Check out my stickers

During my second week at my new library job, I found myself sitting at the reference desk applying stickers to my prosthetic arm. When I was finished, I had a trail of assorted insects (and a few spiders) zigzagging around my arm. It didn’t take long for someone to comment on my bugs. That, of course, was the point.

It had been so long since I’d worked with the general public that I had almost forgotten why I used to keep my arm decorated with stickers. It wasn’t the love of stickers or the desire to show off my favorite bands or opinions. It was an opening. It was for all those people who would never ask me directly about my prosthetic arm, but would say something about my stickers. It was my way of saying that I’m not taking this too seriously. I’m not pretending that you don’t notice my difference. I’m saying it’s okay to notice.

I started the sticker thing when I was working as a server. I was a college student looking to make a decent amount of money with a flexible schedule. What better job than waiting tables, right? I was fortunate enough to find someone willing to give me a chance despite the obvious question: can a person with one arm do this job?? It turned out that yes, I could do the job. I did it for the next several years. It didn’t take long for me to learn the particulars of the job. It probably took me even less time to learn that unaddressed curiosity is THE WORST.

Maybe you don’t know this, but I can tell when you’re curious about me. I can feel it. You might think you are keeping your questions quiet, but you wear them in your body language. Most people do, anyway. And when I have to interact with you repeatedly, like when I am serving you a meal at a restaurant, it’s uncomfortable for both of us to ignore the questions you are trying so hard to hold in.

You know what’s bad for tips: awkwardness. It just is. Sure, sometimes you’ll get a bigger tip because the customer feels guilty about the awkwardness. But most of the time, awkward = bad tip. That wasn’t good for my pocketbook, and it made my job way less fun. So I stuck a few stickers to my arm.

It’s funny what a few stickers can do. They’re an icebreaker. They’re a signal. They cut the awkwardness down to almost nothing. They give people an out if they are caught staring.

When I started working in a public library, the stickers became even more important. I wanted to be approachable to my library patrons (and successful in my career) even more than I had wanted good tips in my serving job, and I really didn’t want the many, many kids I saw at the library to feel uncomfortable around me or afraid of me. No one wants to be an object of fear.  Librarians especially so. I wanted kids to know that they could ask me anything, and I wouldn’t judge them for it. I wouldn’t be in this field if I didn’t value curiosity, and I wouldn’t have chosen to work with young people, if I wasn’t comfortable answering these kinds of questions.  I’ve found it helps to dive into the questions, get them answered, and move on from there. Watching people hold questions in makes my job way less fun.

I was reminded of that as I started my new job—back in public service at a library after several years in the not-public side of the library world. This week I changed the bugs to something more summery just as I had told a young library visitor I would. “Come back in a couple of weeks,” I’d said. “I already have my summer stickers picked out. Wait’ll you see ‘em!”

Maybe it’s silly. Maybe it wouldn’t be what you would do if you were me. Maybe a lot of things. For now: wait’ll you see my new stickers. ;)

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.

Are you really a librarian?

Yes and no. The answer to the question “What do you do?” should not really be this complicated, but it is for me.  Yes, I am a librarian. No, I do not work in a library. This is usually when I get a blank look from whoever I am speaking to, and I start trying to explain: I’m a staff librarian at a book company. I’m one of the people, there are several of us, who help the real (more straightforward) librarians decide what books to buy.

A colleague of mine wrote about this very situation. He said,

“Here’s the thing. I don’t work at a library. Or maybe put in another way . . . I work at thousands of libraries. I work for a vendor that sells materials and services to school libraries across the country. My exact title is collection development specialist, and my primary task is to assist schools in finding the newest and best resources for their classrooms and media centers. In essence, I shop for books all day with other people’s money. Yeah, it’s a pretty sweet gig.”

Unlike my colleague, though, who says “But in my heart of hearts I know I’m not really a librarian,“ I argue that I am a librarian, and that the work that I do isn’t that far removed from what I did when I was in a public library.  It’s just a lot more specific.

In a library, I worked at a reference desk where I answered questions from library patrons about books or about whatever else they wanted to know.  There’s no reference desk at a book company, but the librarians in my department are to go-to people for anything book or library related.  I still spend a good portion of my work days answering questions, helping people, and finding information.  Just like a librarian.

The biggest part of my job is book promotion and collection development, just like it was when I was in a public library. I review and evaluate books.  I look for ways to connect them to readers or classrooms.  I might not be making displays or bulletin boards like I used to, but I am making book lists of all sorts for the librarians I speak with to use in their libraries.  As in the quote above, my primary task is helping librarian shop for books.  He’s right about one thing: it is a pretty sweet gig.

That all said, there’s a lot I miss about working in a library.  I definitely miss working with kids directly. One day I’d like to get back to that, and meanwhile I still look for opportunities to connect with young people whenever I can.  But the biggest thing I miss is the ease with which I could answer the question “What do you do?”

