Wednesday, April 30, 2008
My first experience with discrimination on a personal level occurred when I noticed two little girls of elementary school age making faces at Walker, who was seated next to me in the front seat, from the rear seat of their station wagon. I was sorely tempted to stop their mom, who was happily oblivious to the ugliness, and let her know what the children were doing. But the traffic was bad and I really don’t like to make a fuss and Walker just seemed a bit annoyed, perhaps baffled, so I let it pass.
I grew up in the Deep South, Montgomery, Alabama, in the midst of the civil rights movement. The only exposure I ever had to people of another race or culture prior to my eighteenth birthday was through our housekeeper and yard man and one family who had adopted two Asian children.
This was the era of separate everything. We had “whites only” drinking fountains and lunch counters. The only time I ever sat in the back of the bus was on a once in a lifetime trip with our housekeeper to visit her family across town.
I wish I could say that our family was different, that we were on the cutting edge of the move toward equality, but I’m afraid that that is far from the truth. My daddy was The President of the Alabama Public Service Commission, and he was the one defending the right of the Great—actually not so great—State of Alabama to keep the rules about drinking fountains in the train and bus stations just the same as they had always been, marked “Colored” and “White”. Daddy even ran for governor, promising in a national magazine to preserve segregation by deputizing all white males over twenty one years of age.
I didn’t grow up knowing that this was the wrong side of the fence for me to live on. We didn’t read books in school that taught us differently. Even in college, there was little discussion about what it really meant to respect the rights of all when we discussed The Constitution. We always got bogged down in history class when we came to the Civil War.
When Walker came along, part of my fears…okay, a lot of my fears… involved what other people would say and think about my little "Downsie". Would my friends include him in their children’s birthday parties? Where would he ever find a friend? Would he even be accepted in the public school programs he belonged in? (At that time all kids with Down Syndrome were considered to be only “trainable” not “educable”.) I didn’t know that he would learn to read and write, but I certainly knew that I wanted him to be afforded the opportunity. We found out the answers to all these questions.
Walker was included in most, but not all, of the birthday parties of friend’s children near his age. He did find a number of friends in the neighborhood and at Madonna Day School. He had his own fabulous birthday parties. We decided to put him in a private school after his preschool achievements showed that he definitely had the capacity to learn to read and write. At age five, he was still right on target for his age. Today, he can read anything he chooses. He is like his mom, in that he is a visual learner. He taught himself to set his TV to show closed captions, and he reads most of them as he watches TV.
Today, he knows he is different. High School took him down a notch or two from being the “prince” of his former school. The cutest cheerleader turned him down in no uncertain terms, and even yelled at him after he phoned her a few times.
At the grocery where he works, though, he is a prince again. He makes more tips than anyone, and is the favorite of the cashiers. I think this is because he’s so precise as he bags, even if he isn’t the fastest sacker. Perhaps the checkers welcome Walker's slower pace. He knows all the rules about heaviest things belonging on the bottom, and to always pack the bags light if the customer is frail. He prefers to pack in plastic, rather than paper, because it’s easier. The bags he packs never fall over in the car either.
I've been reading a lot of books about other cultures in the past few years. I think my interest was stoked by 9/11, and there seem to be a lot of books with cultural and religious differences as a theme lately. I had no idea that the other monotheistic religions were so closely related to my own Christianity. I had no idea of the awful things that we've done to each other in the name of religion, even my own religion, practically from the dawn of the universe, until I was a full blown adult.
In Social Work School we talked about Oppression. Dr. Marsha Egan made me look at my own prejudices and realize that I can't just practice non-discrimination myself. I have to work toward making it the norm.
May we all learn to respect those who seem to be different and to recognize that those folks have a lot of the same hopes and desires that we do. We are all much more alike than different. I hope I've learned to embrace differences, not to fear them, because of Walker. that's one on the main reasons I would never choose for him to have been born different from the wonderful person he is.