*Some names in this memoir have been changed to protect privacy.
Morrison Mock was an elementary school split in two. One half was a standard K-5th grade school, while the other half served students with severe physical and mental disabilities. The administration made sure that the two halves were inclusive, that the standard K-5 side never looked at the disabled side as the “others”. Recesses took place at the same time, a classmate in a modified wheelchair swing swaying and laughing right next to a student in a standard swing. During gym, we would help the severely disabled students participate in activities like bowling, placing our hands on top of theirs to help roll the ball. Every hallway in the one-story building was lined with handrails, ensuring that no part of the school was off limits to any student. The environment of the school was well known, and students from surrounding schools had a lovely chant to taunt us with:
“Can’t walk, can’t talk, must go to Morrison Mock!”
The chant had been around for decades, offending each generation of Polar Bears like a twisted rite of passage. We knew our school was special, inclusive, and most importantly, there was no room for discrimination there. It was an ideal environment to debut my first set of leg braces, because most of the students had seen braces, power chairs, and other mobility aids every day. My fellow kindergarteners’ interest in my new plastic legs waned about a week after I got them. At Morrison Mock, I blended right in with the crowd. When the school day was over, however, I went to after school daycare, where I was suddenly the only disabled kid in sight.
Carly had been my best friend and playmate at daycare until I started wearing leg braces. She was the daughter of one of the workers there, a little entitled, but fun to play with on weekday afternoons. Maybe she was jealous of the extra attention the braces brought, or maybe she just thought the plastic encasing my calves made me somehow unworthy of her friendship. Whatever her reason, she became hostile and ruthless toward me.
An introvert from the start, I decided the best course of action was to keep to myself until my mom picked me up. I could easily manage two hours alone, and I often looked forward to the time spent in my own head. My favorite activity became playing with a magnet set. Sitting at an activity table in the corner of the room, I would pull the magnets back and forth while my mind wandered. I was fully engrossed in this activity when Carly plopped down in the tiny chair across from me, a smaller girl attached to her side. I didn’t make eye contact, knowing deep down in my damaged nerves that she wasn’t there to play nice. After a silent minute, she huffed, and I glanced up, prepared to share the magnet set.
“Stupid ole Monica… Can’t even walk right!”
She cackled and reached her arms across the table, pulling all the magnets toward herself, while I sat in shock of her random, unprompted cruelty. She and her new friend began playing as if I had never been there, as though her words had dissolved me into nothingness on the spot.
I fled to the next room, tears slipping from my eyes, where I bumped into Lana, the owner of the daycare. She crouched down and asked me what was wrong, her eyes searching my face for the source of my distress. I told her what Carly said, because I was supposed to tell adults when bad things happened to me. Lana looked past me to the table where Carly sat playing with the magnets. In a hushed tone she told me that the next day, she was going to tie Carly’s shoelaces together. We were going to teach her a lesson about how hard it was to walk like me. In my five year old mind, this was a little funny and seemed like perfect justice. Let her see how it felt to not be able to “walk right”. I spent the rest of the afternoon in the kitchen with Lana, watching her peel whole Granny Smith apples in one fluid motion. By the time my mom picked me up at 5:00, I felt better. I didn’t even tell her what happened.
I walked into daycare the next day ready for the eye-for-an-eye justice I was promised. But Carly’s mom, Terry, had caught wind of the plan and was on a warpath of her own. With Carly sniffling at her side, terrified of having her shoelaces tied together, Terry demanded to know what Carly had said that was so bad. I told her, and Terry leaned down, her overly-tanned skin and dry, curly hair inches from my face.
“You need to get over it!”, her eyes widened with each word she hissed. She grabbed Carly’s hand and marched off.
From then on, I had two bullies at daycare. Terry was as passive aggressive in her cruelty as her daughter was blatant. While Carly reveled in the moments she could corner me alone and make me cry, Terry preferred an audience. During craft time, she would comment loudly about how I held crayons or scissors “weird”, and every kid would turn to stare. Like my legs, my hands were starting to atrophy, and Terry made sure everyone noticed. I internalized her commentary and the ensuing stares almost immediately. I was different. My body was “weird”.
One hazy summer afternoon at the end of the school year, the daycare staff surprised us with several kiddie pools arranged in the yard, brimming with cold water from the garden hose. After hastily changing into a bathing suit, I stripped off my leg braces and sank down into the cool water. It wasn’t long before Carly saw an opportunity to strike. She pushed my head underwater and sat on it until an older boy saw me flailing and pulled her off. I broke the surface gasping for air and a sudden, desperate need to use the bathroom. There was no time to put my braces back on, so I started walking toward the house as fast as my skinny legs would allow, narrowly avoiding the fat bees feasting on tiny white flowers in the grass. I didn’t make it. Terry had stayed inside and heard me crying in the girls’ room stall as I tried to clean myself up. She rolled her eyes, pulled off my suit and rinsed it in the sink, all the while berating me for acting like a baby. I sat naked on the toilet and stared at my weakened feet drooping toward the tiled floor, sure that she was right.
