Last year, I remember a lot of chatter about a CNN feature on children and racial prejudice–the infamous “doll study” in which children were shown two dolls, identical except for skin color, and asked to indicate and explain their preferences. CNN being, well, CNN, they videotaped parents reacting to their children, many of whom expressed some pretty shocking beliefs about why the white baby was better. The parents in the study were often chagrined: a common refrain was, “I never taught him to think like that–we don’t discuss race at all.”
One fundamental take home lesson of that study was that children, given a topic which is everywhere evident but not often openly discussed, will try to make their own sense of things: you can’t raise a race-blind child by not mentioning race. You’re just making a vacuum for her to fill with her own stuff.
Disability, I’d argue, is in many ways the same. As children develop their senses of self over time, they are relentlessly curious about anything Other. They look, they watch, they often ask questions. It seems sometimes like the most common adult response to this youthful curiosity is one basic message: don’t stare.
Well and good, but probably not enough. When adults tell children not to point or laugh or stare at someone who is different, we’re affirming something crucial–the simple right of another human being to go about his human life without a judge or an audience that he didn’t ask for. But if we stop there, we’re giving kids a baffling half message, and letting them run loose. Yes, that person’s different. Don’t talk about it.
Last week, one of my fourth grade students had to come with me when I went to help out in a kindergarten class. Nicole has a brilliant smile, pink shoelaces, cerebellar ataxia and a cognitive age in the 2-4 range: for many of these little people, meeting her was the first up-close experience they’d had with a wheelchair.
Nicole had a blast at Center Time. Many of her new friends, though, weren’t quite sure how to handle it. While Nicole busied herself with scooting on the floor and shoving rhyming cards in cardboard houses, I fielded the questions and noticed the stares.
What happened to her. Does it hurt. What’s wrong. Kids looking away, when Nicole smiled at them. Me prompting them twice to wave back when she left.
With the teacher and parents’ permission, I came back two days later to read the class a story about wheelchairs and talk to them about Nicole. The book Mama Zooms, by Jane Cowen-Fletcher, is so perfect for the very young. It’s about a little boy and the imaginary places he goes to while riding on a “zooming machine”–which is actually the lap of his wheelchair-using mother. You don’t see the whole chair until the last couple pages. It’s fun to watch the kids get excited about the “machine” and the cool places it can go: when they finally realize that it’s a wheelchair, their faces show delight, not pity. The class loved the story, and it led into a discussion of another wheelchair–I showed them Nicole’s picture and explained to them that Nicole’s wheelchair helps her go to all the places that she loves, like school. Afterwards, the kids went to their desks to illustrate a sentence starter: I shrunk a coloring page with a wheelchair, typed the words “A wheelchair can go….” underneath the picture, and made twenty-five copies. Kids drew their own ideas–I’m not sure Nicole knows just how often she’s evidently supposed to go to the zoo and buy toys. As I and the other adults in the room circulated to write down the words, we talked with kids who had stories of wheelchairs they’d seen (sometimes in their own families), or questions they still wanted to ask. I was surprised that no one asked the “What happened to her” question (which I had intentionally been coy about when it was asked the first time around the previous week)–it seemed enough for everybody to know that the wheelchair could help Nicole go where she wanted to go.
Afterwards, one of my paraprofessionals thanked me for doing the lesson: she’d been Nicole’s aide four years ago, in kindergarten, and said that the other kids initially hung back. “One little girl, she was scared of the wheelchair. I sat Nicole in my lap one day, and let the kids come touch the chair, but Serena wouldn’t. I asked her why, and she told me: she thought if she got too close, she’d need one, too.”
There is so much lovely and confused and magical thinking in kids. As adults, we have an amazing and humbling charge: to leave space for the wonder of a child’s thinking process, while gently guiding kids out of misconceptions and fear.
This year’s batch of kindergarteners are now waving to Nicole in the hallways. Our work isn’t done here, but it’s off to a good start.