In the urban dictionary, luddite is synonymous with words like fear, uncertainty and ignorance.
It is 1990, and the start of a new school year. For me, this means starting at another new school - my fourth since I started school. This year, I will be in fourth grade. There are interesting kids in my class, and I quickly learn that everyone fills a role.
Casey S. has a voice so deep I wonder now if he had vocal problems. Casey L. was from North Dakota. Catlin is the cool girl, with green and blue tops, green leggings, blue slouch-socks and a side-pony. She and her best friend, Heather, call Bloody Mary in the bathroom all the time. The cool boys wear Zubaz and all the kids have snap-bracelets. By the time I get one, at Christmas, they aren’t allowed. There is Brandon whose fingers smell but who can sing like an angel. Jacob, who’s always in trouble. Shaina, the shy pretty girl. Brian G. who the kids call “wall-toucher”.
So, who am I?
I would find out soon enough that I was “Tonia, the smiley new student with Cerebral Palsy.”
I am easily the smallest kid in class. I know I look more like the first-graders we read to than the other fourth graders. I wear jeans my grandma fixed so they close with Velcro instead of snaps, because I can’t do snaps or buttons. I still wear Velcro shoes - I won’t learn how to tie my shoelaces until the following year, as my fine-motor skills are way behind. I wear sweatshirts with iron-on kittens and bears. I have a boy-haircut. In fact, this is the year that me, my sister, and my two brothers who are five and almost four, all get the same haircut. With three step-stripes on each side.
I don’t remember the first time she does it, but my teacher, an old lady, whose sons are all grown up, starts calling me Princess. “Make way for the Princess” she tells the other kids. It kind of makes me feel special, but embarrassed, too. I don’t like a lot of attention.
She assigns different girls to be my helper. My helper is supposed to go with me when I go to the bathroom. To make sure I don’t fall or something. By the time Jamie is my helper, I am sick of them. I run ahead of her with my walker and get to the bathroom before she does. When she gets there, she talks to me like she knows so much better than I do what is best for me, just because she walks without a walker. She says that the teacher says not to run ahead because I could get hurt. It makes me mad and embarrassed.
When it is time for show and tell, my teacher doesn’t even let me get out of my desk. She just pushes the desk, with me still in it, to the front of the room. It’s really fun. The next time we have show and tell, I make the mistake of telling my mom that maybe my teacher will give me another ride to the front of the classroom. She asks what I mean and I tell her. Then she gets mad and tells me she shouldn’t be doing that because I can do things for myself.
Only my teacher doesn’t seem to know that I’m the same as everyone else, or even that I want to be treated that way. She gives me a Happy Gram - a little piece of paper for when a student does something to really be proud of - to me. She gave it to me because I opened the door to the classroom “all by myself.” It’s a stupid reason to give me a Happy Gram, because I’ve known how to open doors for myself since I was seven and I’m nine now.
Gym class is another place I stick out. I can’t do things the other kids do, so I have to do adaptive PE instead. I do jumping jacks sitting on the floor, moving my arms. About the only thing I’m good at are push-ups because my arms are really strong. That’s just warm-ups though.
When everybody else runs the mile on the track outside, I have to run it inside the gym. It takes me an hour, and I’m so tired when I get done I wish I could just go home. I wish I could have run on the track with the rest of the kids, and as far as I can tell, there is no reason why I couldn’t have.
In the spring, it’s time for track-and-field day. That’s pretty much the best day for most kids because you get to be outside and do things all day. But I’ve never been good at physical stuff. I know I’ll probably get only red ribbons, which is the lowest color you can get, but at least it’ll be a ribbon.
Then, my adaptive PE teacher tells me something that makes me want to cry:
“You won’t be able to earn a red, white or blue ribbon like the other kids.” She must see the look on my face because she hurries to tell me the rest. That it’s because there will have to be modifications to the events. “But you’ll be able to earn a red, yellow or blue sticker.”
It feels like she is saying I’m not good enough.
She’s a teacher.
So if she says I’m not good enough to earn real ribbons like the other kids, it must be true. That night, I am so upset. I confide in my sister and she tells my parents. The next day they have a meeting with her.
Next time I’m in gym, my adaptive PE teacher tells me I can have a red, white or blue ribbon at track and field day. But it doesn’t help. I already know what she thinks of me. What my classroom teacher and all the kids think of me.
In class after the day is over, and everybody has their ribbons, I look at mine and feel like they’re not real. I know my parents had to meet with my special gym teacher and make her give them to me. And I know they should be all red, and they’re not.
That afternoon, we have a spelling test. I am distracted, because of the fake ribbons I didn’t really win.
“Different.” My classroom teacher reads the word off the list. I don’t start spelling it yet, even though I know how, because I know she is going to use it in a sentence.
“Tonia is different from everyone else because she uses a walker. Different.”
I spell the word right, but I feel ashamed. Like I did something really wrong by being in this class.
But I’m stuck here, where people don’t know the basic thing I was taught from the time I can remember:
That I can do anything anyone else can do.
That I don’t need help.
That I can do it myself.
That I might have to do it in a different way, but I am the same.