Thursday, July 29, 2010

Evening in the Park

About a month ago, my wife Katie and I went to Millenium Park with a picnic dinner to listen to music. One of the best things about Chicago is the free entertainment during the summer months. Throughout the city, from May through September, you can find a free movie, free music, and free dancing every night of the week at one of the city's many parks. Our favorite is the free music at Millenium Park, which has seating for several hundred just outside a large pavillion and several football fields worth of lawn space just beyond the seating. The park is set up with large poles criss crossing horizontally all across the lawn space. Speakers hang from the poles so that no matter where one sits on the lawn, even the very back, the sound is perfect.

While we sat in the park, listening to music, and eating from a picnic basket, we were approached by two young girls. The girls gave us a hard time because they were unfamiliar with dwarfism. The experience stayed with Katie for a long time. She eventually wrote it down and read it aloud on Friday, July, 23 at the Disability Pride Parade Open Mic. Below is her story.


Evening in the Park
By Katie Arnold

Relaxing at the park, listening to music and having a picnic dinner: my husband and I. Still newlyweds, we are soaking in the joys and challenges of married life. Our peace is interrupted, as it often is, by a look of shock and fear from a passerby.

I’ve come to get used to the stares and the taunts from strangers. Sometimes I hardly even notice and more often my husband is oblivious. It is part of his life and comes with the package. A package deal of being with someone with dwarfism. Shorter arms and legs is the only difference, yet seems “freakish” to most. I’ve come to anticipate a spectacle that strangers create when we walk down the street and live our lives. The points and laughs and inappropriate questions and invasion of personal space are all par for the course. There are some “teachable moments” and other humiliating interactions. It can feel like a test—a test of character and will and power and control and love. This has become common and part of my life.

Yet this experience at the park is distinct. I stand, dancing to the music by myself while my husband, Gary, sits on our blanket. Pointing, the taunts begin: “You’re fake—you’re not real!” They echo over and over. This is a new one, I think, what does it mean? The look of fear clues me in and I bend down to talk to a little girl of about 5 years old: “It’s okay, there is nothing to be afraid of. This is my husband and he is shorter than most men.” Gary attempts to engage the little girl: “What’s your name?” he asks. “He sounds like a robot!” she screeches to her friend before racing off.

Gary and I exchange a confused look and shrug the whole thing off. I continue to dance and try to urge him to join me, to no avail. Hundreds of people are scattered around us on blankets and in chairs enjoying the evening. Each group of people is in their own cocoon as the surround sound speakers at Millennium Park create a buffer of music between conversations of groups right next to each other. I try to take it all in and appreciate Chicago in the summer.

About five minutes later, the children are back. Two super cute girls of only 5 or 6 years command our attention as they march toward my husband on a mission. I wonder if they will ask the typical questions that kids often ask: “Why are you short?” Or “how old are you?” Or maybe the more pointed: “What’s wrong with you?” All of which Gary has much experience responding to. Curiosity, after all, is natural, for children and adults alike.

The kids point at Gary and begin shouting taunts and laughing at him. The girl in the red dress takes the lead while the other girl hesitantly follows, learning as she goes. The taunts go on…and on and on…and on. Gary smiles at the girls and tries to engage them by asking questions—a strategy that usually works and helps humanize the situation for him and them. The taunts continue. I bend down with a smile and begin talking to the girls, trying to stop their broken record through education or mere distraction. Yet, they are singularly focused on making fun of Gary. We try various tactics to dissipate the uncomfortable situation and extract ourselves from this annoying onslaught and disturbance. I begin to feel helpless when nothing is breaking the dynamic. This situation is going from uncomfortable to miserable with no end in sight.

The one tactic that hasn’t been used yet is anger, yet it begins bubbling inside me. This is a last resort because I’ve learned that once you tip into that territory there is often no turning back. Stern words can often be effective, but if they are not, you can be left in an emotionally vulnerable state without many other options left at that point.

“Where are their parents?” I wonder silently, and then a woman appears. “Are they okay?” she asks me. I look at her with wide-eyed wonder. “I’m their mother,” she explains. I consider my response before replying in a measured tone: “No, they are being extremely annoying.” Now she mirrors my previous wide-eyed wondered look. I briefly reflect on the relentless nature of these children’s taunts and conjure a picture of bully’s on the school playground. This is a rare and disconcerting interaction that I have little experience with. I take an honest approach with the mother and tell her, “Children are often curious, which is natural. But these girls are not, they are being mean.” Her mouth gapes in horror and she says, “I’m so sorry, what do I need to know to follow up with them?” I look at her with empathy, she seems like a mother trying to figure out a difficult situation and wanting to teach her children to be respectful and to embrace difference. For they are different: from each other and from most families as a mixed race family. I imagine reading the mothers mind thinking how her adopted children may encounter situations like this themselves and her horror at them being the cause of such an occurrence.

As I speak with the mom and provide her some information to “follow up,” her girls continue to mock my husband. She can’t hear what they are saying, even standing a short distance away, due to the sound buffer created by the music. Only Gary can hear their exact words as they are eye-to-eye and in his face. But I can tell from his expression that it is not pleasant. I quickly finish talking to the mother and she jumps into action, bending down to the girls and telling them to stop and come with her. They are gone and I stand there baffled at what just transpired.

What probably lasted two minutes, seemed like an eternity. A wave of disgust washes over me and I can’t wait to get home and take a shower. Inside, I’m furious that we had to experience that. I’m furious that we weren’t able to stop that. One of the most disturbing aspects was how relentlessly mean-spirited these girls were at such a young age. I question what else we could have done to avoid or dissipate that. I question my own competence and power and control and love. That was upsetting. And I can’t quite get my head around it. All these thoughts stew in my head while I sit back down on the blanket next to my husband. Everyone around us does not seem to have noticed anything, insulated by the music in their individual cocoons. As the music continues, we cuddle up in our own cocoon and continue our evening and continue our lives.

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