This is the weekend before Christmas, and in honor of the season I am presenting a slightly revised version of a recent KosAbility posting. Everyone in our society who is not quite “normal” will recognize this situation. I hope that if you read this little story you will remember to include people who are physically or socially awkward in your gatherings and happy occasions. Most especially, I ask you to give any children you may know an extra hug during the holidays.
KosAbility is a community diary series posted at 5 PM ET every Sunday by volunteer diarists. This is a gathering place for people who are living with disabilities, who love someone with a disability, or who want to know more about the issues surrounding this topic. There are two parts to each diary. First, a volunteer diarist will offer their specific knowledge and insight about a topic they know intimately. Then, readers are invited to comment on what they've read and/or ask general questions about disabilities, share something they've learned, tell bad jokes, post photos, or rage about the unfairness of their situation. Our only rule is to be kind; trolls will be spayed or neutered.
Once upon a time, long ago, in the America that is seen with such nostalgia by the far right in this country, I was a little girl growing up in Southern California. In those days I was struggling with a variety of health problems, and I eventually ended up having to be homeschooled. This was not the protest-against-the-system homeschooling of today, but the publicly supported type, in which a teacher from the school district visited my home twice a week, giving me some instruction and leaving me packets of work materials to do on the days she did not visit. It was a lonely existence; I was rarely able to leave the house.
However, whenever I was able, I did attend church and Sunday school with my family. I looked forward to it. We attended the church in which my mother had grown up, and Sundays usually included lots of giggling and playing with the cousins after the services.
I was nine years old, in the fourth grade, when I first began to understand that there was a world beyond the everyday world I knew. That year, according to the chatter I overheard from my mother and the aunts, our church was planning a special treat for the children of the Sunday school. They were going to have someone special–I never knew if it was someone from the Bishop’s office in Los Angeles, or a representative of the Bishop, or an actor hired by the Bishop’s office–but it was someone from outside our community, someone whose visit was going to be a very special treat for the children and a very special honor for the adults, someone who would play “Saint Nicholas” at our annual Christmas children’s service.
On the Saturday afternoon before Christmas, my sisters and I were scrubbed and put into our Sunday clothes, with sparkly Christmas corsages pinned on our coats–a little scratchy on the chin, but festive. We joined the rest of the family in the center of the church, and settled down for the usual fare of Christmas carols, a reading of the gospel, a living manger scene presented by the kindergarten and first grade children (complete with squirming angels), and finally a recitation of the story of Saint Nicholas and the dramatic entrance of the saint himself.
He wore long, shimmering, red velvet robes, striding forward and seating himself on a golden chair next to the manger scene. He spoke a few lines about his love for children, presented each of the children in the manger scene with a treat from his leather bag, and let them scamper back to their parents. He then pulled forward a box of gifts provided by the church (I had seen my aunts wrapping some of them) and announced that the older children would be given gifts according to their grade levels. He called out the second graders, the third, the fourth... I went forward with the children of my grade, a little slowly, limping in my steel-reinforced footwear, and took my place at the back of the line. We moved forward politely, one at a time, each child accepting a gift and thanking the saint. Finally it was my turn. I stepped forward, right in front of the saint, and looked at him. He looked over my head, searching the audience behind me. “Are there any more fourth graders?” I stood in front of him and raised my hand to show him I was there. He looked at me, straight in my eyes, and said, “No more fourth graders here. So, fifth grade, come forward.”
To this day, I do not know why he did that. There were separate gifts for each grade level. I knew the color of the wrapping for the fourth grade gifts, and there were at least half a dozen in the box he held. Was my name not on some list he had been given? Did he think I was not supposed to be there? Did he have a personal reason for doing what he did? All I know is that what he did was deliberate. He saw me, he let me know he saw me, and he essentially blocked me out of the Christmas festivities.
The Puritan roots of my family are strong. I, and every child in my family, knew that crying and creating a fuss in public is wrong. We were all trained not to do it. So I did not make a fuss as I walked back to my family. I did not make any noise. I kept my mouth firmly shut, and I held my head down so that no one could see the tears in my eyes. Somehow, when I got back to my seat, someone from the family was standing in the aisle. That person–my father? One of the uncles? I don’t remember... that person took me by the hand, led me to a car, and drove me home. I remember sitting quietly, keeping my head turned towards the window, so that the driver would not see the tears beginning to flow down my cheeks. At home, the driver opened the back door of the house and stood aside while I went in. I quickly took refuge in the bedroom I shared with my sisters... and finally, in that quiet bedroom, with the door shut and the darkness of the covers over my head, finally I could cry as much as I wanted.
I really did not care that much about the little gift from the Sunday school committee. Every year the children were given little animal figures to add to a manger scene. Nothing important. But I knew that the pretend St. Nicholas–the wonderful visitor from afar–had intentionally humiliated me. He had wanted to hurt me. It was weak of me to let him accomplish his goal, I knew that, even as I wept, but I had never before been forced to deal with the fact that someone would look at me and see nothing but a target for cruelty. I had never before met someone whose eyes told me that I was less than human to him.
Of course, that was long ago. I’ve had similar experiences many times over the years, but mostly they are not in front of an audience. In retrospect, I have learned a lot from that meeting with St. Nicholas. I watch for people like him now, and half-expect them to act the way he did. Too bad for them if they want to display their ignorance and bad manners!
I understand now that people like me frighten people like him. If you are (or you want to be) a Very Important Person with lots of money, lots of fame, or both, you would like to think that when you are a Success you have risen far above the lot of ordinary mortals. Seeing someone like me is a reminder that the body is truly a feeble vessel, and that in the end we will all succumb to its weakness, even those of us who are rich and famous. Because in the end we are all human, no matter how rich and famous we may be.
On that afternoon so long ago, I didn’t understand all that, of course. No one in my family ever said a word about the incident to me, or tried to explain it. It was not our way. I lay alone in my bed after the storm of weeping passed, watching the afternoon sun fade to gray. Once I heard the refrigerator door in the kitchen open and shut, so I knew that the person who had taken me home was still in the house, but other than that, all was silent. Eventually, just as the streetlights came on, another car drove up and I heard my sisters and cousins coming into the house, chattering excitedly. Then I heard my mother walking down the hall. She knocked at my door and entered quietly.
“You need to get up and get ready for supper,” she said. “We’re having spaghetti.” Then she laid a tiny, beautifully wrapped package on the bed. “This is a present from your grandmother.”
This was a surprise indeed. My grandmother had a very strict rule about treating all the grandchildren equally, and she never gave any of us gifts except on our birthdays or at Christmas. And this wasn't quite Christmas... What could this be?
The present turned out to be a little book of poems, with flowering vines curving around the edges of the pages and small, bright illustrations. My grandmother had written a note on the flyleaf, giving me her love. And so I washed my face and straightened my rumpled dress and went out to the supper table and tried to behave as if nothing had happened. And I knew, even if nothing was ever said, that my grandmother and my mother were on my side. That no one, not even Saint Nicholas, had the right to treat me, or anyone else, badly.
May each of you have a wonderful Holiday Season, and please remember that young people have long memories. Please give all the children in your life the best of yourself--your love and your warm heart--this year.