A collection of essays, outdoor adventure stories, ruminations, wordplay, parental angst, and blatant omphaloskepsis, generated in all seasons and for many reasons at 64.8 degrees north latitude

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

And now for something completely different

“Whoops… sorry! ”

I backed away from a near-tragic collision with my coworker’s bowl of minestrone, and in the process almost did a backflip over the coffee-grounds-composting bucket.  The office kitchen is woefully small for the 30 or more people who use it on a daily basis, but in this case, that was only part of the problem.   The other part was me.

Although no one had ended up wearing hot tomato-y goodness, I felt like an explanation was in order – or maybe more of an excuse.  “Sorry -- I’m blind on that side,” I said with a smile.

“Oh!  Um…”  Now the poor hapless minestrone-eater looked embarrassed. “Um… oh.  I’m… um… sorry.”

Gosh, there’s nothing like a birth defect to inject awkwardness into friendly lunchtime banter!   Never mind that mine is a trivially minor birth defect that doesn’t hamper my existence in any way, other than rendering me worthless at softball and tragically unable to enjoy 3-D movies.  I don’t mourn my inability to solve Magic Eye puzzles, and I’ve long since accepted the fact that my large nose further eclipses my already sub-par field of view.  But in our society, discussion of imperfections is just… awkward.

As a parent, I’ve run across a few articles and blog posts that attempt to address the question of How To Talk About Differences.  One of the prime directives seems to be that they have to be called Differences, never handicaps, or problems, or disabilities, or “Hey, what’s the deal with your eye?”  As a corollary to this rule, we should never in any way suggest that it’s better two have two eyes than only one.  Cyclops rules!

I get the point, of course.  We don’t want our kids to stigmatize or bully other children, or try to pull rank on someone else by virtue of having cooler braces, a cast with more signatures, or a different number of limbs.  Since my own issue is so terribly minor, I don’t feel like I have any jurisdiction in this realm.  I don’t have any idea what it’s like to be genuinely-both-eyes-blind or to have a child with Down Syndrome, so I should probably just shut up.  Usually, I do.  To my soup-eating coworker, I merely said something cheery and bland, like “Oh, no biggie!”  I know the rules: Don’t Talk About It.  But as I popped day-old casserole into the microwave, my rebellious side goaded me into thinking that maybe our society is being so cautious that we’re actually being disingenuous to ourselves – or, at the very least, confusing to our kids.  

When I was in elementary school, it was easy to explain what the deal was with my eye, because other kids asked.  They asked with interest, and they listened with equal interest to my responses. My right eye doesn’t look like the left one; it’s smaller, darker brown, has a milky white pupil, and tends to wander when I’m tired, unfocused, or bored.  (Of course, if you observe its meanderings you should not assume that YOU are making me tired, unfocused or bored, unless you are leading some kind of meeting that has lasted longer than the capacity of everyone’s attention span and/or bladder.)   To be more specific, I have a congenital cataract; I was born with the lens of one eye clouded to the point of almost complete opacity.  Given that the surgical options at the time were rudimentary and risky, my parents made the decision to leave well enough alone.  This choice was irreversible, since by the time I was two, my left eye hogged up all the available neural connections.  I’d like to think this makes my left eye some kind of uber-eye that can see through walls and around corners, but my kids are doubtless glad that I have no such mega-Mommy-powers.  My long-ago peers wanted to know if what I saw out of my right eye was the same as what they saw if they closed their own: darkness.  No, I said.  What I saw out of my right eye was the same as what they saw out of their ears.  (Kids love this answer, trust me.)  Inevitably, the conversation led to my playmates making hilarious (read “inappropriate”) gestures just outside my field of view, to test whether I’d catch them at it.  It was funny.  Actually, it still kinda is.

But then everyone stopped asking.

