at one point in my childhood i loved the see-saw. at recess i would eagerly accept any of my classmates’ invitations to go on it. i’d go up and down, up and down squealing with joy. sometimes i’d even close my eyes and fling my head back to feel the rush with even more intensity. surprisingly, whichever girl was see-sawing across from me seemed to find more joy in watching me slam down hard on one of my ankles after her abrupt jump off the bottom. i would cry. she would laugh. ps: i was not popular.
third grade was possibly the worst of the worst school years. the music teacher believed my first name to be Armadillo and adamantly refused to change it – much to the delight of my fellow third graders. i was at my peak childhood weight and had a short, boy-cropped haircut. the day after my mom took me to get my hair weed wacked, classroom heartthrob daniel stacy yelled “YOU LOOK LIKE A BOY!” the minute i walked through the door. no matter how many times my mom insisted that i looked precious, the rest of the world made sure i knew better. my mom even went as far as suggesting that the entire classroom full of kids made fun of me because they were jealous of me.
i give jealousy a 2% chance of being the reason for my elementary school woes.
my lack of popularity grew so great that i would just stand next to my teacher the entire length of recess. just me and mrs. rockas awkwardly hanging out for 30 minutes. i stood there for the sake of companionship and self-preservation; she stood there because they paid her to watch the kids play. i confidently considered her my best friend.
then something interesting happened: my mom became good friends with one of the special education teachers at my school. she eventually became a sort of a mentor for me for the remainder of my elementary school career. her name was ms. marcie. she was funny, kind and bravely spoke spanish aloud -something i had learned vanquished your chances of keeping any friends. i looked up to her and respected her. she taught me how to swim and even helped me become a student patrol (oh yeah, who’s laughing now popular kids?!). but, the most important thing she ever asked me to do was to be her assistant in the special olympics. i proudly helped her three years in a row and got to know all of the students in the special education classes.
in fact, i got to know them so well that as i would stand next to mrs. rockas every day at recess, the students in special ed would walk or be wheeled right past me and would happily look and wave in my direction. they became my friends. i have a vivid picture in my head of one little girl in particular. she was in a wheel chair, could not talk and she had the curliest brown hair i had ever seen. she was the most excited to see me and i her. she would effusively smile and wave at me until i would run over to hug her…and touch her curly hair, of course, because it fascinated me.
something was clearly written in my heart those days…
people with disabilites may have healthier hearts than those who are able-bodied.
despite this, i grew up just like most every girl – chasing labels of “pretty”, “skinny”, “smart”, “good enough”…etc. my heart was so lost and self-involved in my search for approval that i even became the type of person who made “short bus” jokes to my friends. you know – as in the bus that disabled children ride to school. if my friends said something stupid i’d reply with something like “hey, did the short bus accidentally pick you up today?” or “hey, i think you need to ride the short bus home”. clearly mocking those children who were disabled as if they were “less than”, as if being disabled was synonymous to being stupid and on top of that choosing not to remember that at one point in my life those kids were the only ones who chose to be my friends.
i walked up to the ticket booth at morgan’s wonderland (a beautiful theme park designed for all abilities) and asked for 3 tickets: one for me, one for isabella and one for lucia. the lady behind the counter asked if either of my girls were “special needs”. i thought about it for a minute and replied “i don’t know”.
is lucia special needs? the medical community as well as the education system seems to think so. but outside those two communities i’ve only heard the term “special needs” used more often than not in a derogatory way. the realization that one day one of my daughters might hear the term “special needs” or the like in an offensive way made my heart shatter into tiny little pieces.
“you are so special needs”
“i did something stupid, i must be special or special needs”
the term “special needs” seems to go hand in hand with…let’s all say it together…the term “retarded”. the medical community uses “mental retardation” and “growth retardation” as viable terms. but the rest of the world does not.
“i am so retarded”
“he/she/it is retarded”
“you are a retard”
i froze at the morgan’s wonderland counter. is lucia “special needs”? not my daughter. not my precious jewel. not my baby who i actually do consider quite special.
why has this word “special” been so twisted and degraded? something once used to praise one’s uniqueness has now become a sort of a curse. when did the words “special needs” become a single adjective to describe a person? when did they stop being an adjective and a noun? why don’t they ask me if my daughter has any “special medical needs” instead? why are they labeling my daughter? who gave them the right? the thoughts swirled and sadness spilled over in me.
i thought: this sensitivity in me. this raw nerve. that, if anything, is a special need. a new and special need i now have as the mom of this beautiful child. a need to know that i can protect my daughters, that i can make the right decisions for them, that i can hold it together when things get hard. if anyone here is “special needs” – it’s me.
i’ve thought long and hard about these labels and terms. i’ve read many blogs and commentaries written by vocal mothers who are fiercely against the use of any of these words in a derogatory way. and i agree with them.
but, here’s what i’ve chosen as lucia and isabella’s mother: i’ve chosen to let it go. i’ve mentally removed the stinger from the words. i choose to see the words as merely words. they are words with no meaning unless i allow them to have meaning. i am the only one who chooses whether these labels stick or not. and i one day hope teach my girls that labels hold no value. whether it be “special needs” or “pretty” or “retarded” or “smart” or “successful” or “dumb” or “fat”. i ask God that they will hold no meaning in my daughters’ hearts. my hope is that they won’t waste years of their lives chasing or running away from these empty labels. i pray that they will each know in a concrete way who they truly are: a forgiven child of God.
for now, the term “special needs” gets lucia better medical insurance coverage, better medical attention, better therapy, better education options and a free pass into morgan’s wonderland (which, by the way, is one of the most amazing places i’ve ever been). the term serves a good purpose for lucia right now and, for that reason, i’ll use it liberally and boldly. but “special needs” is not what defines lucia.
lucia is a girl designed and crafted by the hand of God. she is one of God’s masterpieces. word.
*i strongly recommend the book “you are special” by max lucado. it’s a childrens book, but i read it often for my own benefit and ask God to be like lucia (yes, a character in the book) and not let either dots nor stars stick to me at all.