Beth, Shannon and I have been friends a long, long time. We've known each other since way back in kindergarten and that's a very long time ago because now we're 26 years old and live right next door to each other in the same apartment building.
Sometimes we meet late at night and talk about the old times. You see, life wasn't so easy for us, especially when we were kids, because we use wheelchairs. I'm not saying it was the wheelchairs that made life hard for us, that wasn't the case at all, we loved our wheelchairs. Our wheelchairs were electric and could go almost anywhere. They went through grass, up hills, over gravel, through dirt, on ice, and even sometimes, although we weren't supposed to, they went through water. Without our wheelchairs we would have to sit in one spot and never move all day -- can you imagine? So, it wasn't our wheelchairs that made life hard for us, it was people's discrimination that made life hard for us. People who thought just because we were in wheelchairs meant we didn't have brains, or emotions, or talent.
Just like Martin Luther King worked to free african americans from discrimination, we work everyday to free people with disabilities from discrimination. Now, I'm going to tell you the story of the first battle Beth, Shannon and I won over disability discrimination. We were in fifth grade.
I don't remember who's idea it was. It might have been mine, or, it might have been Beth's, it probably wasn't Shannon's because, between the three of us, she was the most shy about getting up in public. But one day, while we were waiting for the school bus and watching the able-bodied kids across the street getting onto their school bus, either Beth or I said, "Isn't it about time we audition for the talent show?"
We loved the talent show and during the five years we'd seen it we'd grown to love it more and more. The problem was, only kids from Anderson were allowed to perform in the show, and we went to Kensy. So, it was a big deal when one of us said we should audition to be in the talent show.
Anderson and Kensy were elementary schools that faced each other on opposite sides of a busy street. Anderson was a school filled with able-bodied kids, and Kensy was a school full of disabled kids. You had to be able-bodied to go to Anderson, and you had to go to Kensy if you were disabled. That was that. It was just like before Martin Luther King when all the african american kids had to go to one school, while white kids went to another school. The only mixing of Anderson and Kensy students happened once a year when the Anderson kids would come over to Kensy and put on the talent show.
Teachers didn't encourage students from the two schools to be friends. In fact, we were taught, as though we were a whole different species, that we had no place around able-bodied kids, and it seemed by the way the Anderson kids kept their distance, they were taught the same thing about us. Still, it wasn't like the kids from Anderson and Kensy weren't interested in each other, every day we would stare across the street wondering about the kids from Anderson and they would stare across the street wondering about us.
In spite of the physical differences between students, the real big difference between the two schools was that the kids at Anderson learned a lot more than the kids at Kensy. Shannon's little sister, Elise, went to Anderson so the differences between the schools was clear. Once, when we were in sixth grade, Shannon called me on the phone all mad because Elise, no genius for her age and only in third grade, knew how to write in cursive. "Can you believe? Cursive!" Shannon yelled. We had long since wanted to learn cursive but our teacher said it wasn't time to teach us, so we waited and kept waiting. When we'd find notes written by one of our parents in cursive we'd trace the letters trying to learn, but it was pretty impossible to know what letters we were making because to us, the curving, flowering letters might as well of been Chinese.
Besides cursive, Elise knew a lot more math than Shannon and could read bigger books, so Shannon's parents always had Elise help Shannon with her homework. Do you know how embarrassing it is to have your little sister, 3 years younger, have to help you with your homework? "It's not fair!" Shannon would cry, but none of us knew anything we could do about it. While it was true that some of the kids at Kensy had learning disabilities and couldn't learn as fast as the kids at Anderson, for most of us our disabilities were only physical and didn't affect our ability to learn.
For example, Beth, has brittle bone disease. This means that her bones are so fragile that sometimes all you have to do is tap her arm and it can break. Brittle bone disease also makes your bones grow funny, so her arms and legs bend differently than a normal arm or leg and it seems sorta like she has three elbows. A lot of people stare at Beth because of the way she looks but once you start talking to her you forget all about her arms and all you think about is her eyes. Beth's got these big brown eyes that sit real far apart on her face and look something like fox eyes. When she looks at you you just know she cares. Even if she doesn't know you, you still know she cares.
