I met Debbie at Dowling School for Crippled Children. It was 1978 and I was in second grade. We had just moved to Minnesota and although I was in a mainstream school when we lived in Wisconsin, the officials in Minnesota said all handicapped children in Minneapolis go to Dowling.
Debbie spotted me my first day in school and asked if we could be friends. I didn't respond. Instead I looked, gaping at her. It was a warm spring day and she was wearing a halter top and shorts. Her bare arms were completely twisted and it looked like she had three elbows. Her leg bones were bowed out at the thigh and her knees where huge and knobby. I thought she must be a monster, in a wheelchair. A monster, my age.
I went home from school that day crying. I told my mother I was never going back to that school. It wasn't just Debbie who had scared me but all the people I saw hanging out of wheelchairs, some who couldn't talk, who spit food and wore helmets to walk down the hallway. I thought they were all monsters and would kill me.
My mother told me not to be afraid: they were just handicapped people, not monsters, but she was sorry I had to be with them. She said she knew I didn't belong at Dowling and she thought the people in Minneapolis were assholes for making me go there, but she couldn't keep me home because I had to go to school.
I cried waiting for the bus the next morning.
My tears continued as we picked others up on the school bus. Their screaming, drooling -- even laughing -- terrified me. Debbie wasn't on my bus, but she was waiting for me as soon as I got to school.
"Oh, there you are," she said. "What's your name?" I was still crying but she didn't notice. "I'm Debbie." She waited a few minutes for me to respond before she drove away but I couldn't bring myself to speak to her. Her arms were showing again and she moved them around so freely I thought she might touch me with one.
At lunch the school had a rule that everyone had to be out of their wheelchairs to eat. I screamed and tried to drive away. I never got out of my wheelchair during the day and I didn't want to be strapped to a chair like the rest of them, completely helpless.
When the teachers disengaged my wheelchair and forced me to sit in a "lunch chair" I threw my food in rage. It landed on the floor near Debbie, at the next table.
Outside for recess she approached me as I sat alone at the far corner of the playground. "You almost hit me with that food!" she said, indignant.
"So what?" I blurted.
"So what?" She put her hand on her hip. "What's your problem?" "I don't want to sit in a baby chair," I told her, too angry to be afraid.
"I don't like it either but I'm not throwing my food around because of it."
"Well, I'm not like you," I said.
"What's that's supposed to mean?"
"I'm not handicapped."
Debbie threw her stubby, multi-faceted arms up in the air and spun in a circle. When she turned back to me she was laughing. "You ain't handicapped?" she said.
"Not like you." "Then what's this?" She ran her wheelchair into mine and hit her bony fingers on my armrest. "And what's this?" She pulled my arm closer to her and knocked on my back, exposing the back brace I thought my shirt had concealed.
We didn't talk anymore after that. When I would see her in the hallway she would start laughing and pointing at me, telling people that I wasn't handicapped. No one understood what she was talking about, except me. Meanwhile, my mother had become furious over my stories of teachers making me sit alone in the hall all day while they taught the rest of the class things I learned in kindergarten. It took my mother threatening a law suit and informing the media about my situation before they would let me out of Dowling. I started third grade completely mainstreamed.
Of course, it was no big deal. I made friends quickly among the able-bodied students and felt right at home. The officials had been concerned that I wouldn't get the "care" I needed in a regular school, but my teacher assigned a fellow third grader to pick my pencils up off the floor, so everything was fine.
During my remaining years of elementary school I happily forgot what Debbie had taught me back at Dowling. I didn't even think back once about the school after I had left. I thought those horrors were over. But, to my dismay, my mainstream junior high was "equipped for handicapped students". The first day of school I was on my way to my regular homeroom when a man grabbed control of my wheelchair and started steering it toward another room. He made no contact with me and seemed a bit surprised when I asked him what he was doing.
"All handicapped students in this homeroom," he told me.
Feeling quite timid my first day of junior high, I complied but told him I could drive myself.
The room was loud with wheelchairs running into tables and chairs, and raspy voices making unfamiliar sounds. I saw the people from Dowling, some who had been in my class. Debbie saw me.
"I remember you," she said, coming nearer.
I cringed when I saw her. It was a warm day outside and again her limbs were exposed. "Yes," I said, and tried to smile.
"What happened to you? I stopped seeing you in school. Thought you moved," she said.
"They put me in a regular school."
"Oh," her voice was long and drawn out. Her arms and legs still had their awkward bends in them, even more so, I thought. And now the twists were accentuated by countless surgery scars.
She looked away and then back at me. "Well, they put me in a regular school last year, part time. Me and some other kids from Dowling."
I smiled at her and looked at the clock. Homeroom was supposed to be almost over and the teacher hadn't done anything yet.
"You got M.D.?" she said.
I nodded and wondered how she knew, but didn't want to ask.
"I have O.I.," she paused for me, "Brittle bone disease."
"I see," I said.
It wasn't until weeks later that I started to understand. I was in the lunchroom, eating with my friends. Debbie sat at a table nearby, eating alone. The distance made it seem safe to look at her, even her arms. As I watched I felt a warmth growing inside, a comradeship with a slow forming realization: just as she has O.I., I have M.D.. She has brittle bones; I have weak muscles.
It was soon afterward that I started responding normally when she talked to me and so we quickly became friends.
We wrote letters constantly throughout the day to keep in touch. We didn't have any classes together since Debbie had to be in special classes. She couldn't function at grade level after Dowling had so impeded her basic academic skills.
She introduced me to many of the "monsters" I knew at Dowling. Taught me how to identify what disability someone had and how to know when they're playing helpless to get attention.
Since Debbie and I were both exceptional power wheelchair drivers, we became a self defense team, and together we could slam any offending able-body to the ground.
I learned how to use "special privileges" to skip class and smoke cigarettes. And how to cheat on tests by faking that it hurts my hand to write so they'll give me extra time and put me in a room alone, with my books.
My mother thought Debbie was a bad influence on me. She didn't want her over at our house and when I talked to her on the phone Mother would ask why I'm talking to her and not to my regular friends.
But Mom didn't understand: only with Debbie could I admit that I couldn't lift my arms off my armrest and ask her to scratch my head. She was the only friend I let see me when I was in the hospital: hollow eyed, on a respirator, with a trachea and nasal gastric tube.
Once during summer break in high school we decided to go to a nearby park to look at men. Of course, she was wearing her usual revealing summer attire. Some people nearby were staring at us and joking about Debbie's arms.
She looked straight at them. "You all think you're at the zoo or somethin'?"
They turned away quickly and huddled closer together. It was quiet between us for a while. I knew the remarks had hurt Debbie. I had long since learned to see beyond her air of confidence but I knew better than to mention anything about it.
Finally, she said in her almost southern, manner, "Shit, if they don't like it they don't gotta look. I ain't no animal to be stared at." She crossed her arms over her chest and lifted her head a bit higher. "Nope, we ain't no zoo animal."
I looked over at the group of people, their backs to us. "No, we're not animals," I agreed, quietly.
"We're human. We's all human," her tone was loud and unfaltering. "We are human, Debbie." I reached to caress her arm but she would not be calmed.
"Human." She said, turning her stone glare at me, the thick black eyeliner running on her cheek.
"Human," I said, and it wasn't until that moment that I got it. Human.