When I was in junior high, in the mid-seventies, we referred to the cliquey, popular kids as “The Crowd.” Outgoing and confident, they dictated fashion and were snide toward anyone outside their realm. The girls in The Crowd could often be seen huddled together, laughing because a less sought-after classmate failed to replicate their elaborate Farrah Fawcett hair styles.
Maybe they’re not quite human, I thought. They don’t seem to have feelings. Maybe they were placed here merely to test and torment the real people.
By real people, I meant those of us who weren’t as concerned with outward appearances and popularity. Who were admittedly flawed and could tolerate the imperfections of others. Having a disability helped me develop empathy in those preteen years. Though my awkwardness left me feeling insecure at times, I valued otherness. The members of The Crowd didn’t. Because of this, I never strove for their approval. Those kids seemed vacuous to me. I understood even then that their world was a narrower place than mine.
The Crowd, and their successors created a scale, based on their own strengths and predilections, and used it to find everyone else lacking. To be acceptable among them, you had to be like them. Able-bodied and athletic. Attractive and fashionable. Judgmental to the point of cruel.
Long after junior high and high school, I came upon this quote in Past Due: A Story of Disability, Pregnancy and Birth by Anne Finger:
People who aren’t disabled … sometimes seem to be missing
a dimension, glib and easy; skimmers over the surface of life,
not quite as real.
Yes! I wrote in the margin of the page.
The skimmers. The haves. Of course I thought of The Crowd, and those like them, who were glib, dismissive and, to my mind, less real. That is, until I found myself the mother of one of their kind.
My son has hair the color of honey and clear blue eyes. He is undeniably handsome. He is also quick, strong, smart, and has a natural air of confidence. In school, he’s always been a leader. At three, he developed a love for Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. I hesitated to let him attend pre-school with a red sticker on his nose but he insisted. Dropping him off, I worried that he’d be made fun of. But when I returned later that afternoon, I watched as each of his classmates exited the schoolhouse wearing a colored sticker on his nose.
I describe my son and tell that story with a sense of maternal pride. This is what we hope for when we bring children into the world. We wish for them to be healthy and strong, successful and self-assured. We’re glad to discover that they’re well liked. I’m no exception. I love that when Ethan arrives at school in the morning, friends rally for his attention. That, on the playground, he can often be found holding court. I understand why people are so drawn to him. My son has a wonderful sense of humor. He’s quite charming. What concerns me is that already, at the age of nine, he has parlayed his good fortune into a sense of class, who is up and who is down. And it is not unusual for his jokes and observations to be unkind.
“Billy is really bad at math. I asked him what four times four is and he said eight. Then we all started asking him math problems and he looked like he was going to cry.”
“Zack has the same ugly pair of pants in, like, four colors. He wears them every day. His parents should just buy him a pair of normal jeans.”
It’s typical behavior and, like a typical mom, I respond by reminding Ethan that Billy is very good at other things; that Zack’s choice of clothing is his own concern; that when it comes to how to treat his classmates, he needs to remember the golden rule.
Sometimes, though, his comments are harder for me to be objective about.
“Steven walks on his toes all the time,” he told me recently. “It looks really weird.”
“What are you, blind?” he quipped another time to my boyfriend, Dan, knowing full well that he is.
On days when I have little slack, I’m likely to snap at him, “How could you say that?” I expect more from him. After all, he’s been around people with disabilities his whole life. But sometimes, I’m able to step back and see that he makes remarks like these when he’s working on something.
Just as I did, Ethan is growing up in a world that puts high value on sameness. Arguably it was harder for me, having a disability. The truth is, in a certain way, I had it easier. Born blind, Dan didn’t have to worry about being sent to Vietnam. Born with cerebral palsy, I was exempt from appearing like everyone else.
Conforming is hard work. I see the toll it takes on my son. Already, he has learned to tuck away his emotions and appear cool and unflappable. Those unexpressed feelings pile up inside him until finally, when he’s safely at home, they spill. Some of what he’s trying to figure out has to do with the fact that two of the people he cares about most are outside the norm. We’re also two of the people with whom he feels most secure, which is why he’s free to test the phrases of intolerance he’s exposed to out in the world.
Ethan puts a lot of effort into choosing clothes, using language, and even selecting hobbies that his friends deem acceptable. On the rare occasion he is targeted for teasing, he takes it very hard. I remind him that people usually only put others down when they’re feeling badly about themselves.
When did I learn that? Clearly, I didn’t know it in seventh grade when I thought of The Crowd as “not quite human.” Maybe it’s something I discovered as a parent, when I could look at my smart, able, handsome son and see that the only reason anyone could have for teasing him was they were feeling inadequate just then.
I may have had empathy back in junior high, but it was reserved for the underdogs. What I didn’t realize about the popular kids was that they were working really hard for their own reasons. Yes, they behaved oppressively, but I see now that they felt a lot of pressure themselves.
My hope is that Ethan will ultimately reject the tyranny of conformity. Maybe he’ll even use his charisma and position of privilege to stand up for difference; to lead rather than follow. He did so quite naturally at the age of three when he marched into school with a sicker on his nose. There are days he does it still.
“That’s your mother’s boyfriend?” I heard a classmate say to Ethan one afternoon. “But he’s blind!”
Ethan responded with a shrug. “So? He’s really cool.”