“What you think of me is none of my business!” I was sitting in a room of mainly strangers, having just read a line from one of my friend Judy’s favorite quotes. Although Judy was several decades my senior , from the moment we met on my 25th birthday we had a special bond. That was then. Today I counted three months from the day I received the call from Susan, Judy’s daughter, that Judy had suddenly become sick and passed within days. Though she lived in Florida, Judy had many friends in New York. So on this three-month anniversary, a number of us got together to honor and remember our friend, and Susan had flown up to join us.
There were about fifteen of us, sitting together in an Upper West Side apartment for the first time, sharing stories about how Judy inspired us all to accept ourselves unconditionally. Although I was the only one with a blatant physical difference, I was admittedly surprised how, one after the other, each man or woman with us, was willing to open up amid strangers and share their own story of feeling judged and overcoming it with Judy’s support and friendship.
After each person’s testimonial of sorts, we passed a candle around the room and as each held it, that person would offer a favorite Judy quote. I had just offered mine, only to have a woman sitting next to me remind me of another favorite: “You can’t let them take your power away from you!” I glanced around the room and felt particularly moved. Beyond our common love for a woman who left us all much too soon, it occurred to me how much we all had in common—Judy had helped each of us to overcome being judged by others and somehow, it felt particularly comforting share our experience with one another.
“Who do you think we should invite? We were thinking of including members of the special needs education community in particular.” I had just received an email from the staff of the U.S. Ambassador to Israel, working hard to ensure my event planned for February of the following year was successful. I sat for a few moments in my chair, before I replied. “Of course please include them. But actually, I think they will already appreciate and even embrace my website’s message. I think it is just as if not more important to include community leaders and educators that are not necessarily touched by difference. They are the people I’d like to reach the most.”
Last Friday morning, at the invitation of Daniel Shapiro, the U.S. Ambassador to Israel and his wife Julie Fisher, I had the honor of being the keynote speaker for the U.S. Embassy in Tel Aviv’s “Distinguished American Speaker” series. But that morning I woke up early a bit fidgety. I truly hoped my presentation would be worthwhile, but I didn’t know exactly what to expect from the audience. Sitting on the couch I glanced at an article in the Huffington Post called, “7 Reasons Your Wife Is Stressed Out All the Time” by a PhD named Samantha Rodman. Rodman’s objective was to enlighten husbands by creating a list of reasons women (mothers) find it so difficult to ‘calm down.’ Expecting to be entertained, by #2 I became quickly frustrated. Here is why:
- Judgment Matters
It’s all well and good to say, “I don’t care what you think about me” when you’re flashing your boobs at Mardi Gras at age 22. It’s actually fine to say that as long as you aren’t a parent. But here is the thing: children deserve not to start out with the deck stacked against them because they don’t fit in…..as I frequently mention, we are evolutionarily designed to be group mammals. Mammals need to fit in or they get ostracized and left for dead…and if you don’t fit in as a kid, you’re going to be consumed with fitting in as a grown-up.”
Irritated, I looked for a better article but found myself scanning one by Sean Levinson that didn’t make me much happier titled, “Parents Get Tattoo of Daughter’s Birthmark So She Won’t Feel Different.” It was definitely time for me to take a shower and get ready. I couldn’t stand finding another article confirming that my message that difference is something to be celebrated was still not the societal norm.
My speech was preceded by a trio of singers from a local school who belted out familiar (at least to me) Israeli music. Then it was the Ambassador’s turn to introduce me and he did so warmly. Although the initial portion of my talk was focused on my personal experience being born and managing life having a blatant physical difference, it transitioned to another discussion. The topic involved our oldest son, Ethan, now twelve. While I included a bullying story from 1st grade, much of the discussion focused on how to help teachers and other people involved in the education community best respond and support a child that happens to look different. My point that it is sometimes better to follow the child’s lead than assume intervention is necessary received a positive response.
The audience consisted of a large group of educators, community leaders and other esteemed guests, both Arab and Israeli. However, in addition to the guests that had been touched, directly or indirectly by difference, I had purposefully asked the Ambassador’s staff to include people who were not a part of the special needs community In Israel. I didn’t need to preach to the choir, but preferred to reach average people who have little or no exposure to people like me. During the Q&A session many people spoke but only one person actually asked a question. One after the next, participants stood up to share his or her own story about how difference touched their lives. One man spoke of his daughter, another woman of her grandsons, still another stood up to praise a friend sitting close-by who was sight-impaired. There was even a woman that spoke about having been a burn victim and how other children tormented her, something that she hadn’t ever shared in public but felt empowered by the discussion to do so in that moment. Although each story was different, every guest spoke with pride and warmth, as if not only had they come to terms with their experience, but that they viewed it as a positive….that it made them the strong person they had become. They wanted that lesson shared. What I think I loved most from that morning, was not only how the subject matter could appeal simultaneously to such a diverse group, but that there were others in the audience, “normal folk”, who were touched and enlightened by the discussion about what it means to be different.
After my presentation, a woman who was a non-special-needs teacher approached me. “I have to admit, coming here I wasn’t sure that I had ever contemplated that difference is something to be celebrated. But now I am motivated to share your story with my own students. Can I ask you, how do you keep strong given all the judgment that you must deal with? I turned to her warmly and responded. “You know, I had a friend, Judy, who passed away a few years ago, but she offered one of my favorite quotes. ‘What you think of me is none of my business!” The teacher grinned and in that moment, I was certain my presentation had an impact beyond the community that could already relate to me. I felt truly successful.
Although I can’t be sure it was the same teacher that approached me after my presentation, this past week I received a message forwarded from one of the Ambassador’s staff members that convinced me I had indeed been triumphant in reaching the wider audience I had hoped to reach. The message said, “We heard Meg Zucker’s inspiring story. Today in my lesson at school, I showed Meg’s film on YouTube and we discussed living with disabilities. I have a pupil in class who scribbled down the name of a film about his grandmother who is of short stature (dwarfism). The boy had never spoken about this before….this was indeed most moving. Thank you again for having enabled me to bring such information into the classroom in order to help pupils reflect on life.”