Monday, April 28, 2008

How Do I Look?

As I sit here typing, a short, middle aged, somewhat overweight, not very stylish girl presently in sweats, I'm thinking about getting some clothes together for an upcoming weekend trip with friends. I'll sort through and find some kind of cuter things that are more or less like the things my friends will be wearing. I am definitely wardrobe challenged, and Walker sometimes has a better sense of what's appropriate than I do.

When Walker was about twelve or so he announced that he didn’t want to have Down Syndrome anymore. Now it’s possible that the deaths of two of his classmates who both were beautiful girls with Down Syndrome made him associate having Down Syndrome and dying, but it seemed to be more than that.

Not too much later, he commented that he didn’t like one of the children in his carpool because she had “Chinese Eyes”. I have no idea where he came up with that, because we had never really discussed the appearance of people with Down Syndrome. While I attempted to change his mind about how lovely Louisa was, I knew that he was echoing the sentiments that society at large feels about people who look different.

From a very early age, it seems that babies can discriminate faces. They seldom go through “stranger anxiety” with someone they have been exposed to frequently, and wriggle and squeal with delight when they see the grandparents after a few days or weeks absence. I’ve been told that children don’t learn to “see” race until about the age of five or six, and it has been my experience that that is about the same time children begin to notice that Walker looks somewhat different. Perhaps that’s about what his mental age was when he began to notice. I don’t know.

I never thought too much about Walker’s taste in friends until Steffen came into our lives. Steffen is mentally ill, not mentally retarded, and he went through a period of looking pretty unkempt. His long curly hair had become matted and he hadn’t had a haircut in months. One Saturday night when Steffen was staying over, I asked Walker whether they wanted to go to church the next day, and he retorted, “Not with that hair!”

This led to a discussion with Steffen about the hair issue. I finally asked outright whether it was a function of low funds or embarrassment over allowing a hair dresser to see the mess he was in that was the problem. He finally admitted that it was both. I asked him if it would be okay if I cut his hair, and he agreed. I began cutting, and it was going well, until we got to the front. It was important to Steffen to be able to look in the mirror and see himself with long hair. Later that day, I took Steffen to a nearby cut and blow place. I gave him $20 and told him he could keep the change if he would allow the stylist to cut the sides to match the rest of his haircut. When I got back to pick him up, he still had the long curls hanging down, and gave me back the change.

Eventually Steffen’s hair grew out, and he got it trimmed up to a moderate length, and appears much more neatly groomed. Do all of us have to nudge our people we care for to conform to societal norms in order to fit in? Maybe. Even my four year old grandson is very conscious of dressing like his classmates, and especially his older brother. His preferences are stated very clearly, and he and his mom have frequent clothing hassles.

I notice that when he comes for visits with us, Steffen dresses much more like Walker than when he’s going somewhere else, and Walker carefully chooses some of his “cooler” shirts when they’re going out. They are learning from each other, and don’t stand out in the crowd quite so much anymore. They are just two guys out for a movie and some shopping

We can all hope that people will like us for who we are, not how we look, but until that happens, I guess we have to try a bit harder.

Blessings, Janie

1 comment:

Elizabeth Saffell said...

Very well stated and filled with sheer truth. I am amazed at how society views others merely from the outside when it is the inside that is most important. You make my heart smile with every entry you post. I am so blessed to have such a great influence in my life, even though we live so far away. You are a great teacher and you probably don't even realize it!