Friday, January 28, 2011

First Encounters

[This was written for my Introduction to Special Education class. The essay prompt was "What is your first memory of disability?" I don't think it's very good but it's the first time I've ever written all this out, from beginning to end.]

Last year, I had an experience which I think is relevant to this essay. I was filling out a form for a medical appointment, and was utterly bewildered by the question "What is the least you have ever weighed?" The correct answer could only be "6 lbs, 7 oz," but at the same time I doubted my birth weight was what the doctor wanted. I wrote it down anyway, because it was the only honest answer it was possible to give.

Similarly, I'm finding it difficult to identify my first experience with disability. Technically, my entire life is an experience with disability. The process I'm going through now, as I struggle to focus on the "spirit" of the essay prompt and discard its literal meaning, is an excellent example. I can’t pick my first memory of disability, but I can tell you about elementary school. I think that might be what you want.

The first time I knew that my brain was irregular was the day in first grade when I looked around the playground and realized that no one else was sitting alone. After this realization, I ran to join another group of children immediately – not prompted by innate desire, but by fear. What did they know that I didn’t?

Much of my life has been spent answering that question.

I remember walking down a dimly-lit hospital hallway when I was four, away from the specialist who analyzed my gait. I remember the MRI I got when I was ten, and the doctor who frightened me by telling me that MRIs were for people who had things wrong with their brains. I remember being sedated in order to go to the dentist.

My parents tell the story about how my baby sister’s screaming aggravated me so much, I asked them to put her outside. They tell me about how I hid under the table in kindergarten. They tell me about the doctor who told them that I was a genius, and the doctor who told them that I might never go to college, and the doctor who told them that I was perfectly ordinary and the problem was with them, their selfish need to consider their child disabled. My mom tells the story about how when I was seven years old she would ask me to spell words for her.

I had facilitated play-dates. I had shadow tutors, behavioral intervention. In occupational therapy, an energetic woman rolled exercise balls over my body and encouraged me to play on swings. At school, teachers took my books away and told me that recess was for socializing. I tried to play soccer but was terrified of the ball, of the other team, of my team. I was frightened of the lofts in my private school classroom, so my father took me “lofting” when school was over, slowly climbing the ladder until my fear subsided. For years I went to social skills training with a group of other misfit girls. We watched videos. We watched Jake demonstrate the right way to comfort a friend, the wrong way to comfort a friend. We learned how often other people lied.

I was bullied subtly – not with name-calling, but with observations. “You never look at things.” “You daydream too much.” “You’re weird.” “You should see a psychiatrist.” “You suck at sports.” “People call you a freak.” These simple statements terrified me. I was doing everything wrong. They could see. They knew.

When I was nine, my mom sat me down and gave me the name for the strangeness in my head. Three letters to explain everything – the second, parallel education I’d been receiving; my fear of loud noises, of soccer balls, of new foods; the painfully obvious asynchrony between me and my peers. It was like learning my own name. I cried, not because I was unhappy but because I was so profoundly relieved.


  1. that sounds like a really neat class.

    oh and I like your post also. kind of hurts to read this kind of thing, always.

  2. Dear and beautiful Zoe,
    I am so moved by your clear, articulate description of your feelings and memories. I want to comfort the little-girl you that was so hurt and worried about being different. I want to tell her: you are miraculous, extraordinary, beautiful in your sensitivity!