I tell people that my first year teaching middle school was rough, among many reasons, because that’s the year all my own repressed middle school memories came up. We all have those, right? No matter how golden your childhood may have been, they’re just rough years. After my first year on the teacher end of middle school, though, those memories were mostly tucked back away in the dusty back corners of my brain where they belong.
Until one pops up and decides it’s not too late to haunt me!
This weekend’s traumatic memory was triggered by an episode of Black-ish. Their latest episode was about colorism, and the storyline started with the twins’ class photo. Because of the lighting in the photo, Diane, who has the darkest skin in her family and in her class, looked more like a shadow in the corner than a person. Her parents were furious, and immediately called the principal to say they were coming to talk about this and demand a new photo.
So here’s my own story. I’m not even sure if I’ve ever told it to anyone.
I was in middle school, and it was the week when they took yearbook photos of all the clubs and groups. I was an involved student in several activities, so I don’t remember now which one it was, but I was answering the “come and gather” call for some group I belonged to. We were led outside, and directed to the bottom of a steep grassy hill, where the camera was set up.
Except… I couldn’t get down this hill. I’d have tipped my chair over if I’d tried it, and there was no accessible route. While everyone ran down the hill, I awkwardly hung back, confused at what I should do next.
When the adults (teachers? photographers? I truly don’t remember) realized I couldn’t get down the hill, they told me to just stay at the top of it. I’d be several yards above the rest of the group, and they’d get me in the photo that way.
I was mortified. It was going to be the most ridiculous looking photo. A few rows of kids in a traditional group photo, then a tall hill of grass behind them, and me all by myself at the top of it. I was dying of embarrassment there in the moment, and imagining what it would look like printed in the yearbook. I wanted to just leave. I didn’t really care if I got left out of the photo altogether. But being made to stand out like such a sore thumb? No! No, no, no… Like most other middle school kids, my main goal in life was to blend in and not be noticed. I was used to failing at this goal–wheelchairs don’t blend in anywhere. But this photo was too much. I didn’t want to do it. And I didn’t know how to get out of it. If I tried to sneak away, somebody was going to notice and call me back, bringing even more attention to my predicament. The photo happened.
That day, I got home from school and burst into tears. I told my parents all about what happened and how upset I was. Just like in Black-ish, my parents were furious, and they called the school to give the principal a piece of their mind. I usually didn’t like it when my parents acted like “those parents;” I’d rather just let things go. But I couldn’t bear the thought of that photo being published in the yearbook! I didn’t know what else to do about it, so I appreciated having the protective parents card to play.
I don’t know what the conversation was like on their end. I don’t know if they got any push-back. All I know is, a new group photo was scheduled.
When the group was gathered again a few days later, this time in an accessible location, I remember hearing a couple kids complaining about having to do the photo twice. I’m not sure if any of them knew the reason why. I certainly wasn’t explaining it to them. I just did my best to act mildly annoyed along with them, and not blink in the photo. Blend in. Blend, blend…
As an adult, I’m almost more horrified in hindsight. At the time, I felt like I was the problem. If I’d just been able to blend in better, everything would have been smooth; everyone’s life would have been easier… But now, I can’t imagine putting any of my kids into a situation like that! Separating them from their peers, putting them on display, letting them feel like a problem just for existing and participating. Unacceptable. There were a million and one places they could have taken that photo. It didn’t have to be in the one part of the school grounds I couldn’t access. There was no reason for that.
I still deeply resent being put in those situations. Other people throw some kind of ableism at me, whether it’s inaccessibility or just offensive comments, and then it becomes my job to “fix” it for them. It’s so unfair. But I either fix the problem, or I am the problem.
I avoid it as much as possible. When an event is planned at somebody’s house, unless they make a point of telling me about accessibility, then I just assume it’s inaccessible and don’t say a word about it. Because most likely, that’s the case. If I counted on my fingers the number of friends’ houses I’ve been inside over the course of my life, I’d have several fingers leftover.
I might be assuming wrongly; maybe an event is being held at one of those rare houses that don’t have steps. But if I ask about accessibility, and the answer is no, then everything becomes awkward. People can never actually bring themselves to tell me that I can’t come in their home, so they hem and haw and promise that we’ll make it work. Then they expect me to figure out how to make it work. Or they expect me to allow myself to be carried up the stairs. Me and my 500 lb. wheelchair? Me without my chair? In either case, no. Maybe they expect me to go up a “ramp” that’s just a piece of plywood thrown over five steps–so steep, it’s practically straight up and down.
Maybe they really do bend over backwards and build a legit ramp that will work well, or maybe they change the entire event to a more accessible location. Great! Those gestures are super appreciated, but now I feel so uncomfortable about how much work was done just for me. Everybody else would have been happier with Plan A, but they’re settling for Plan B, just for me. Plus, I’m obligated to attend at that point. What if a last-minute conflict comes up? What if I’m just physically drained and emotionally introverted when the day arrives, and I don’t want to go? I can’t gracefully back out. People sacrificed for my ability to attend, so I need to be there, and I need to be all smiles. Too much pressure…
There’s nothing worse than the times I’m promised that it’ll work, so I show up, and immediately see that this will not work. I become that awkward adolescent girl on school photo day all over again. I want to turn around, go home, and forget the entire thing. But nobody wants to see me leave, because then they’ll feel bad. They insist that I stay and put my own safety at risk with some really janky stand-in for accessibility. And so many times, that’s exactly what I’ve done, because I don’t want other people to feel bad. I don’t want to be the problem.
I’m slowly, very slowly, getting better at catching myself in this toxic thinking where I’m blaming myself, thinking that I’m just too much, that I can’t expect other people to deal with all my complications. And I self-correct by thinking about my own classroom. My students have a very diverse range of needs, strengths, and characteristics. They stretch me in many ways. But every kid is a valued part of our classroom community. Nobody is too much. Nobody is too different. Nobody is too needy. I’m not perfect at meeting everyone’s needs, of course, but overall I feel good about how I include every student as an active participant with a sense of dignity. My kids face a lot of inequities and injustices, and I want them to know that I’m at their side through everything that comes up, but I don’t want them to feel like they’re the problem. And I feel like I’m pretty successful at that.
So I know it can be done. We can pay attention to the people around us, and meet people’s needs, without treating any person’s needs as a higher priority or a larger burden. We can do better.