Thinking about the monument…and Billy.

October 16, 2011 at 11:53 AM (Uncategorized) (, , )

…that’s being dedicated today…

and how my growing up differed from my parents my neighbors and my eventual able bodied schoolmates with regard to race. And, that difference wouldn’t have happened had I been born able bodied.

I’m also thinking about what I didn’t learn at that age about oppression within the disabillity community. Surprisingly, the second lesson took a lot longer.

I’m white. White, white, the whitest.
I grew up in a middle middle to upper middle class suburb. It’s most wealthy resident swore to keep it white, as it had been when both sets of my biological parents grew up there, white Anglo-Saxon Protestants.
when I was a little girl in the sixties, I’d imagine some on our street didn’t lock their doors every night. I felt safe and I was. Like a living breathing episode of the Brady Bunch with one kid instead of six.

Nobody was marching there. I never saw any guys with long hair or tye dyed shirts.

But I left that world in a station wagon or commercial van. [this predated the hated “short buses.”] every school day beginning in 1965 or 1966 when I was three or four and bussed to what is known today as the Achievement Centers for Children, in Cleveland, on East Boulevard for nursery school with other kids with disabilities.

My busing experience predated forced busing by several years. A high percentage of the kids with disabilities from the suburbs were bussed in, as this was one of only a few “Special Education” schools in the area. Kids of all faiths, all colors. (Back then it had the telethonish name of the Society for Crippled Children) When you’re three or four, your personality isn’t even completely set yet, not to mention your value system. (All I remember from those school days is playing the triangle and hitting blocks to make music, and walking up a fake flight of stairs and falling down the same flight, clanking around in my leg braces.)

Kindergarten, which I probably entered in the fall of 1967, at five-two-months-til-I’d-be six, was at another City of Cleveland school for kids with physical disabilities, with a subsection built soon thereafter for kids with physical and cognitive impairment. It had the unabashedly perky moniker of Sunbeam School.

[Gawd what was it with the sappy names? Camp Cheerful in the summertime was another one. The blind, and deaf schools next door and across the street had names with some logic, Anthony Wayne, and Alexander Graham Bell. But if you had mobility problems? Sappy, Sappy Sappy.]

My best friend in kindergarten, Carla, had a startling difference. She was black. “She’s the real thing,” I told my astonished great grandmother one day.

“Since I’m lighter than her,”
“Lighter than she,” …said educator great-grandma.
“Since I’m lighter than she I must be an imitation!”

We both really wanted to visit each others houses. I had met Carla’s Mom, and thought her nearly as beautiful as my own Mom. I know that Mom and Carla’s Mom spoke together on the telephone…it appeared a good conversation. I learned later that both sets of parents were equally concerned about the wisdom or safety of Carla and I crossing lines that way in 1968. So it never happened.

And there was Suzie with no arms, and when I was older, Debbie with braces and crutches…and Jackie with braces in eighth grade, a role model in the “smart and funny,” department when I had to return from mainstreaming for a year, and Denise, with the same impairment as Suzie. And Nanette, who didn’t believe in birthdays or Christmas. Bernadette and Danny, who smiled all the time. Not to mention Eddie, who was black who was also my boyfriend one summer at that sappy camp.

And with them other students with other differences…my third and fourth grade friends Robin and Janette who were a different religion than me. Wilbur, who was another different skin tone, and by eighth grade quite the ladies man.

The teachers were wonderful, and earned every perk they ever got.

Mrs. Glennon, my first grade and LD teacher (I was ‘gradeless’ in second grade, educated with LD kidsbecause they were trying to make sure I grew out of a very early learning disability – dyslexia.)
Mrs. Glennon took us to her farm in the spring.
Mrs. Sternberg, in my last year there, who had to wrangle us to focus on schoolwork, when even as kids, we were buzzing about the Watergate hearings.
Mrs Mischal my gym teacher, and then in eighth grade, my homeroom teacher… Best disciplinarian there. Fair, and unyielding.

And the art teacher Mr. Eagle-eye, who was so cool explaining his name and the Native American traditions, that I didn’t want to fail him…art which I failed and failed and failed at. All my bizarre and interesting ideas ended up being stick figures. Mr. Eagle-Eye was pleasant and undaunted about it.

By fourth grade, interacting one on one, race did not matter to me at all. I didn’t think about it.

But even in that place…the one huge bigotry we all carried around…was universal loud scorn about the cognitively impaired kids “down that corridor.” All the rest of the Other’s we didn’t seem to give a crap about, but nobody saw the hypocrisy in “othering” those kids.

The next year, when I was mainstreamed, the only gimpy kid in a roomful of ableds, they were freaking out a little bit.

“You’ve actually SEEN a black person?”
I couldn’t help it. I burst out laughing. “Of course I have! Haven’t you?”

Crickets. And some racist stuff from them.

“Oh, brother. They’re people. They’re no different. Don’t be dumb.”

That, of course, did not go over well.

Being white and liberal… I’d be stupid to claim I’m completely free of racism, or leaning on stereotype…but it always seems to have to do with location. I’m scared in poor neighborhoods when it isn’t midday.

The fears of my parents about being in certain neighborhoods in the city or suburbs did transfer to me. I’ve still got it. Any part of Cleveland proper where I’d be a minority, I behave differently. Watchful. If I end up living in University Circle in a few years, that mindset’s going to return. It was there when I lived downtown. It was screaming loudly when my best friend lived just behind Shaker Square after college. It’s ingrained. I try to think of it in terms of safety alone, because I figure the more I do that, the less I’ll come off racist.

My first full-time workplace was almost equally divided in terms of black and white.

I’d like to think my melting pot of a school had the effect of making that detail irrelevant on the job.

And I feel sad that so many people that grew up where I did still have that fundamental problem that people who don’t look like them…are automatically less.

The days I really regret in my school experience where I willfully disregarded my own advice above…

Even after mainstreaming in fifth grade when I should have had more sense, I verbally “went” after a cognitively impaired boy named Billy while some other kids were also doing so. To distinguish myself from him, and to make a useless attempt at ‘fitting in.’

My day in the future that I think about with hope, is the day the word ‘retard’ is out of the language, and kids with physical disabilities interact with and talk about cognitively impaired kids with sensitivity.

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