Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Remembering John

I was about nine. Maybe younger, maybe older. I can’t quite remember. But let’s say I was old enough to know better and young enough to be excused.

His name was John. John loved to skate at the rink where I was training as a competitive figure skater. It was a private club. Some thought it was a little snooty. I didn’t know about that. I did know something was wrong with John.

Wrong. Maybe that’s not a fair word. He was different.

John showed up regularly for the general skate sessions. I skated on those as well as the free skate sessions, which were exclusive to competitors. General skate was for a mish mash, skaters like me along with men and women my parents’ age. And there was John.

He seemed more like a child than the adult he was. He was awkward, off balance both physically and mentally. He was not bad looking but his hair was always greasy and his large glasses always slipping perilously low on his nose. He smelled like chicken soup every time he swooped past. He'd swing one leg back to do a spiral, not quite straight enough, not quite high enough, but it didn’t seem to bother him. Why did it bother us?

We all knew something was not right. Was he developmentally disabled? Was he in an accident? I don’t think I ever knew. But he was always friendly. He’d smile and sometimes try to talk to you.

I didn’t want to be mean but I kept my distance and averted his gaze. Like we all did. Maybe what he had would rub off. Maybe he’d say something we wouldn’t know how to respond to. Maybe we’d be trapped if we spoke back. The truth is, he scared us.

As I said, I was old enough to know he was different but young enough to be excused for being uncomfortable. I think back now and hope I was never mean to him, never ran away or laughed at him in front of his face.

Years later in college one of my girlfriends actually gasped in horror when a guy said something to her at a party. He’d been in an accident. His body and facial expressions were twisted like a surreal painting. His utterances were grunts.

I was taken aback, too, but mostly hated my friend in that moment for her selfish reaction. You see, the guy may have looked as if his brain was as warped as his body but it wasn’t. He saw the world — and her response — just as we did. Full on clarity. I’ve always been haunted by that. How would I feel to see someone look at me in horror?

Over the years, I have met and known many more people with disabilities — mental, emotional and physical. Yes, they can scare us. Usually, I think, we fear being like them more than being near them. What is it? Is it just a lack of understanding and education? We seem to have surmounted that hurtle when it comes to people with Down syndrome. Why can’t it be that way for everyone?

I was reminded of this again by a TV movie the other night about a man who had Tourette syndrome, which causes uncontrollable movements like ticks or sounds like grunts and even swearing. I’ve made jokes about this. But it’s wrong. Sure, sometimes it's okay to laugh or make fun as a way to cope. But not when it's mean, or breeds intolerance. That's as wrong as it would be to openly mock or laugh at a person with Down syndrome or autism.

I have watched people laugh at, yell at and veer away from those with mental illness. I know people with tremors so bad they’ve been mistaken for being drunk.

Maybe rather than trying to fix all these people as if they have the problem — because some cannot be fixed — we need to change our attitude about them.

Because I can think of nothing worse than being born with or suffering from something that makes you different than to be ostracized for it.

If we just adopt a new normal then no one is really different.

I’m glad I knew John. I doubt he had something that could be fixed. And I hope today, if he is still around, that he lives in a more understanding world. I know I’d take the time to talk to him.


Cindy L said...

Thanks for this touching post. I suppose that we humans are wired to fear anyone who appears to be "different." Whatever the reason, it's terribly unfair, as you illustrate here.

Making things worse today, our culture of advertising promotes -- and idealizes -- a narrow vision of "perfect" beauty. From the time we're kids, we're brainwashed by TV and magazines into believing we're flawed if we don't measure up to these impossible (and ridiculous) standards. It's hard enough for the "average" person to feel attractive these days ... I cannot imagine how hard it is for people who are seriously disfigured or handicapped in some way. I find it all very sad.

Only the Half of It said...

Thanks Cindy. I have just come to the realization that as long as the person is not hurting me, or any of us, wouldn't life easier if we just ignored what is "strange" or different? I mean, what is the point?

Cindy L said...

I agree. And I think its time to pronounce that old-fashioned kindness to our fellow humans is back in style!

Claire Charlton said...

What a wonderful message of acceptance. Thanks for this memory. I remember similar experiences from my own youth and, when my children have questions about people who are "different" I take the time to talk with them about the world being a puzzle that takes all kinds of people to piece together. We're all vital, we're all worthy of love and respect. I'll carry your words with me today.

Only the Half of It said...

Thanks Claire. Best to make them your words too (sounds like they are) and carry them with you always! :-)

Lynne said...

Wonderful post. It hits home a point I try to teach my kids and try to embody myself, that we are all flawed, and we are not in a position to judge. Ever. Though I do. It's a constant effort to improve ourselves and be kind to everyone, which is all we should ever do. Bravo for speaking out!

Only the Half of It said...

Thanks. We need to take care of each other in this world.

Anonymous said...

When I read about John, I immediately thought of Jimmy, a fourth grade classmate. It wasn't until years later (I'm talking thirty) when I looked back at our class picture that I realized he was what we would today call developmentally disabled. Perhaps he was really thirteen or fourteen?

I don't remember anyone teasing him but he had to have suffered ostracism of some sort. I just assumed his speech patterns meant he had an even stronger Southern accent than the rest of us. That his family must have moved to town from three counties over or something.

Jimmy was gentle. And very tall. In the class picture his red shirt is neatly tucked into his khaki pants. The other boys in the row barely reach his shoulders. Only Waldo and Jimmy Brantley come close.

Looking at that picture this morning my heart breaks, as I imagine his mom's thoughts each school day morning. "Have a good day, Jimmy. Listen to the teacher." Watching Jimmy board the school bus, she must have uttered also uttered a prayer that the kids in school wouldn't tease him, that the boys might throw the ball his way at recess, that someone would move over at lunch, giving him a place at the table.

Come fifth grade, I don't remember Jimmy returning, but I have never forgotten him, either.

Only the Half of It said...

I think we've all known our share of Johns and Jimmys. And I bet his mother's heart did break or at least ache for him.
I would hope some these Johns and Jimmys are blind to the ostracism, the teasing, maybe not perceiving it as we might. Thankfully. And maybe in other ways it makes them stronger.

me said...

Normal frrrreaks me out!
You know - recently my uncle was in a car crash. He was in a coma for a long while, severe brain injury and lots of massive damage to his body. His motions were only spasms. Then he could fixate one eye. And clasp his fist. Then one day, about three weeks ago - he started mumbling things. Haha - in English! Today he started speaking norwegian (as normal people do!). His daughter and his wife helped him to call my mother and asked her how she was doing. ^^,
Life.. it is so utterly strange and magickal. The little things. As blinking your eye, tiptoeing or speaking someones name. You don't even know you have it uintil it's gone.

Only the Half of It said...

Wow. I hope your uncle has a full recovery. He probably has an amazing story inside him after this.
I just think we need to be so thankful that we are as healthy and complete as we are because things can change so quickly.
Like you once posted: Recognize that the other person is you.