On safe spaces and speaking up

jacobseyepatchLast weekend, I visited a Sunday School class at my church to talk about disabilities.  I gave my usual explanation of my prosthetic arm and read Jacob’s Eye Patch, which has become one of my go to picture books on the subject of differences.  I love that way it makes it clear that questions and curiosity are okay. Instead, it puts the focus on how and when you ask questions or express curiosity about people’s differences.  The kids seemed to get that. They all agreed that there are times when they don’t want to talk about themselves or be in the spotlight, especially about something different.

Then I asked the kids if they had any questions for me about my prosthetic arm or about how I did something.  “Anything,” I said.  “This is a safe space where I encourage questions.” Hands went up slowly, shyly.  Still more kids asked their questions quietly when other things were happening in the class.  For some people, curiosity doesn’t care for the spotlight any more than differences do.

As I left, I said, “If you think of a question later, I’m around on Sunday mornings.  You can always ask me.”  It’s true.  I am a walking safe space.  I wasn’t always this way, and in all honesty, I don’t always feel up to it even now.  There have been several times, usually on a bus ride home after a long day of work, that I’ll purposely avoid potential questions that I don’t feel up to answering right then.  That, of course, is why Jacob’s Eye Patch hits so close to home for me despite my having no personal connection to eye patches (other than the obvious pirate connections that plague both Jacob and me).

The truth is that when I was a kid I didn’t want to be the person who always had to answer questions, explain myself, or have patience with rude comments.  I was more likely to tell some sarcastic story about a car accident or animal attack than answer any real questions.  I’m not proud of that, but I think that it’s probably true for a lot of people with disabilities.  Even for those of us who have been born with our differences, it can take a while to get comfortable with the reality of our story.  I’m not sure exactly when the shift to purposely creating a safe space for curiosity happened for me, but I think part of it started, or at least started growing, in sixth grade when my reading teacher took me aside to invite me to share my perspective of life with a disability to the class as we began a unit on challenges.  At the time, I declined the opportunity to speak up.  I didn’t like the idea of drawing attention to myself as different at that age, and I didn’t have anything important to say on the subject of “challenges.”  Or so I thought.

To start off the unit, my teacher booktalked related titles from our school library.  I don’t remember any specific book titles from that booktalk, but I do remember that they all seemed to have the same theme: life with any kind of disability is really hard.  I remember feeling irritated by this, but I still didn’t think I had anything important to say on the subject.

When the class discussion started rolling, I sat quietly, listening as my fellow students spoke of the characters in the books we were reading for the unit.  I thought: Is that how they think of me? Did they pity me like that?  Was I as “inspirational” to them as the characters in those books?  Was that okay with me?

Eventually I did raise my hand to speak.  I don’t remember what I said.  What stands out to me all these years later isn’t so much that I said the perfect things.  It’s that I was given space to speak and that I was allowed to stay silent, to listen, until I had something to say. I felt valued but also respected and that was so important to my feeling safe enough in that class to speak up.

onehanded-300x442To be honest, I haven’t really stopped speaking since then.  Now that I know the power of sharing my perspective, I have made it an integral part of my personal and professional life.  Last summer, I was invited to be part of a book discussion group at a local public library as they read One-Handed Catch by MJ Auch.  In the group of middle schoolers, I shared how my experience as a congenital amputee compared to Norm’s experience with an acquired amputation in the book.  If the kids took away nothing else from what I had to say, I hope they realized that there is no single disability experience.  There’s not even a single experience of being one-handed!

As Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie said in her TED Talk, “The single story creates stereotypes, and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story.”

I’m still grateful to that sixth grade teacher who invited me to share my story and let me speak my truth even when it differed from the narratives presented in the class reading material.  She fostered in me an appreciation of safe spaces and open discussion and that has shaped so much of my life now, both professionally and personally.

So, thanks Mrs. MacDonald from Lewis-Palmer Middle School in Monument, Colorado.  I hope you know that you had a positive impact on at least one of your students.

How to ask a question

Questions are a big part of my life.  Not only am I a librarian, a career that has a particular focus on helping people answer questions, but also I’m a person with a visible physical difference–not to mention the assistive device I wear.  I live with curiosity, and I’ve decided to encourage it.

its-ok-to-ask-thumbIf you’ve been reading this blog for a while, this isn’t news.  I’ve talked a lot about the questions people ask and the way that I answer them.  Here are just a few posts on the topic:

  • It’s Okay to Ask – Features a new picture book that encourages young kids to feel comfortable asking about disabilities and see beyond them.
  • My Day at School – Reflections on not being able to blend in when I visit my daughter’s classroom for the day.
  • Storytime Reflections – I was a special guest at a storytime at a public library, and I got some great questions from the kids and parents in the audience.

I have gotten questions of all sorts.  Some quite rude, most just hesitant and awkward.  I answer them all as best I can.  Not long ago, though, a little girl asked me about my prosthetic arm in the nicest way possible, and I just had to share.  She said, “I like your arm.  Can you tell me about it?”

It doesn’t get better than that. :)

My Day at School

I spent most of Monday in what felt like a sea of first graders.  I was at my daughter’s school for Parent Involvement Day, and as usual there were questions everywhere I turned.  I don’t exactly blend in.