I do, however, answer the question “Are you really a librarian?” with a yes. Even if it does require a bit of explanation. ;)

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. :)

It’s Okay to Ask

its-ok-to-ask-thumbAsking is better than staring at me.  Asking is better than avoiding me.  Asking is better than making up something about me that isn’t true.  I have been saying these things for years–mostly assuring embarrassed parents that it’s okay that their child asked me about my prosthetic arm–but now I’m not alone.  In addition to the fantastic Jacob’s Eye Patch, now there is It’s Okay to Ask from Gillette Children’s Specialty Healthcare.  Two picture books and me all saying the same message will surely convince people, right? ;)

On MPR News, Tom Weber spoke with a Gillette doctor and a young patient about the book and their experiences talking about disabilities, and he expressed surprise that it was okay to ask about someone’s disability.  “Has that really been the thing we said about how we should interact?” he asked more than once.  The guests assured him that questions aren’t necessarily rude.  It’s the intent behind the questions that is either friendly or rude.  I found myself nodding along at what the guests were saying over and over again.

Here’s what I know about questions:

  • “What’s wrong with you?” is probably not the best question, but even if your child does ask it that way, it’s okay.  It’s a teachable moment.  Encourage them to rephrase it without making them feel bad for being curious.
  • Questions are better than assumptions, and the best questions assume the least.  “How did you lose your arm?” for example assumes I lost an arm, which I did not, but I understand that it isn’t always easy to come up with the best phrasing on the spot.  Don’t stress about the best way to put it.  It’s usually pretty clear when someone means a question nicely.
  • Equipment makes questions easier.  I get way more questions when I am wearing my prosthetic arm than when I go without it.  It seems people are usually more comfortable asking about a piece of technology than they are about a physical difference.

I offered more points to consider in this post on The Blogunteer back in 2012.  In that post, I said:

“It’s okay to be curious. That is probably the most important thing I want to tell people.  The key is how you express your curiosity.”
That is still true.  Questions are okay.  Even poorly worded questions are okay.  The important thing is that we move past staring at or avoiding people with disabilities or physical differences.  I’d rather have to answer an impolite question than always be Other.  As in the book It’s Okay to Ask, once we get past our differences, we can get to what we have in common.
Have a question about my limb difference or prosthetic arm?  See Fake Arm 101 for answers to some common questions or send me an email with some question I haven’t covered yet: fakearm101@gmail.com.

 

Big Questions for Little Skeptics

I’d seen Kingfisher’s Really, Really Big Questions books around, but I hadn’t paid much attention to them until I saw that the newest one in the series, which came out in October 2011, took on God.  More specifically, Really, Really Big Questions about God, Faith, and Religion takes a skeptical look at God for kids (grades 3-6 or so).

The question and answer format doesn’t provide too many answers.  Much like, DK’s What do You Believe? (which I talked about in this post) the point seems to be to encourage more questions and critical thinking, which I love.  The book is definitely oriented to scientific answers over supernatural (as are the other two in the series about philosophy and space), but it also cautions readers to be respectful (“Respect involves accepting that no one knows for sure what the truth about God and religion is.” italics theirs) of people and their beliefs even when disagreeing (“The best criticism is not rude, but polite and helpful–the way your teacher might comment on your homework or a sports coach might assess his or her players.”).

I highly recommend this series to any family looking to open a skeptical discussion about religion.

Want to read more about skepticism? See my Secular Thursday page for all my posts in the Books for Secular Families series.

Disclosure: Amazon links are affiliate links.

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.

Celebrating Questions

There’s a part of me that doesn’t want to write this post.  I am the parent of a three-year-old, which means an almost constant stream of “Why?” “What’s that?” or “What are you doing?”  I am not in the mood to celebrate questions.  I wish I had the patience of the mother elephant in Eve Bunting’s new picture book, Tweak Tweak, who has perfect answers at the ready for each of her little one’s seemingly endless questions about the world around them.

In my more patient moments, though, I really love my daughter’s inquisitive nature, and I want to encourage it.   Parenting Beyond Belief has this to say on questions:

“How we respond to the estimated 427,050 questions a child will ask between her second and fifth birthdays will surely have a greater impact on her orientation to the world outside her head than the thirteen years of school that follow.  Do we always respond with an answer–or sometimes with another question? . . . We have 427,050 chances to get it right, or 427, 050 chances to say ‘Because I said so,’  ‘ Because God says so,’ ‘Don’t concern yourself with that stuff,’ or something similarly fatal to the child’s ‘will to find out.’

I like Marcus Pfister’s newest book Questions, Questions to turn the table on my little one.  This lovely picture book appears simple at a glance.  Each spread has a brightly colored illustration and a rhyming couplet.  But if you look more closely, you will see that the illustrations have an interesting texture and often abstract connections to the text.  A brief author’s note provides more information on that.  The couplets are based on an Italian folksong.  Each asks a question about the natural world.  Some are more scientific; some are more fanciful.  Some might allow for faith, but all of them have the potential to open a discussion or, since no answers are contained in the book, inspire research or a science project.

But if you want to have some answers on hand, you might try Why?: The Best Ever Question and Answer Book About Nature, Science, and the World Around You by Catherine Ripley.  Everything a kid might ever wonder is here in this book answered simply in a double-page spread.  This book is spot-on for my three-year-old in terms of the questions and the answers.  I mean, “Why does it smell so good outside after it rains?” or “Why do I have to use the toilet and where does it go when I flush?” are probably not questions that most adults would spend much time on, but for preschoolers, they are strong points of interest.

Here’s to getting in the mood to celebrate questions and cultivating the patience to answer them. :)


More book recommendations about religion and science on the For Secular Families page.

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.  :)