When first grade began, I started feeling nervous all the time and tried faking stomach pains and headaches in the afternoon at school, in the hopes that one of my parents would pick me up early and take me home instead of daycare. Morrison Mock’s school nurse was kind and gentle and would let me lay between the cool white sheets on the bed in her office while I watched Rugrats. Eventually though, she had to have a talk with my parents, and my dad informed me that I wasn’t allowed to go back to the nurse unless I was really sick. I never told my parents what was really going on. I was sure that Terry being an adult meant that she was in my parents’ club, that they would automatically side with her and it would be proven that the way she treated me was my fault. Experience had taught me that tattling on Carly led nowhere but the inch of space between Terry’s angry face and mine.
Eventually, daycare attendance dropped and Lana closed up shop. I started going to latchkey after school instead, where my friends were inclusive and the adults were strictly anti-bullying. Relief enveloped me like the comfort of cool white sheets, and for a while, things were okay again. If Morrison Mock had been the inclusive utopia in which I first debuted my disability, daycare had taught me what to expect when I left those hand-railed halls behind.
By the time I started third grade, my family had moved to a school district that was affluent, homogeneous, and utterly unprepared for a disabled student to join their ranks. The questions about my legs started immediately, but unlike my old school, they didn’t stop.
“Why are you wearing casts?”
“What’s wrong with you?”
The playground swings were all standard instead of modified, but many students avoided them because of Alex, a girl with autism who would swing all recess long, repeating a string of numbers to herself over and over again, punctuated by the word “enter”. I didn’t mind and would swing next to her, the number sequence strangely soothing in the divisive new environment I now found myself in.
On the walk back to class from the playground, a girl whose name I never learned would sidle up to me and ask, “Hey, what’s wrong with your legs?” She hounded me for the entire walk, asking her same question over and over, making me pine for Alex’s number sequence. I never once answered her or acknowledged her existence. I just stared at the reflections in shiny tile floor and pretended I was walking on the ceiling, way above the constant questioning and the kids who weren’t used to being held up in the hall, yelling at me to walk faster. I was fed up with not being in control. I couldn’t control the disease ravaging my nerves or the questions and stares being hurled at me every day, but I learned that I could control my response. So, I chose silence. I chose to pretend like she wasn’t even there. After months of ignoring her, she finally gave up and left me alone.
The first year at my new school wasn’t all bad. In gym class one afternoon, Mr. Dudley announced that we were going to do relay races, an activity that elicited excitement in most kids and extreme anxiety in me. The last part of the race was carrying a ping pong ball on a spoon down the length of the gym without dropping it. Somehow, I had been chosen for this leg of the competition. With trembling hands and weak legs, I kept my eye on that ping pong ball, internally begging for it to stay put. I had made it halfway down the court and felt good enough to risk a glance up, only to see that every other team had finished and I was the sole racer left. I just knew my team was going to be mad at me for losing. With my face hot from embarrassment, I looked back down at my spoon and took another step.
I looked back up to a sea of classmates chanting my name.
They weren’t angry at all.
Mr. Dudley was chanting too.
The cacophony of voices bounced off every wall in the gym, their encouragement ringing in my ears. I crossed the finish line way past dead last, my classmates smiling and congratulating me. I couldn’t help but laugh and smile along with them. Even though I was clearly an “other” at my new school, that day, I felt like my classmates finally accepted me as one of their own.
Elementary school ended with a class wide camping trip. Every year, the 5th graders got to go on a three day camping adventure, where they stayed in real cabins and participated in ropes courses and bonding activities. It was the trip every 3rd and 4th grader looked forward to. When it was finally my turn, the teachers running the program had a talk with my mom. There wouldn’t be anything for me to do there, the activities were too demanding, and maybe it would be best if I stayed behind. Instead of working to accommodate me, or to make any accessible activities, they decided it would be easier for everyone if I didn’t go. I missed Morrison Mock more intensely in that moment than I had in three years. In my mind, it was solidified that I was a burden and that as soon as I was gone from that school, they would all breathe a little easier.
