ethan was getting into the sled with his cousin Brendan. However, Ethan’s own physical difference was completely covered by his mittens.
As I attempted to sit down for the ride, one of the staff members took one look at me, and said, “Stop! You can’t ride this….you can’t hold on.” Had Charlie, who was already seated and distracted heard this? I wasn’t sure. I turned to the staffer and spoke softly but firmly. I noted a manager appeared out of nowhere since at this point, we were holding up the long line. “Truly, this is no problem. I got this.” Although the employee looked suspicious, the manager glanced at my hands quickly and turned to the woman on her staff, “Hey, she’s got this.” And then added, “…and geez. Let her enjoy life like everyone else.” I thanked her, hopped into the tube with Charlie and took her advice. The entire afternoon, ride after ride, was a blast.
Now back at home, I couldn’t help reflecting on this experience as we’ve begun to publish our DHIFI/Scholastic Kids Flaunt contest winner, runner-up and finalists. Now an annual program funded by RBC Capital Markets Foundation and reaching four states (NY, NJ, CA and IL), the purpose for the Kids Flaunt contest is to invite 4th grade students to share with their peers what makes them unique. Their essays are inspired by the DHIFI theme, “The things that make me different make, me.” This year the National Football League supported our contest by funding and providing our prizes. Our winner, 4th grader Rayyan Sayeed, described in his essay his experience being a Muslim in America from an Indian family. Our runner-up, Mazzy Sass, was just published this past week. Mazzy wrote candidly about having juvenile scoliosis and needing to wear a brace eighteen hours per day. Several people have asked me, how did the winners get chosen? Fortunately for me, the talented and wonderful folks at Scholastic judge the initial submissions, which are graded and ranked. I next have the honor of approving the winning essay, runner-up, finalists and special recognition essays.
So what then, are my criteria? The question is important given that so many of the essays received are beautifully written and provide authentic insight into a particular child’s unique life experience.
The key, for me, is attitude. For example, after providing helpful information about what it is like to be a Muslim, Rayyan caught my attention when he described how, despite some people making fun of him because of his religion, he retained a determination to stand up for himself, flaunt and live happily. As for Mazzy, she was candid and vivid in her description of living her life wearing a brace, including the negatives and even the perks. But beyond her well-written piece, Mazzy’s attitude sparkled. “Wearing a brace has helped me to become stronger, braver and more appreciative of good health….and because of having scoliosis I have learned to flaunt my brace and have learned to not care what others think.” And then this coming Friday, expect a new heartfelt Kids Flaunt essay from one of our finalists, Gianna Robertson. Born with a congenital heart disease, Gianna describes having to endure and thankfully survive two open heart surgeries. Gianna’s amazing attitude impacted me deeply. “I understand I may be different than other kids but none of that stops me from being proud of who I am. I don’t try to hide my surgery-related scars from anyone because they are a reminder of how much of a survivor I am.”
In essence, Rayyan, Mazzy and Gianna and the rest of our Kids Flaunt contest finalists (who will continue to be published every Friday throughout the winter), have risen to the occasion. Of their challenges, each is saying, in their own way, “I’ve got this.”
With these incredible children and their fabulously flaunting attitudes, something tells me that Charlie’s wish will be granted—our youth have a lot to teach us and we can expect exciting things to come from them. And most importantly, to paraphrase the manager at Stone Mountain, may all fellow flaunters enjoy life in 2017 …just like everyone else.