I’m part of a Book Club with some friends of mine and this month’s book is “The Story of Beautiful Girl”, by Rachel Simon. It is a wonderful book with characters who live in an institution for the mentally disabled. I won’t do the storyline justice if I try to describe it, but please find out more about it here.
I loved that we were able to see so far into Lynnie’s perspective and begin to understand some of the reasons for her behaviors. (The author has a sister with intellectual disability and has a unique view and insight.) The mistreatment people have to experience at the institution is heartbreaking… I found that the institution was almost a character in itself.
As I was reading the book, I was reminded of something I wrote a few months back. It was a memory from High School and pays tribute to my mom, who worked as an RN for severely disabled kids for a period of time in her career. (She totally reminds me of Kate from the book.) I didn’t want to post it at the time because I felt like I had been voicing frustrations with teachers a lot and didn’t want to be “teacher bashing”. But, in all honesty it really isn’t a teacher problem – it’s a society problem. And maybe it was just meant to be now – after I read the book.
Unfortunately, as in with the book, there are people who still view disabled people as “less-than”. It is scary how fast some people pounce on and abuse “the weak”. But if everyone does their part and holds the abusers accountable, our society will become more accepting, and bit-by-bit a change will come.
Change one view and we’re on our way of changing the world.
Thank you, Mom, for being the person you are and loving others the way they were created to be. It has made a big difference in my own life.
It was Freshman year of High School and my family was sitting with a big pile of family photos on the floor – laughing and “Oo-ing” and “Ah-ing” at everything we saw.
“Why did I wear that stupid hat?!”
“Oh my gosh, look how young Grandpa looked!”
“I remember that house…”
At one point, a collection of pictures that had stayed together caught my eye. They were school pictures of kids I’d never seen before. I could see that some of the kids had disabilities.
Curious, I held up one of the pictures and asked, “Mom, who’s this?”
My mom’s eyes brightened and she said, “Oh! That’s Billy!” and explained that she worked at a home for severely disabled kids for a time in her nursing career. She said she just loved it and loved the kids. Bringing things back to Billy she went on…”He looooved hugs. Every morning he would swing his arms in the air when I walked in and say ‘Hi Phyl!’ and give me a huge hug. He was so cute.” She also shared that he would sit and rock and rock and rock. That was heartbreaking.
We casually went through the photos one by one. My mom remembered each of their names and would have a funny or sweet story for each of them. It was such an unexpected view of my mom’s life away from us kids. And interesting to learn that even when she was away from us, she was still mothering.
“How would I want you to be treated if you got in an accident and couldn’t take care of yourself?” She explained. “That’s how I made sure I took care of those kids. They were precious children!” I imagine there were some grateful parents. That’s nursing at it’s best.
You could tell they meant a lot to her and they left a mark on her heart. Their pictures were mixed in with family memories, after all. And not just tossed in there to be forgotten. Tossed in, yes, just like all the rest. But also just like our family pictures to be brought out to reminisce and be cherished.
Fast forward to Senior year of High School and I was the nurse’s aide for one of my hours at school. If you had enough credits to graduate, you could be a teacher’s aide. All of the other teachers were taken and I was panicking because I didn’t want to have to take a regular course. The school nurse was the last person I would have chosen. I had been to her once and she was, oh, how do I say this nicely? Not pleasant. I was desperate though and glad she allowed me to be an aide for her. (I later learned she put on a hard shell.) My tasks were mainly filing, running random errands around campus for her and supervising a girl from the Special Ed department who came to change sheets on the cots. It was a good task for her and a good way for her to have responsibility, they explained. Her name was Molly.
Molly was adorable. She was very shy, and couldn’t talk much, but you could see her crooked smile through her bobbed hair as she looked to the ground. It was clear that she had a sweet soul. With quiet determination to do a good job, she would come in and change the sheets and pillowcases. There wasn’t much to supervise. Our interaction would be something like this:
“Hi.” And she’d get to work, finish, then leave.
Even so, I couldn’t help but feel pulled towards her and her sweet demeanor.
One day I was sent to the Special Ed class because they were incredibly behind on an important task that was supposed to be completed that day. I was told to go in and get them up to speed during my hour.
OK. No biggie.
Walking into the classroom I saw rows of kids with varying degrees of disabilities hard at work. The teacher saw me in the doorway and said, “Can I help you?”
“Yeah, I’m supposed to help for this hour…?”
She dramatically heaved a sigh of relief, “Oh, thank God – a NORMAL person. It will be so nice to have a NORMAL person for a while. You can sit right there. Ugh. What did you do to get forced into this job?!”
Shocked, I just said, “Uh, nothing. Just want to help…” and got to work.
The girl next to me was quite talkative and I learned about what her family was going to do that weekend. As I’m listening and working as fast as I can, a different teacher walks into the room and stops in her tracks and her face breaks into a big smile when she sees me.
“What is a NORMAL person doing here?! How exciting! It is so nice to see a NORMAL person!” The same word. The same inflection. The same abuse. (Yes, abuse.)
I didn’t say anything. I wanted to say so much, but I just didn’t know what to say. I was shocked. I got my hour done and got out of there. I was so relieved. Obviously not because of the kids, but because of my disgust from the people who should be helping them. I realized, with the way the teachers acted throughout the hour, that the kids were treated that way all of the time, without any pause of it being inappropriate or cruel. And then the thought came to my head that Molly, MY Molly, was being treated like that.
I think because of my mom’s unabashed acceptance and love towards kids who had challenges, I didn’t even stop to think that others might not treat them with the same dignity and respect.
It really did shock me, and I was sick to my stomach all day. I vowed I would never treat anyone like that.
My mom’s words came back to me, “How would I want you to be treated…”
And being of high school mind, I vowed to make sure Molly knew she was just like every other kid walking the halls in high school. That she was normal. Isn’t that what all high schoolers want… to fit in and to have a friend?
Later that week I saw her walking in the hall as I was heading out to lunch with my friend. She was in her usual route. I had seen her other days, but didn’t say anything. Prior to that eye-opening day, it wasn’t like I avoided her – I just simply didn’t think about it.
She walked in her usual gait with her head down and a hunched form.
I still didn’t know if it would be important, if she would even care, but I said “Hey Molly.” as I would say to any of my friends.
Her head quickly snapped up and she looked at me. She had never looked right at me before, but this time she did. She looked at me, confused.
I smiled and repeated, “Hi Molly!” so she would know that it was indeed meant for her.
I still remember her face. I still remember that cute crooked smile and her eyes looking right at me.
Then she looked back to the ground. “Hi,” She said and continued to smile as she moved down the hall and around the corner. And I knew it was important.
I’m so thankful to my mom for teaching me to love and accept others in the best possible way – through example.
I pray I can do the same.