When I entered middle school the next year, I had begun to get angry about the lack of accommodation for me within the school’s infrastructure. The middle school building was multiple stories, and while it did have an elevator, operated by a special key that I had to keep on my person at all times, the elevator didn’t reach the science classrooms. So every day, in front of my peers, I had to scoot on my butt up and down two flights of stairs, while a friend carried my books and boys quacked at me. It was humiliating, degrading, and probably illegal on the school’s part. More than one substitute teacher, unfamiliar with my disability, would yell at me to stand up and walk.
I started fighting back in little, 12 year old ways. I would intentionally wait for the halls to clear out so I could scoot down the stairs alone, showing up to science class five to ten minutes late every day. This upset one of the teachers enough that he called my parents and accused me of “taking advantage of my situation.” There was no solution offered, no talks of making the building accessible enough for “my situation.” Just try to be less disabled, please. It would really be easier on all of us.
Even though I was unable to participate in most of the activities in gym class, the teacher made me change into shorts anyway. I would sit in the grass, fifty yards away from the track, while other students passed me, staring at my leg braces and telling me how lucky I was that I didn’t have to run. So one day, as I rode the elevator down to the gym, I decided to use my elevator key to turn the car to ‘Stop’. I stayed “stuck” for the entirety of the period. When I was “rescued”, the principal sat me down in the dim and empty cafeteria to question me. Was I really stuck? The elevator seemed fine. Had I used my key to stop the elevator intentionally? Summoning all of the knowledge my cop uncle had taught me about spotting a liar, I looked straight into the principal’s crystal blue eyes and told him with a steady voice that of course I hadn’t done that. He let me go, and I didn’t feel an ounce of guilt. Why should I show respect to a school that clearly had no respect for me?
My disease progressed rapidly during the last year of middle school. There were days I couldn’t make it down the hall and had to stop midway. My shaking legs would just refuse to carry me any further, and I would have to beg the nurse to let me use the school wheelchair. She would scoff and roll her eyes, so much like Terry in her demeanor. She thought I was faking it, and even started refusing to give me my Ibuprofen on the days my legs would cramp and ache. I couldn’t wait to be rid of her and the entire middle school administration.
Once home on the afternoon of 8th grade graduation, I walked straight to the backyard and right into our pool, graduation dress and all. I was so ready to cleanse myself of those years, I couldn’t even wait to put on a bathing suit. I didn’t know what high school would bring, but I was sure it had to be better than the last three years. Between the normal, nonstop bullying of preteens and the unacceptable conditions of the building, leaving middle school felt like breaking the surface after a deep, ear-puncturing dive and gulping a sweet, desperate breath.
At first, the woes of middle school seemed to carry over into that first year of high school. The boys who had loved to quack at me when I waddled through the halls and scooted up the stairs had even more ammunition now that I was using a wheelchair. Their new name for me was Peg Legs. When I told them to stop, they produced fake screenshots to make it seem as though I was saying things to them in an online chat, in an effort to justify their cruelty toward me. They accused me in front of entire classrooms of people of being lazy or faking my disease on the days I felt strong enough to stand or walk. I was miserable and came home crying most days. High school was supposed to be better. That’s what everyone had told me. My brother, a Junior when I was a Freshman, noticed my depression. He peeked into my room one evening and told me that he was driving us to school early the next day.
That next morning, as I sat in my wheelchair at my locker, wondering why we had gotten there before classes started, a line of giants on a mission walked by. My brother was at the head, followed closely by his friends: the football players, wrestlers, and otherwise imposing dudes I had known for years. When had they gotten so tall? They were looking for the Freshman boys who had been making my life a living hell, and by the looks on their faces, there wasn’t a doubt that they were going to find them. When they discovered them just one hall over, my giants formed a circle around my tormentors, blocking their exit. My brother walked up to the ring leader, grabbed him by the collar, and told him in no uncertain terms to leave his little sister alone. The boys scampered away, unharmed but scared shitless.
“They’re not going to be a problem for you anymore,” my brother told me on the drive home that afternoon. We never discussed it again.
He was right. It was the only time he intervened, and the last time it was necessary. Seeing him and his friends stand up for me reminded me that I was worth standing up for. I was done taking shit, done being the victim. Later that year, I got the chance to prove it.
The high school’s gym teacher was a petite, mustachioed man who spoke like Jimmy Stewart, had Jimmy Stewart been a dreamless, small town P.E. teacher. He had a concerning relationship with PVC pipe and built whatever he could out of the stuff: ladder ball sets, basketball carts, and just for me, a pair of ski poles that I was supposed to use to propel myself around the school’s track. He presented them to me at the beginning of class on a day the Freshman were training for their annual biathlon.
“I think just pushing yourself around the track is too easy. I wanted to make it a bit more of a challenge for ya,” he told me as he handed them over.
