“These things are good: ice cream and cake, a ride on a Harley, seeing monkeys in the trees, the rain on my tongue, and the sun shining on my face. These things are a drag: dust in my hair, holes in my shoes, no money in my pocket, and the sun shining on my face.” Rocky Dennis, “Mask” (1985).
As a child, to stop other kids from staring, my secret weapon was to run over to them and talk incessantly about nothing necessarily of importance. My theory was that if I hid in a corner by myself, I would become no more than an object to them; something they could easily taunt. Rather, I directly engaged them, streaming endless questions in their direction. Invariably, they would get caught up in our conversation. Suddenly I was just like them, only different. My secret trick worked for years as a child, but as I began to grow up, I saw that it instead became awkward. If a teenage boy or girl stared at me, my running up to him or her to chat incessantly about nothing just made me strange in a way that had nothing to do with my hands or feet!
In the movie Mask, Rocky Dennis (played by Eric Stolz), suffered from a severe skull deformity. The film took place when Rocky was in junior high school. He looked like a cross between the Elephant Man and a Lion, with his long red hair. Rusty, Rocky’s mother, was played by Cher. While Rocky was lovingly embraced by his mom and fully accepted by her close friends, he was initially treated by fellow students at his school with pity, fear and awkwardness. However, Rusty was committed to having Rocky experience a normal life. Yet despite his mom’s support, Rocky needed to develop enough self-confidence to overcome the stares.
Along the way, Rocky discovered that having a sense of humor was what made him relatable to his peers. In one scene at school, Rocky used an unexpected play on words and earned laughs from his classmates. It was at that moment in the film that you could see the class transforming their impression of Rocky from a “something” into a “someone.”
For years after seeing Mask, its lessons have still resonated with me. For instance, I have been known to be so excited about one thing or another that I will exclaim aloud, even to people I do not know well, “That is fantastic! If I had a thumb it would be up!” Most that don’t know me appear wary of acknowledging my finger-humor and don’t know how to respond. When I start smiling, they are immediately put at ease. The other evening I was walking toward Port Authority and noticed a sign with a picture of Ellen DeGeneres. The caption read, “You never know what funny can do.” I caught my breath and even began to shiver. The truth of that simple sentence struck me deeply. The ability to laugh at yourself is the key to helping others feel comfortable with you, no matter your difference.
These things are a drag: When my shoes don’t fit, when I cannot open a water bottle, when someone asks if they can help me do what I know I can do by myself, when people stare at me because I’m different. These things are good: Chocolate late at night, goodnight kisses from my three kids, my husband John’s sharp wit, the way the water brushes my face when I am swimming laps, and when people admire me because I’m different.
Meg Zucker, October 2011.