Friday, March 31, 2006

Thoughts Accompanied by a Cinnamon Crunch Bagel

I'm sitting here at Panera Bread, grading essays when I become thoughtful. So, essays are temporarily on hold. What is causing me to be reflective is a group that is eating here. There are about half a dozen mentally or physically impaired men and women with their helpers. I watch as they struggle to make their desires known in elevated groans, or as their coffee dribbles down their face onto their shirt, with no reaction. There is the human instinct to turn away in disgust, embarrassed that people behave in such a way. After all, it is quite different from "proper" society.

I'm drawn to them. I've had some exposure to people with "deformities." Most recently, in my classroom this year. I have been blessed to have a cerebral palsy boy in one of my sections. I feel like he has opened my eyes so much. My student is in a wheelchair and can only communicate through a mercury, which is a computer attached to his wheelchair with a button that he can use to navigate and type by hitting his arm on it at intervals (it's more complex than I'm making it out to be, but humor me). When he so desires, my student can activate a speaking feature to read aloud to others what he has typed.

My awareness comes slowly, but I have been moved as I've seen him work so much harder than other students around him. His mind is sharp, but I ache as I see the frustration present when he struggles to communicate the simplest of conversation. This student has reminded me how I sometimes underestimate the intelligence of those who are noticeably "different" from the norm. That's hard to swallow; I like to think I'm empathetic without prejudice, but then creep up examples that show I am sometimes predisposed otherwise.

This past summer, again at Panera, I had a conversation with one of the workers here, also slightly impaired. She was so sweet and bright and we talked literature for a time, as her dad was an English teacher.

I wonder what life would be like in the shoes of someone with huge obstacles to overcome. What must it be like to feel trapped, to want to communicate your feelings but to only have unintelligible gibberish come out of your mouth? Or to want your body to perform the simplest physical act, but instead to have your outer shell so out of line with your mind? And then they are judged, and others write them off as inferior. My student communicates so much with his eyes, and I love that I have had him in my class. He never would have chosen this life: others having to take you to the restroom, having to mash up your food and spoon it into your mouth, but his spirit is enviable. Sure, he is frustrated sometimes, but he has passions he pursues like everyone else. He is an advocate for others in his position, bringing awareness to the city for changes that need to be made for life to be equitable.

What are we missing out on when we don't recognize them as equals, as ones who can teach us lessons? They are receptive to what is going on around them, and we do everyone involved a disservice by missing the opportunity to learn from them. How would I react if tomorrow I could no longer speak and my body no longer moved fluidly? What would I experience in trying to do the simplest tasks in public? How would others respond to me? Who would take the time to really know me?

So I take these few minutes to pause, to appreciate the differences. Soon enough I will return to my black sharpie and my pile of essays, but right now I just want to observe people who aren't all that different from me.

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