Shannon has arthritis. It's just like the arthritis your grandma gets only Shannon had it when she was born. When you have arthritis as bad as Shannon what happens is your joints swell up and make it so you can hardly move and it hurts terrible when you do move. Shannon's joints swelled up so much that she couldn't move her legs to walk. She also couldn't bend her arms up to reach her face or to do her hair, so we would help her. Shannon was real smart about how to do hair and she would instruct us how to braid hair from all different angles until we all looked like models in a fashion magazine.
I have muscular dystrophy. Just like Beth and Shannon I was born with my disease. Muscular dystrophy makes it so that all your muscles are weak. With muscular dystrophy lifting a glass of water feels as heavy as a hundred pound weight and lifting the dictionary is as impossible for me as lifting a car would be for an able-bodied person. I have never been strong enough to walk, but I've known since I was a baby that I wasn't meant to walk, just like you know you aren't meant to breathe water.
Well, probably it was Beth, not me, who said we should audition.
"But, they won't let us in!" Shannon said.
"All we need is a ramp," Beth said, "There's no reason why we can't be in the talent show. It's discrimination."
"My daddy says I should expect discrimination," Shannon said.
"Doesn't mean you have to accept it," Beth said.
"Yeah, but I got three strikes against me," Shannon said.
"What do you mean, three strikes?" I said.
"I'm black, I'm female, and I'm in a wheelchair," Shannon said.
"Oh please," Beth said.
"They're not strikes, they're facts," I said.
"Are you gonna do this or not, Shannon," Beth said.
"Yeah," Shannon said.
"Then I don't want to hear another word about your daddy."
Shannon and her family had to fight injustice so long that sometimes they got downright discouraged. Although Beth and I were white, we saw the struggles Shannon's family went through -- if they didn't give up fighting discrimination after all that, why should we?
All right, back to the talent show. The first thing we did was ask our teachers. We figured all we needed was a ramp to the stage.
Shannon's teacher said: "There's not enough room to build a ramp."
My teacher said: "The talent show is only for Anderson students."
Beth's teacher said: "Ramps cost an awful lot of money, Beth, this school doesn't have that kind of money."
Since our teachers were no help, we decided to talk to Mrs. Hanson, the gym teacher, because she often helped us do things in gym other people would think was impossible. First Mrs. Hanson said: "I'll look into it." but a few days later she told us: "Principal Brown said no."
However, Mrs. Hanson wouldn't tell us why Principal Brown said no, so we decided to talk to him ourselves. Inside his office we were first met by his secretary. "We'd like to talk to Principal Brown," I told her as though I were an adult.
"What is this about?" She smiled.
"About the talent show," Beth said from behind me.
"Oh, the talent show!" She fumbled some papers on her desk. "It's going to be on April 24."
"We know that," Shannon said.
"We want to be in the talent show and need to get a ramp built so we can get onto the stage." I said confidently.
The secretary grimaced like a baby about to mess it's diapers. "I see," she said, "just a moment." The woman went behind a little cardboard partician and whispered to Mr. Brown -- we could still hear their voices loud and clear.
The secretary said: "They want you to build a ramp so they can be in the talent show."
Mr. Brown said: "Handicapped children don't participate in the talent show."
The secretary said: "What should I tell them?"
Mr. Brown said: "Tell them I'm busy."
The secretary came back to her desk. "He's busy," she told us.
"Busy doing what?" Shannon said.
"Well," the secretary stammered, "I'll ask him."
There was whispering between the secretary and Mr. Brown again, then Mr. Brown's said: "Handicapped children don't have talents. We're not building a ramp to the stage."
The secretary came from behind the partician smiling queerly. "I'm sorry girls, he said you'll just have to watch the talent show this year."
Neither Beth or I said a word the rest of the day, Shannon spoke only once. Mr. Brown's words cut our hearts so our spirit left us empty and shriveled as a burst balloon. It wasn't like we were ready to give up. We were determined to be in the show. But we were hurt. Hurt deeply. As we sat waiting for the school bus to go home Shannon said, "Being disabled means we're no good." Although we had already known some believed this, it stung differently to actually hear it said about ourselves.
The next day on the school bus we sat quiet and uncertain of each other until I said: "They're not right." And Beth said: "We expected that." And Shannon said: "It's just discrimination." And I said: "So, what are we gonna do about it?"
Beth wanted to sing "The Greatest Love Of All", by Whitney Houston. She wanted her voice to lift over the school audience and fill everyone with joy, so that afterwards, even the Anderson students would look at her with envy.
