Sunday, March 6, 2011

Anxiety of the new and the different

A few days before I started sixth grade, my older brother, a few kids from the neighborhood, and I were hanging out in the street outside our house. As much as possible, especially during the summer, my brother Erick and I tried to organize baseball games. We usually played in the street, with a tennis ball instead of a baseball. But the other kids weren't as enthusiastic about baseball as Erick and I were. I know this because one summer, after my family had returned from two weeks of vacation, the neighborhood kids reported that not one game of baseball was played in absence. So, in addition to baseball, we'd play capture the flag or we'd shoot baskets across the street, at Scott and Kevin's house. Once, when no one else was around, Erick and I invented a game called 'double play,' a game in which we pretended to be baseball infielders. We'd throw each other tough grounders then try to turn double plays. We'd simulate entire nine inning games within the double play context. The poor imaginary pitcher never had a chance to throw a no hitter because every inning started with a base hit or two in order to set-up a double play situation.

On a late summer night in 1981, just before I started sixth grade, I am not sure what Erick and I were doing when our friend Peter, from just around the corner, showed up. We started talking about the start of the school year. Peter and Erick were about to start eighth grade. In the Madison school system, middle school included sixth through eighth graders. Sennett Middle School, which I would be attending with my brother, was set up using the House System. Houses included four classrooms each. Classrooms would be made up of sixth, seventh and eighth graders. You spend the bulk of the day in the main classroom then divide up according to achievement levels for Math and English. At Sennett, unlike the previous six years of my education, I'd be spending most of the day with students one and two years older than me.

At one point, when talking about the new year, Peter, referring to me, said something to the affect of, "I'll bet you are going to have to put up with a lot of crap." He meant that because of my dwarfism, I might be the victim of teasing. Peter's remark didn't do anything to ease the anxiety I already felt about starting a new school year, at a new school, with students from other elementary schools.

Luckily, I probably had some things going in my favor to ease the transition. I was placed in the same House with my brother, who was liked and respected at Sennett, I was not that bad of a guy, and kids, even strangers, can be nice if given a chance. As a result, my transition to middle school went pretty smooth. Not every day was great. I was once the subject of brutal mockery. But the mockery had more to do with my crush on an eighth grader. I don't think my dwarfism was ever the subject of ridicule.

I was reminded of sixth grade recently after reading a column in the New York Times called "Nice Girls." The column was written by John Moe of National Public Radio. Moe has a daughter with dwarfism who is in second grade. He has done other stories about dwarfism, once in response to a character in a Michael Meyer's movie, and once in an interview with Mark Povenelli about Hollywood roles for people of short stature. He also once replied a question Ken Jennings (the Jeopardy guy) once posed on his blog. Jennings asked if it is okay for him to refer to his children as "midgets." In the "Nice Girls" piece, Moe worries about how his daughter may be treated by her peers as she grows older. But then an experience on a bus, during which he overhears a group of teenage girls, gives him reason to hope.

I understand Moe's anxiety. I felt it just before I started sixth grade. I felt it just before I started high school. I felt it before I entered college. I feel it today every time I enter a crowded bar or I am about to meet a new group of people. I think each of us, no matter if we have a disability or not, feels a bit of anxiety every time we enter a new situation. We worry what people will think of us, and whether we will be judged, not by our personality or who we are, but because of what we are. I don't think there is any formula for drilling past superficial tendencies within a new environment. Sometimes we will be embraced. Sometimes we will have trouble breaking through pettiness. But I do think it's important that we keep moving forward. If we have an interest or a passion or a goal, and if pursuing those passions requires us to throw ourselves into new situations with new groups of people, we should embrace the anxiety that comes with it. We won't always be successful, and sometimes we will develop some scars. But more times than not, we will, and the new people we meet, will be better off for it.

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