In the lunch line, a little girl asked me if I was a pirate.  The look in her eyes and the tone of her voice told me she meant it nicely.  “I’m not,” I said with a smile. “But it looks like it, doesn’t it?  My hook is even cooler than a pirate’s though.  It opens up!”  She seemed suitably impressed.

Later one of the boys and I discussed some potential additions to my prosthetic arm after I’d explained to him how it worked.  He thought extendo-arm feature would be cool.  Super strength too.  I told him I hoped he would be the one to invent a prosthetic arm with super strength when he grew up.  He looked thoughtful as he said, “Yeah, I probably will.”

But it wasn’t all adorable. How is one supposed to respond to the child who repeatedly says, “You are scary.”? I still don’t know.  It would have been different if this child had seemed afraid, but he only seemed interested in drawing negative attention to me. There are only so many ways I can think of to say “I know I look different, but I’m really just like you.”  And some people won’t hear that message no matter how I say it.

wonder

The good news is that I’m not the only one saying it.

When I first read Wonder by R.J. Palacio, I wanted every kid I knew to read it.  It said what I’d been trying to say for years.  Auggie says in the book: “The only reason I’m not ordinary is that no one sees me that way.”  If you haven’t read it yet, give it a chance.  It may be message-driven (or what some have called “guidance counselor fiction“), but it’s a message to which I feel a strong connection.

jacobseyepatchI have mentioned Jacob’s Eye Patch on this blog before, but it bears mentioning again.  It is a great picture book for talking about differences.  I highly recommend it–and the activity kit–for it’s realistic look at curiosity and questions.  We always tell our kids not to mention anyone’s difference or ask any potentially embarrassing questions, but Jacob offers a “green light” to people who have questions about his eye patch.

My philosophy: When you can’t blend in, you might as well take questions.  It isn’t always comfortable.  But, as I often assure nervous parents whose children are about to ask me anything, I have heard it all, and I swear I’m not as scary as I look.

Answering Questions

A few weeks ago, I was out and about with Ladybug on a busy Saturday when she asked, “How did that tree grow so tall?”

That simple question was the beginning of an afternoon-long conversation about plants and what they need to grow.  I was feeling quite proud of my parenting skills.  I sometimes struggle with explaining things simply enough.  I can get bogged down in the details, and that’s kind of a curiosity-killer when it comes to my three-year-old.  That  day, though, everything clicked.

Until.

When we got home, Ladybug slipped a rock out of her pocket and put it in the living room window.  She looked up at me proudly, “It needs sun to grow!”

I wasn’t quite sure what to say to that.  My first impulse was to run out to the library to find a bunch of books about rocks to set the matter straight.*  But the more I thought about it, the more it seemed that I should just leave this be for now.  She doesn’t need to have all her questions answered immediately.  She needs to be able to hypothesize about her world without me jumping in to correct her or steer her to the answer I want her to have.

From Raising Freethinkers,

“If curiosity is what you’re after, your main goal in responding to a question shouldn’t be giving the answer.  In some cases, an immediate answer can even extinguish curiosity.  What you want is to keep the questions coming, day after day, year after year.  To do that, you want first and foremost to make the child feel that questioning itself is a fun and rewarding thing to do.”

In this case, she made a connection. It isn’t quite right, but it is certainly interesting.  The important thing for me is to realize that if she’s asking questions and making connections, she’s on the right track.

 

*  Well, my very first impulse was to read Do You Know Which Ones Will Grow? with her. I’d heard great things about this new picture book, but after I eventually got a copy from the library I realized it was about animals and man-made objects.  No mention of plants or rocks.  Great book, but not perfect for this situation.

Read last week’s secular Thursday post, or start at the beginning with Behind the Scenes of Atheist Talk.

Connect with me on Facebook or Twitter to recommend your favorite books for secular families, or connect with more secular families via the Secular Thursday bloggers.

What people want to know

I got more than I bargained for when I took Ladybug to the neighborhood park this afternoon.  A school group descended upon “our” park, and it wasn’t long before I became a bit of a park celebrity.  Kids were crowded around me and calling their friends over: “This lady only has one arm!  Check it out!”

While it wasn’t what I expected when we left for the park, I am happy to provide a safe space for kids to ask questions of someone who looks different.  I was born with one arm, so I’ve some time to get used to answering questions.  They quizzed me on the usual topics.  How do you peel a banana? How do you write?  How do you hug?  A few kids were concerned that it hurt, and I assured them that it didn’t.  They were also amazed that my daughter, who quietly played in the sand nearby seemingly oblivious to the crowd around me, did not “look like me.”  I explained, to the best of my ability, that it isn’t genetic.  That it’s just something that happens.  My usual line “Everybody is born differently, and this is how I was born” sometimes comforts kids and sometimes doesn’t.

One little girl seemed particularly concerned for me.  She asked, “Do you need someone to take care of you?”  I just smiled and said that I take care of myself just fine.

I’m happy to answer questions.  Check out Fake Arm 101 to get answers to the usual questions.  Still wondering something?  Feel free to ask.  :)