The only other era of my life when people openly wondered what the heck was wrong with my eye was when I lived in a different culture.  In Jamaica, the social rules regarding personal comments are for the most part a lot… looser than they are in the US.  By the time I’d been there for a few months, I’d gotten used to being called “Whitey” by anyone who didn’t know my name.   I’d also made enough friends that I could engage in a conversation about why this would never, ever fly in my home country.  It wasn’t polite, at home, I explained, for a bus driver to say something like, “Hey, you, fat woman in the back!” or “One-legged guy, you take this seat!” My new friends found such rules amusing.  Doesn’t the fat lady know she’s fat?  Hasn’t the man with one leg, you know, noticed that the other one is missing?  Isn’t it pretty ridiculous, and actually kind of offensive, to pretend that such things are invisible?

Here in the U.S. we impose a deep, silent taboo around “differences.”   At the same time, we foster intense cognitive dissonance by trying to persuade our children that differences are something super-fabulous, even when it’s obvious to even the youngest child that some of them just… aren’t.  How is a first-grader supposed to parse these mixed messages?   

I’m not sure if I have a useful solution, but maybe we could begin by being a bit clearer in explaining what kind of  “difference” can be viewed as wholly positive, in the sense that differences render the polyglot of humanity that much richer and more complex.  I’ve talked to the kids about how we wouldn’t want everyone to be English-speaking, or white-skinned, or brown-haired, or five-foot-eight, or female – even if I’m perfectly happy to live with those characteristics myself.  It would be boring!  Difference is fun!  It’s ok to be the only kid in your class who loves zucchini!  I want my six-year-olds to wholly embrace the fabulousness of variety.  I want them to aspire to be different (especially when they reach the evilly homogenizing world of middle school when Conform Or Suffer often seems to be the social mantra).  Being a liberal-minded sort, I could happily espouse the variety engendered by classmates who wear nose rings or Islamic crescents or tutus or kilts or gay pride stickers.  But I don’t want my kids – or anyone else’s -- to differentiate themselves via monocularity... or worse.  Wanting to be different seems like a peculiar aspiration when “different” includes the profound autism of an unspeaking child on the playground, or their grandpa’s Parkinson’s Disease. 

Don’t get me wrong, I certainly want society to fully embrace everyone, and to celebrate whatever abilities and fantastic individual qualities that person may have.  But to six-year-olds, it seems confusing if Mommy uses the same language to talk about hair color, muteness, and wheelchairs.  I agree that it’s important that the kids know that the PERSON isn’t bad.  The person is wonderful.  The person has feelings, and commonalities, and great qualities such as a willingness to (wordlessly) spin the merry-go-round, or the patience to play (while seated) multiple rounds of Connect Four.  But the condition?  I’m not going to tell my children that autism is a fun form of human variability.  I refuse to say that Parkinson’s Disease is just a “difference” that adds to the exciting diversity of their world.  These are illnesses.  I want them cured.  Preferably now, this minute.  I also want everyone to become just a trace less anxious about talking about the “differences” that are less-than-desirable.  To children, anything that is hush-hush is likely to seem more scary and taboo, not less – and therefore more negative, and more stigmatized.  I also suspect – although again, I can’t be sure on this point – that our intense trepidation about imperfections can sometimes make it harder for the individual in question, not easier.

For me, of course, taboos about handicaps don’t make much difference, even if I do sometimes seem to be more bumbling than the average absent-minded professor.  When I think about my cataract at all, I feel lucky that I got off so lightly.  Congenital cataracts are often associated with other defects… such as mental retardation. Wait and see, my stressed-out parents were told, back in ’72.  Won’t that be fun?  There’s no telling how “different” your child may be! Sometimes my family tells me that the jury’s still out.

Ultimately, for all that I love diversity, I’m a pragmatist.  Given the chance, I would happily accept a functioning second eye.  At the same time, I am profoundly glad that I can see, and hear, and express myself (somewhat) coherently.  Yeah, call me crazy.  Or, if you prefer, call me “different.”  Then try making really rude gestures while standing to my right, and give yourself away by giggling.  Just keep in mind that if I accidentally sidestep into your minestrone, I’ll have a really good excuse.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks, Nancy! This is great. I am becoming somewhat one-eyed myself.... alaskamamaruns.blogspot.com