I went back to one of my former schools recently. I went for a special kiddo who had done several shows with me. I promised her I would come and see her in this show. I was one of the ones helping with the school show last year. It would be a difficult moment to walk through those doors in my new body. I prepared myself for questions regarding my canes. I prepared myself for fake enthusiasm (you can always tell). I didn’t get what I was expecting.
What I got instead was nothing. Nothing. I’m pretty sure my two former administrators saw me as I came in. Instead of fake kindness, I got the kind of ignoring that usually comes from discomfort and awkward situations. It was not what I was expecting.
As I watched the show, I had to admit the kids did a good job without me. Of course, there were things I would have done differently, but all things considered, I had to admit they truly did a good job. When it was over, I waited for the crowd to clear out a bit before I approached my young friend. As I moved slowly through the remaining audience, several former colleagues and students silently passed me with no comment or even a hello. Why were they ignoring me?
I suddenly realized what was probably happening. They weren’t ignoring me; they didn’t recognize me! I had gained 25 pound since they had seen me last due to all my new medications. I had new glasses and a shorter haircut. And I was now disabled. Any faint recognition they might have had was more than likely dismissed when they saw me as a disabled person. Their former teacher might have gained weight or had a new haircut, but turning into a disabled person was well outside their realm of recognition. I had become unrecognizable.
It was a haunting moment. As a tall blonde with an exuberant personality, blending into a crowd was something new for me. I’m not sure I have any recollection of that happening to me before. Ever. I don’t always like standing out, but I was pretty sure I didn’t like disappearing into the crowd any better. I had worked with these adults and children for over two years. To have suddenly become in effect invisible, was sobering.
The truth was though, that my life has in many ways become unrecognizable from what it once was. Far beyond the weight and the hair cut, was the loss of the confidence and enthusiasm that used to define me. I admit, I had not tried to draw attention to myself either. Driving up to this school was one of the most difficult things I have done since getting sick. I was a nervous wreck driving to the school. I was actually biting my fingernails. That is not a habit I ever partake in. Well, at least until that day…
I’m not sure what I was afraid of. Being embarrassed maybe? I had even practiced what I would say to the curious students I expected to ask questions. “I got sick and it hurt my spinal cord and made it so I can’t walk very well anymore”. I thought I was prepared. But I was not prepared to be unrecognizable.
Become “disabled” has changed me in many ways. There are so many things I can no longer do that I used to. Some I’m ok with letting go. Others have had to be pried away from my clenched hands.
Theatre is something that has been almost harder for me to let go of than my career. Over the last three years, I have had the privilege to be cast in the ensemble of the Weathervane Theatre, a summer stock repertoire theatre in Northern NH. I grew up on their shows. I worked in the box office and as house manager as a college student. To actually be an adult on stage with amazing actors and actresses from NYC was a thrill and an honor!
I also got to be one of the leads in a local community production last spring. I met wonderful people and made friends I hold dear. Now? There aren’t a lot of roles, even in the chorus for a woman with a disability. Time to pry old me from my clenched fingers.
So imagine my joy when my local community theater decided to do a musical review of Gershwin. Singing I could still do! I chose a fun song to audition with and was allowed to do it as a solo as well as singing with the chorus members, who are friends old and new. To make it extra special, my mom was accompanying me on the piano for my solo.
I bought a cheap dance cane hoping it would look like part of the act and yet give me a bit of support to move about the stage. Though better than nothing, it was far from secure support. Still, it was better than doing the penguin shuffle.
Here is the funny thing, as much as I hated being invisible watching the show by my former students, I wanted desperately to be invisible doing this show. I wanted to just sing. I wanted to just fit in. I knew this might be one of my last opportunities to be on a stage. I wanted it to be good.
I started practicing with my mom using my fake cane! As I began to perform my silly song with all its motions and flair, I realized that being flamboyant could actually help to make me invisible! Arms outstretched looked dramatic and fit the song. They also provided great balance! Silly choreography for my song became the elements that created my balancing act. I had become invisible again and this time, I liked it.
Most people will never know how much work went into my attempt to appear to walk across the stage effortlessly. In fact, I know in doing so I ran the risk of people saying, “Why does she walk with two canes off the stage, but on the stage she can do it without them?” But after experiencing my invisible moment returning to my old school, it has become more important to me than ever to successfully navigate the stage in an apparent seamless manner. My final role on stage may be minor, but in fact, it might be my best acting job yet.
The show was a success in many ways. I was reunited with old friends and made new ones. I hit the high notes of my solo and got positive reviews from the audience. One of my favorite moments though, came after the last performance. Many of the cast members went across the street for a drink and a meal to celebrate wrapping up the show. When I walked in to meet my fellow cast members, I saw a previous administrator from another building I worked with. When she saw me with the two canes she said, “Well, that answers that question. I was wondering if the cane was a part of the act or not. I couldn’t tell.” She couldn’t tell! Victory! My disability was unrecognizable for a moment.
Disability impacts a body. But often it also impacts a spirit as people lose more and more of who they were not only in their eyes, but in the eyes of those around them. In the span of a little over a week, I experienced the extremes of being overlooked because of my disability and had my disability overlooked. I must say, the latter is preferable.
I have always tried hard to be inclusive to those around me, but now I will try a bit harder. We are all bigger than what our outward appearances show. It might be a cane or two, height, weight, color, hairstyle, or clothes. Those are all things we use to learn about someone. In reality though, they are only a small part of who someone is. Our outward appearance may in fact, have little or nothing to do with what is inside. The better reflection is what our outward behavior shows.
My experience has reminded me that who a person is, is not found in appearances, but in actions. It is my hope that I can reach out to all around me with kindness and care.
UPDATE: After writing and sharing my post today, I came across this video made by children in a district in Ohio where I taught for 12 years . I am blessed to have had the opportunity to know several of these wonderful and special kids. They are able to say what I was trying to express with a clarity and honesty that only children posses. I encourage you to watch and share this important message.