I’m in the schoolyard waiting for Ethan. It’s our Monday ritual. He gives me a wakeup call as he walks from his dad’s. I pull on yesterday’s clothes and meet up with him so I can bring Cindy the two blocks back home. Often, Ethan beats me there and I find our puppy in the arms of one of his classmates. It’s always a girl, cooing over Cindy while Ethan stands back, a practiced expression of boredom on his face.
Today, I’m early. While I wait, I watch Seth, from Ethan’s class, try unsuccessfully to engage in conversation with two other boys. Seth has cerebral palsy. Like me, only one side of his body is affected, but the tightening of his muscles is more severe, giving him a pronounced limp and rendering his left hand unusable. Also, his speech is difficult for all but the most practiced listener to understand.
Ricky and Dave attempt to grasp Seth’s words, but caught up in the excitement of a weekend’s worth of their own stories, they give up quickly and talk over him. A flash of disappointment darkens Seth’s features before he manages to look interested in the movie Dave’s describing, complete with accents and sound effects.
I’m tempted to go over and talk to Seth myself. But as someone’s middle-aged mom, I’d only worsen his status if I offer him anything more than a perfunctory nod.
Finally, Ethan arrives, blond hair falling artfully into his blue eyes. A group of girls rush over to pet Cindy as he passes me her leash.
“Have a good day, hon.”
He gives me a perfunctory nod of his own.
Throughout the day, I find myself thinking about Seth and the double whammy of dealing with both adolescence and disability. I know Seth has it harder than I did at his age. My CP is mild enough that I grew up thinking of it as a secret, one the fashions of the 1970s helped me keep. Bell bottom pants hid my uneven calves. Wedge heels smoothed my gait.
My friends rarely mentioned my disability and I can count on one hand the times someone made fun of me. Still, each of those few instances stung terribly. In seventh grade, a boy named Rob mimicked the way my hand wilted at the wrist. Seeing that image of myself through his eyes made me flush with shame.
Ethan’s told me that two kids at school were each given a day’s suspension for calling Seth stupid. I have mixed feelings about that. I’m glad his teachers have made a point of looking out for him. At the same time, I’m concerned about the effects of their protectiveness on his already precarious social life. It also raises larger questions. Should Seth receive special attention simply because he has special needs?
I’m still pondering all this when Ethan bursts in the door. He takes out a pack of Oreos and pours himself some milk, all the while describing the fun of sneaker-skating on patches of ice at recess.
“The younger grades had to stay in because it’s so slippery.” He dunks a cookie in his glass. “We practically had the park to ourselves.”
“What did Seth do while the rest of you slid around on the ice?”
Ethan shrugs. “He just hung out with us.”
It heartens me that he’s nonchalant about Seth. Disability is so integrated into Ethan’s life it’s barely on his radar. Still, I ache for Seth, remembering how it felt when friends played games that were too physical for me. Just as Seth did this morning, my younger self rallied and tried to appear interested, offering up my own version of a game face.
Finished with his snack, Ethan cuddles on the couch with Cindy. “You’re the best puppy in the world,” he says sweetly.
With her curled in his lap, he flips through a gaming magazine. I sit with him, considering how brave Seth had to be just to get through recess. Then I get mad at myself for thinking that. I hate when people wax poetic about the courageous disabled as though only people with especially hearty spirits can bear to live in imperfect bodies. There’s a reason Seth has cultivated his game face. It allows him to be an ordinary kid just hanging out with his friends. He’ll have his share of bad days and interminable recesses, but he’ll get through them just like I did.
Ethan looks up from his reading. “Seth beat Prince of Persia in a weekend. He must have been playing obsessively.”
He tells me how close he is to beating Prince of Persia, what rating it has in his magazine, and why it lacks the replay value of Halo. As he chatters on, I find myself zoning out on the details. Still, I enjoy his exuberance. Bouncing off the couch, he practically dances around the room as he talks. We’re on to a detailed description of the weapons in Halo when the phone rings.
“Hello?” Ethan mumbles into the receiver, his voice a startling number of octaves lower than it just was. He talks in monosyllables, sounding as disinterested as he looks when in the schoolyard. I wonder who’s on the other end, and why Ethan feels the need to squelch his boisterousness with this particular person.
“I’m meeting Max at the park,” he says when he hangs up, which tells me he was being oh-so-cool for none other than his best friend.
After Ethan leaves, it strikes me anew that we all have parts of ourselves we play down for fear of having them somehow turned against us. Disabled or not, everyone has their game face. Ethan even has a game voice, which ironically makes him seem too bored to be game for much of anything. For my part, I worked pretty hard to wear a neutral face this morning, even as Seth’s struggles pained me as though they were my own.