Shannon liked to cut, sew and design clothes herself. She thought maybe she could put together a few things and do a little fashion show. Elise and maybe even Heidi, Elise's best friend, could model with her. She imagined her designs glinting in the eyes of the audience as Elise, Heidi and her trailed across the stage.
I wanted to read a poem by Helen Keller. Her words have the ability to let you see in ways you never saw before. They're words that could dance straight into your heart.
On March 16, at 1:15pm, we told our teacher's we had a stomach ache and needed to lay down in the nurses office. (It wasn't totally a lie, we all had terrible anxious stomach aches.) We slipped out the front door of Kensy and crossed the busy street at the corner.
"I'm going to be sick," Shannon said.
"Just breathe deep," I said.
"Don't worry!" Beth said, "We're doing the right thing."
We waited outside the only door into Anderson that didn't have stairs (which just happened to be the door to the stage). Elise soon came and let us inside the forbidden school. Of course the Anderson kids stared at us and stayed far away. We knew they were afraid because we were different and they didn't understand our differences. The teacher in charge, Mr.V., hesitated when he saw us too, but Shannon gave him her super huge smile while Beth and I assured him our teachers said it was okay. After we auditioned, Mr.V. accepted us all in the show.
"Now all we need is a ramp," Shannon said.
"Oh, a ramp," I said. I'd almost forgotten about that.
"Whether we find a ramp or not I'm doing it. I'll sing on the floor in front of the stage," Beth said.
In our excitement over the show our attention turned away from getting a ramp, which seemed impossible anyway, and focused entirely on preparing our performance.
Beth practiced singing until her older brother, who was in junior high and only liked hard rock, went crazy. "Please! I'll do anything, just quit singing!"
Shannon spent hours tearing stitches out of shirts, skirts, dresses and pants in order to re-think their design, and get all the hems and colors perfect.
I read and re-read aloud Helen Keller's writings, listening to my voice and letting her words sink deep into me until I felt them like my own thoughts and could recite them from my heart.
A half hour before the talent show Mr.V. walked up the stairs to the stage and said: "How are you guys gonna get up here?"
"I'll sing down here," Beth said.
"That's not acceptable," Mr.V. said, "No one can see you down there."
"They don't have to see me, they can just listen," Beth said.
"Not acceptable," Mr. V. said again, "We can't have you in the show if we can't get you up on stage. You girls should have brought this to my attention sooner. Why isn't there a ramp?"
Beth, Shannon and I looked at each other. We'd never thought that after all this Mr.V. wouldn't allow us in the show because of the stairs. We'd tried to get a ramp, but there's not much we could do, ramps cost a lot of money. Somehow we thought this would solve itself, now we felt foolish and ashamed. Tears threatened to fill our eyes and the pain of Mr. Brown's words echoed between us so loud we almost didn't see Michael the janitor cover the stairs with an aluminum ramp and begin rolling big lights onto the stage.
"I knew it would work out!" Beth shouted as we all hurried up the ramp, thanking Michael the janitor profusely.
"No problem girls," Michael said, looking a bit confused.
We congregated back stage with Elise and Heidi. Other Anderson students milled around us and for some reason being nervous about getting on stage seemed to make them less nervous about talking to us. Eric Asmove, gestured to Beth's wheelchair while preparing his bowling pins for juggling and said, "How fast can you go?"
"Pretty fast," Beth said.
"Show me," Eric said.
"After the show."
Jessie Lancaster, in her tap dancing shoes, asked Shannon, "How do you drive that?"
"Easy." Shannon pushed the joy stick of her wheelchair back and forth. "It's just like a video game."
"Can I drive it?"
"Maybe, afterwards," Shannon said anxiously arranging the sleeves of her shirt.
Veronica Myer, in her gym suit, was in sixth grade so I couldn't believe when she asked, "Do you sleep in your wheelchair?"
"Of course not! A bed."
Now you have to remember, even this close to the performance, no one from Kensy knew we were going to be in the talent show. We had lied to Mr.V. and told him the people at Kensy said it was okay, and to our surprise, everything had gone along according to our plans. But now we had to get on stage and we feared what might happen when Mr. Brown or other teachers saw us. Would they pull us off stage? Would we get suspended? Expelled? Laughed at?