Oh, finally. Someone wanted to bestow the gift of making my life more challenging! I stared at him in disbelief, sure that this was some kind of joke. Was he going to give the able bodied students ice skates in place of sneakers, because running on the track was “too easy” for them? Of course not.
I reluctantly took the poles from him and laid them across my lap as I wheeled myself to the track. My classmates took off running as I awkwardly grappled with the poles. I could barely grip them with my weakened wrists. I didn’t even make it around once before class was over. As I washed the dirt track dust from my sweaty arms, I vowed I would never use those stupid PVC poles again. The next time we had class, I got myself to the back half of the track, waited until he was distracted, and chucked the poles into the woods. I blended into the middle of the group when class ended, washed up in the locker room, and went on with the rest of my day. When gym class rolled around the next week, he assumed he had misplaced them. As far as I know, they’re still on the wooded ground, covered in leaves, dirt, and traces of humiliation.
Later that year, when we got to the swimming portion of biathlon training, he told me that we could set up a series of towels from the locker room to the pool, and that I could crawl along them to get in and out. He wanted me to crawl on the floor, in a bathing suit, in front of my classmates. I had had enough with this Jimmy Stewart sounding jackass and told him that I was not, under any circumstances, doing that. So I spent the day of the Freshman biathlon handing out cookies at the finish line (and pocketing a few for later.) It really was A Wonderful Life.
Once I learned to stand my ground, the remainder of those four years passed by in a blissful blur of friendship, drama, breakups, and growing up. It took eight years, but in the midst of teenage drama, my leg braces and wheelchair finally stopped being interesting. There was always bigger news to gossip about.
I took refuge with the artsy kids in choir and drama club, finding a wonderful group of friends who liked to write and discuss big ideas and our plans for the future. We would stay up into the wee hours of the morning, writing songs we would occasionally perform and plays we would never produce. I felt unbelievably lucky to have found people who loved escaping into their minds as much as I did. They never left me out, or peppered me with endless questions about my disability, but would automatically offer me an arm when going up the steps to their front doors. They celebrated with me in earnest when was able to walk the halls during my Senior year (read all about that here) and cried with me when I got my heart broken. It may have taken me nearly a decade to find my place in that school system, but when I finally did, it was surprisingly hard to let go. We parted ways after graduation, but I will be forever grateful to them for opening a space for me to finally fit in.
I went back and forth for months about whether or not I was going to attend my ten year high school reunion. Ultimately, I decided to go, even though my best friends wouldn’t be there. I wore a dress that showed my legs and my very first pair of high heels. Mercifully, we were offered drinks as soon as we crossed the threshold. I talked to people for hours that I had barely spoken to in school, as we shared our experiences from an earlier decade. One woman told me about an English teacher who made her stand on her desk in front of the entire class to judge if her skirt was too short. Did she know about the teacher who wanted me to crawl in my bathing suit? Another former classmate told me that he used to hate me on the middle school bus, because my friends and I were too loud in the morning. Did he know that after elementary school, I was just happy to have a group of friends, however fleeting? Here we were, this group that all shared similar stories of our time in a small town school system, yet we felt so isolated while we were living them.
As I took in the room of these adults, some married, some parents, some going through divorces, I realized that we were just a collective group of experiences. Some of the people in that room had made fun of me in school, but some of them had been in that group in the third grade, chanting my name as I struggled across the finish line. Maybe some of them had been unfairly treated by the science and gym teachers, or called a liar by the school nurse when they most needed her help. Perhaps they had tormentors and no older brother to defend them. With age and perspective, I’ve learned that my life was not better or worse than theirs, even back then. At some point, most of us were “the only” something. I happened to be the only disabled kid.
I hope that the middle school eventually put in an elevator that went all the way down to the science rooms. I hope that the elementary school added inclusive activities in the 5th grade camping trip. I hope the high school got a wheelchair lift for the pool, so no young girl will be given the heinous option to crawl. But if nothing has changed, I hope the next disabled student didn’t learn the same bad lessons as I did, that she doesn’t confuse staying silent with being in control. I hope she tells her parents when adults are treating her badly, yells until they build that elevator, and fights for her right to be included. And I hope her classmates join her, chanting her name like third graders in gym class. I hope they all realize that they’re sharing this experience, and I hope they realize it much sooner than I did.
Toward the end of the reunion, someone brought out a yearbook that they had never gotten signed. One of my classmates, a girl I had once seen bullied for being one of the only Jewish students in school, asked me what she should write in it. I leaned in and told her, and she hurried to the yearbook, smiling.
“What did you tell her to put?” my husband asked.
“A classic,” I replied. “What a long, strange trip it’s been.”
Bullying is never okay. If you or someone you know needs help or want to volunteer to help others, check out this list of anti-bullying organizations.