The minute I got home from school, I destroyed my single handwritten copy of the poem, crumpling the paper and ripping it into tiny shreds to bury at the bottom of my trash can.
Now, why did I do this? My teacher read a piece of my writing and deemed it good enough not just for a passing compliment but for the school paper. Why would I destroy it and throw it away?
To explain this, it's necessary to clarify something else: growing up as a disabled child, I experienced a lot of undue praise from people in authority: sometimes they were strangers, but sometimes they were my teachers, sometimes they were my family members.
I attended a public event. I heard: "You have more of a right than anyone else to be here."
I walked in the house of a relative. I heard: "Here she is, Miss America!"
I opened the door to my own classroom and a note came home with me: "Tonia opened the door to the classroom ALL BY HERSELF."
Having experienced this kind of thing for the better part of thirteen years, at this point, the lines between a genuine compliment on my actual ability and one that gushed because I did common things had grown blurry. So when a teacher praised my work legitimately, I panicked, because I didn't want something I had put my heart into to be read as the token inspirational piece in the Jackson Journal.
We are often told in society that we must not overindulge disabled children, lest they grow up feeling entitled to everything, making them spoiled brats. Little is said, though, about the other end of that spectrum. If we are consistently praised - consistently patronized - by people in authority from a young age, it confuses us, and not just through childhood and adolescence. Even now, as an adult, I find myself wondering if true compliments are in fact authentic.
I automatically filter the compliment through, "Do they mean pretty for someone in a wheelchair?" "Do they mean well-written for someone with CP?"
I have been praised my whole life for doing mundane things: for existing in public. For walking into a house. For opening a door. By hearing these things throughout my life, they have had a hugely detrimental impact on my self esteem. Because it means that, from the time I was small, people expected nothing from me.
So what did it mean, then, when I graduated high school with High Honors? What did it mean when I made the Dean's List my first semester in college? What did it mean when I traveled out of the country for the first time without my parents at nineteen? When I got a job? When I moved out and began living on my own? Does that make me an exception? And aren't exceptions automatically removed from the overall picture for being exceptional? So, then aren't we all still measured against impossibly low standards?
Last summer, I was walking outside my apartment, when someone in authority who also lives here commented: "Are you taking your daily walk? To inspire me?"
It's difficult to live as an object that people in authority consistently measure their own suffering against. We must constantly fight the inner monologue created by those around us who mean well, but chip away at our humanness, with each demeaning comment.
So how do I cope?
I love the people who simply say good morning, or ignore me, if that's what they normally do, and go on their way. Those who interact with me the way they do with the general population. No condescending voice, No cooing at me as if I am an eternal toddler doing something cute.
I want to exist in a world where I can do something awesome, be complimented, and not filter a thing. I want there not to be a filter. I want to believe what you say, when you say it.
So, I'll work on it.
Sometimes, I still think about that poem I wrote as an eighth grader. And though I can't rescue that crumpled and torn piece of notebook paper from a garbage can back in 1995, I can take comfort in knowing it was good.
I did grow up to be a poet, after all.
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