Like many kids, I received an allowance- a small sum of money spent almost the very second it was acquired, usually on something frivolous.
One particular allowance day, I rode my bike with my siblings to the corner store. I had my eye on one of those rainbow colored lollipops shaped like a rocket. The problem was the lollipops were located by the register. Normally, this would have been an ideal spot- quickest turnaround in terms of paying for the candy and moving on to eating it. But on this day, an older woman in a wheel cheer was parked right in front of those lollipops. Equal parts of fear and curiosity mixed in my blood.
I pretended to look at items on another aisle, stealing glances to see if she had left yet. Her husband paid for their groceries, and began to push her wheelchair out of the store.
“Wait. I saw that little girl looking at me.” She glanced in my direction, and I quickly looked away. I feigned intense interest in a cereal box, praying she wasn’t talking about me, knowing she was.
“Come here.” I must have given her a look as if to say me? “Yes, you. Come over here.”
My feet scuttled across the floor showcasing my trepidation. I stopped in front of her, and continued to stare at my shoes. I would have given 100 lollipops for this moment to end.
“Why were you looking at me?”
I mustered my courage and answered, “Because of your chair.”
“I am in this chair because I had a stroke.”
“What’s a stroke?” I mumbled.
“Well, if you quit talking like a baby, I’ll tell you.”
I have no idea what she said after that. I hated being admonished for the way I asked the question. Couldn’t she see I was terrified? But that scene has always stuck out in my mind. This woman would not be stared at from afar. She would confront the curious/rude child and maintain her dignity.
For many of us, when we see someone in a wheel chair or a visible disability, we handle it the same way we did when we were eight years old- steal glances, whisper questions, and look away.
This summer, we have a student with Cerebral Palsy in the Kat Camp class. Her name is Sadie, and she is four years old.
I have such respect and admiration for Sadie’s mother, Christie. All mothers want to protect their children from getting hurt, but I’m sure it has to be a little stressful for Christie to bring Sadie to my class. Will Sadie be able to participate? Will she like it? How are the other kids going to treat her? Christie overcomes her own uncertainties and lets Sadie become one of the group. It is great for Sadie- I know she loves being around the kids. But it is also important for the children to interact with Sadie- to get beyond stealing glances and know her as a person.
Sadie is noticed when she enters my house because she comes through the door in a pink and black wheel chair. Or so I thought. Kellen called it a stroller one day, and I pondered how for children his age, seeing a child being wheeled around is nothing unusual.
To start our classes, we sit on the carpet in a circle. Sadie sits in a special seat, similar to a Bumbo seat but larger. I don’t remember the exact circumstances, but I believe one of the kids commented on the seat. I said that Sadie was still learning to sit and stand, and remarked how we are all still learning to do things and will be learning our whole lives. One boy, Charlie, piped up and said “I’m still learning how to ride my bike.” I think the kids contemplated things they could do and couldn’t do, and how some skills take time to master.
Of course, it is not all rainbows and good feelings. Sadie left the seat behind, and my youngest, Kellen, asked if he could sit in it. I said sure. His brother Liam said, “Don’t sit there. It has germs.”
“Sadie wasn’t sick today. The chair doesn’t have germs. He can sit there,” I replied.
“But Sadie can’t walk.” Ouch. I hate writing that. I hate for Christie to read that. But I am also thankful for the opportunity to change his thinking at this young age. I explained that Sadie was not sick. I told him she had an injury when she was born, and it can take her longer to learn how to do some things.
I caught myself before saying “she’s just like any other kid.” I think it does a disservice to say that. It lumps kids into two categories- normal and other. I don’t like that. It also doesn’t acknowledge how hard Sadie works to sit up on her own, to control movements, to stand.
Instead, we talked about how everyone has things they can do and can’t do. How we are each unique and valuable, and how we grow from interacting with all kinds of people. I assured him it is ok to play with Sadie, how she can hear us and respond in her way. He came away thinking it’s cool she’s our friend- there is nothing better than having lots of friends to a four year old boy.
Being around Sadie forces me to see things differently too. As a teacher, I was a little scared of adapting lessons for her- not because I didn’t want to, but I feared I didn’t know enough to do a good job. At one class, we had a tortoise for a special visitor. I advised the kids to keep the tortoise in his bin, because he might get scared and pee on them. The kids all cracked up, including Sadie. She let out the biggest laugh. Maybe we can unite the world with toilet humor- or at least a group of preschoolers.
Today, another student showed up with a stuffed rabbit. I thought she just brought the toy because she liked it, but she said “I thought Sadie would like to play with it.” Part of adapting Sadie’s lesson is to give her things to touch and hold, to make a sensory connection. The student’s mother had no idea that’s why her daughter brought the toy. It made me think how valuable this time with Sadie is. Maybe these kids are going to walk away thinking of her as a playmate or a friend and take that memory with them. Perhaps they won’t stop and hide behind the cereal boxes when they encounter someone in a wheelchair.
I know Sadie is having an effect on the class, but I think they are helping her too. Today, she sat in a chair at the table with the rest of the group. It was hard work for her, and I know she was tired. But I snapped a class photo, and Miss Sadie is smiling from ear to ear. Charlie has a straw up his nose. Kellen has a mouth full of grapes. Two boys are missing teeth. Everyone else is doing some variation of a grin. They look just like a group of happy kids- different, beautiful, goofy, and fun. Just a bunch of boys and girls at camp, having a snack and wondering what activity is coming next.