A long time ago, when I turned five last summer, a lady named Jackie came to my house once a week. She had short hair and red fingernails, and she was always friendly. Jackie worked in the hospital as something called an occupational therapist. Every visit with her was like a miniature Christmas because she brought bags full of the most amazing toys I’d ever seen. There was every kind of puzzle and game imaginable. I did them as fast I could because they were so easy. As soon as I’d finished one, she gave me more.
Later, around July, more people started coming to the house. They asked me lots of questions, like, “What color is my shirt?” or they showed me a bunch of pictures and asked, “Which one is different?” I remember that I liked putting the pictures in the right groups. Later, Mom said the groups were called categories. I’d put all the pictures of animals together, or everything that was the same shape. The strangers kept telling me that I was very smart and that I was doing a great job. Sometimes they’d go into the kitchen to talk with my parents. They didn’t realize that I could hear every word they were saying anyway. “She’s doing incredibly well,” I heard from the other room. “It doesn’t seem to have affected her intelligence at all. In most cases, I’d say no, but she definitely seems ready.”
Mom would say, in an annoyed voice, “And why is that so surprising?”
That was usually when I stopped listening, because I couldn’t understand what they were saying. They used the words “cerebral palsy” a lot. I know cerebral palsy makes the muscles in my legs tight, and that’s why I had to go to Boston to see Dr. Schwartz. I liked Dr. Schwartz because he made me laugh and talked to me like I was an adult. He stretched my legs and then measured them with a giant ruler. Then he drew on my feet with a special purple marker that tickled. He molded plaster around my feet and used the plaster casts to make leg braces. The braces kept my legs straight so it was easier for me to walk.
When I started kindergarten in September, I wore my leg braces (Dad called them my “moon boots”) and brought along my walker. It’s made of shiny red metal and has a basket with Mickey Mouse on it. If I want to, I can make the wheels go really fast. “You can do anything they can do, but you just do some things a little differently,” Mom reminded me. I can also do things other people can’t do. I was already reading books with chapters back then, and now I can read like a sixth grader.
On the first day, my teacher, Mrs. Adams, came up to welcome me right away. She was kind of old and chubby, but she seemed nice, like somebody’s grandmother. The classroom was cozy, with colorful posters on the walls. The desks were arranged in groups, with a nametag for each person. And there were books piled everywhere, picture books and chapter books.
At 10:00, we had recess outside for half an hour. The playground was a strange place, with lots of plastic, mulch, and concrete. I didn’t know how to use most of the equipment, but I wanted to figure it out. All around me, everyone was running, jumping, or climbing. I felt like they all had a secret that they couldn’t share with me. I saw benches, monkey bars, and plastic slides like the one I used at physical therapy. When Jackie, the occupational therapist, came to my house, we just played games and talked. But physical therapy is hard work because I have to do all kinds of exercises. I don’t know how anyone can exercise for fun!
The schoolyard seemed to go on forever, so I just explored it for a while. At first I was a little afraid of falling on the gravel, but I felt safe with my walker. I liked watching its wheels make tracks in the mulch. I tried making different designs, like swirls and figure-eights. All the boys shouted, “Cool!” as soon as they saw my walker. They thought it was way better than their Hot Wheels. “Can I borrow your car?” one boy asked me. I said sure, as long as he brought it to my bench when he was done.
Once I had my walker back, a girl with dark brown pigtails and a big smile walked over to me. She pointed to my basket excitedly. “Hi, I’m Hannah! Mickey’s my favorite! I met him when I went to Disney World!” she said, all in one breath. Soon, we learned that we both loved Disney movies and Dr. Suess books. We decided that we had about a million things in common.
Hannah seemed really nice, but a few minutes later, I went off exploring again. Suddenly, this other girl walked right up to me and said loudly, “What happened?”
“Huh?” I said.
“What happened to your legs?” She was standing in my personal space, exactly what Mrs. Adams had told us not to do.
“Nothing happened. I was born this way. It’s my cerebral palsy,” I explained. I like using words no one else can understand. I don’t care if it makes them mad.
She just kept staring at me like I wasn’t really a person, just a walker and a pair of leg braces. “Why?”
I wanted to yell at her, “Why are you so rude?!” but I didn’t.
After recess, Mrs. Adams seemed angry. She talked to us for a long time about how everyone was unique. This confused us even more. Maybe everyone was unique, but not everyone had cerebral palsy.
That wasn’t the last time we heard about being unique. Mrs. Adams had a giant box with millions of crayons, one for every color of human skin. We learned that even though skin came in different colors, our bodies were really the same underneath. We all had two eyes, two ears, and two legs. Eyes were for seeing, ears were for hearing, and legs were for walking. But I knew that already. I know there are all kinds of differences besides skin color. At physical therapy, I met people who have seeing-eye dogs, hearing aids, or wheelchairs. Some of them are my age and some are grown-up. But I don’t really know any of them. Besides, no one else at my school has cerebral palsy or anything that makes them walk differently. So even though I know everyone’s unique, I still feel different and alone sometimes.
I’m not saying my classmates in kindergarten were all the same, though. There was Julian, who was always nice to me. He always wore his short hair in beautiful designs called cornrows.
In December, when we were singing our holiday songs, Hannah told me that she celebrated Chanukah AND Christmas. “Daddy is Jewish and Mommy is Catholic,” she explained.
“So are you both or half-and-half?” I asked. She didn’t answer.
Since I already knew most of the things Mrs. Adams taught us, I spent a lot of time that year reading by myself. Once the letters had just been shapes, but I don’t even really remember that. Now I can’t look at letters without them magically turning into words. I picked up a book of puzzles from the bookcase. Almost every page had illustrations where something was terrible and wrong, like dogs that could fly or cats with two tails. At the bottom of each page, it said: “Find the one that does not belong.” This is a stupid game, I decided. Besides, it was way too easy.
After that, I read a picture book about the Disney movie The Little Mermaid. Ariel is one of my favorite characters, but I don’t like the end of the movie. I never understood why she’d want to live on land and have legs anyway, so I put the book away. I wished she had stayed in the sea and been happy with her tail.