Fortunately, there wasn't much time to worry. Peter Trovinche started the show by playing his trombone. Then Veronica Myer, doing gymnastics, then Beth.
"Can you believe we're doing this?" Beth whispered as she left the dark corners of the stage and entered the spot light. There were whispers in the audience. Papers dropped to the ground. An auditorium door slammed. Some raspy hooting from Kensy students. Then Beth looked at Mr.V behind the piano and he started playing.
When Beth started singing her voice was shaky. I could tell she was scared -- she even missed a few beats. But then, as though the words of the song took hold of her, her voice strengthened.
If I fail, if I succeed,
at least I'll live as I believe...
Because the Greatest Love of All
is happening to me...
She sounded as pretty as I'd ever heard her and I guess other people felt the same way because when Beth finished her song there was an avalanche of clapping. The Kensy students who couldn't clap yelled and screamed their approval. Beth came back stage smiling the proudest smile I've yet to see on her.
Shannon, Elise and Heidi waited dressed in Shannon's designs. They were next. When Shannon modeled her first design, a gold dress, tight fitting with a sweeping loose neck line and lace back, the girls in the audience sighed in unison. Before Shannon was across the stage, the audience was cheering.
Meanwhile, the auditorium door we heard slamming at the beginning of Beth's performance was of course, Mr. Brown, who was so angered and shocked that we had gone against his rules that he was headed to the third floor of the auditorium, where the fuse box was, to cut the lights and bring this year's talent show to an abrupt and chilling end. However, it was taking him a long time to get into the fuse box because he couldn't find the right key. Mr. Brown had hundreds of keys on his ring. He had a key to every office, classroom and storage space in the school. So, he stood fumbling outside the fuse box, muttering under his breath and rattling keys.
I was the last performer in the show. I went into the bright stage lights and looked out into the already fidgety audience. My hands were wet, cold and shaky and my throat was dry. "I'm going to recite a poem by Helen Keller," I said, but just when I began to speak, Mr. Brown found the right key and the auditorium went black. The audience whispered loudly and some younger kids started to cry.
At the time, I didn't know what had caused the power outage, all I knew was that whatever it was had just ended my opportunity, perhaps only opportunity, to perform. I was furious and so disappointed, all my practicing and fighting for nothing. My tears ran freely in the dark. I turned to leave the stage and grope blindly for my friends when suddenly I thought of Helen Keller and the blind kids I knew at Kensy; darkness wasn't the kind of thing that should stop you. I continued my performance as though the lights going out was part of the plan.
"I'm now going to recite a poem by Helen Keller," I yelled and like Moses parting the sea, most of the audience quieted. As my voice rose out of the darkness more people quieted as though my words were the light they were missing.
O beautiful blind stones, inarticulate and dumb! In the deep gloom of their hearts there is a gleam Of the primeval sun which looked upon them When they were begotten...
The more I spoke, the more the words echoed in the big room and entered the hearts of all the children, teachers, teacher's aids, janitors, hall monitors, secretaries, parents, everyone. It wasn't just the poem that they liked, but the power and conviction of my voice. The fact that I continued speaking when everyone else thought it was over.
When I ended, there was shuffling as people stood up, clapped and whistled, Kensy students waved their arms in the air so high and proud I could hear the creak of their wheelchairs rocking back and forth.
Mr.V. brought a flashlight on stage and pointed the beam of light at each performer as we took turns bowing.
Beth, Shannon and I held hands knowing there was nothing, nothing anymore, that could keep Kensy kids separate. For in the chaos of darkness, students from Anderson and students from Kensy were mingling in the auditorium. They were talking to each other, asking questions. We could hear teachers scolding as they tried to pull the kids apart and assemble their classes in lines, but it was impossible. The only sound left when the lights came on in the auditorium were the voices of Anderson and Kensy students laughing together.
"We did it," Shannon said.
"We did!" I said.
"Sure did," Beth said.
Still, we thought all we'd done was made it so Kensy kids could be in the talent show. But we'd done something bigger than that. As soon as the teachers started to see kids with disabilities as having equal talent, and as soon as they saw kids without disabilities and kids with disabilities could be friends, it wasn't more than two years before they built ramps at Anderson. Half the students from Kensy switched permanently to Anderson and half the students from Anderson switched permanently to Kensy. We had helped free disabled kids and able-bodied kids from the cages of discrimination. And now, you have to admit, that took some real talent.