There was a girl who didn't fall down

There was a scrawny girl with legs and arms too long for the rest of her. And those were crooked, the bones curved wrongly. Her face was almost all toothy grin and huge thick glasses.

When I catch a glimpse of her in an old picture my mind reels. That was me. I know it was but I can hardly relate anymore.

I was beyond gawky and awkward at thirteen. I had terrible posture from being nearly blind and constantly leaning forward to see things. I looked disabled and I was almost entirely socially isolated. Self-esteem wasn’t even a concept. I was in survival mode. Nothing beyond that mattered much.

Creative Commons image by Sheila Kaye Matthews

Creative Commons image by Sheila Kaye Matthews

But then there was that one day when a summer camp counselor from the Blind School took me and a few other kids out to the Columbia River where the state Special Olympics water-skiing team was training. They figured, since they had the equipment out there, they would give us the chance to just try it out.

I can still remember how they made us stand on the grass and hold our hands out in front of us with a stick. We bent our knees while one of the adults gently tugged at the stick in our hands, trying utterly futilely to give blind children an inkling of what it would feel like to water ski.

We could hear the noise the boats made and distant shouting. A few of us could see the very beginning, when a skier sitting in the water rose up and seemed to stand on the surface for a second before disappearing beyond our extremely limited visual range. Our concept of water skiing was very shaky.

“The water will push at your feet.” The instructor put his hand on my feet and then on my knees. “You have to bend your knees and lean back against it.” He put a hand at the small of my back and coaxed me to lean back. All I knew was that if I leaned back that far, I’d fall over.

“You will fall down the first time and probably lots of times,” they told us. “It’s not about staying up. It’s about getting up and trying again.”

Adults who teach blind children love cliches.

I thought about all that water. I could sort-of snow ski, so I knew how skis worked. In theory, I guessed that the skis could push against the water if I was pulled forward by the boat, and somehow I’d ski up out of the water and stand on the surface. And then I’d lean back, like they said. It just wasn’t conceivable.

“Don’t worry,” the gentle lady from the Blind School consoled me, patting my shoulder as we walked toward the river, “If it is too hard or anything, you just let go. You’ll fall right into the water like jumping off the diving board. No big deal.”

I realized when she touched me that I was shivering all over. My whole body was buzzing with a fine unconscious vibration, like the hood of a souped-up car..

I waited behind several other kids. Each one in turn stood in the water near the shore while the instructors put on their water skis and then handed them the stick at the end of the tow line. One instructor near the shore would count down and the boat’s engine would rev and then the tow line leaped forward.

Half of the time, the blind kids just let go of the stick and never even fell down. The other half of the time, the tow rope pulled them a few feet forward and they splashed head-first into the river. I tried to make out the scene but all I could get was a general impression as the instructors pleaded with the three kids in front of me not to let go of the stick the instant it jerked forward. Two of them let go anyway and the third splashed into the river.

Finally, it was my turn. The water was cold and my shivering got so bad that I thought I couldn’t possibly hang on. The instructor put my skis on and held my knocking knees for a second. I comforted myself that even if I couldn’t keep a hold of the stick, at least the first pull would show me what it felt like. They said we could try again, if we wanted.

I leaned back as far as I could and felt the skis. I gripped the stick with all my strength. I was determined that at least I would be one of those to fall in the water, not just lose the stick.

“One. Two. Three.” The boat engine revved.

The stick jerked hard and I almost lost it. My body lurched forward and I was sure I’d be in the water face first, but then the skis moved. I crouched low, the way I did on snow skis on a steep slope and I felt the slope rise under the skis.

The rope pulled hard at my hands. My knees knocked and I almost went down as the skis broke the surface of the water and the line jerked even harder. I heard a faint yell go up from the people on the shore behind me.

And then a miracle happened. The water buzzed away under my skis. I slowly stood out of my painful crouch and leaned back into the feel of support from the tow line.

“You OK?” A hoarse yell came from the boat. The shore was long gone.

I gritted my teeth and nodded hard. I was glad for the ability I knew sighted people had to see my nod without my having to unclench my teeth to yell back. I was so cold from the wind that my knees and elbows were still shaking but I was OK.

I felt the way the water was like springy, unstable ground beneath me. I felt the secure tug of the line. The boat slowly eased on a little more speed and the water felt harder under my feet.

I experimented gently rocking from side to side. I tried to dig in one side of a ski the way you do in the snow and almost fell. I lurched forward and then to one side and the boat engine sputtered and nearly cut out when whoever was watching me saw what I had done. But I regained my balance and kept going.

That first time up actually seemed to take forever. Mostly other than the thrill, all I remember is how incredibly cold I was. Finally when I didn’t think my muscles could take another second and I was shaking so hard that it must have been visible from the boat, the motor slowed and stopped in the river. I sank into the water, which felt as warm as a bath after all that cold wind.

The boat circled around and came in close so that I could take off the skis and climb up onto the back of the boat.

I barely heard what the people on the boat said, except for one thing they kept saying, “Two miles.”

I thought it had felt long but that long? I was a rural kid and I regularly walked two miles to reach a friend’s house. That was a good distance.

They took me back to shore and I got to warm up while I waited for the other kids to try again. I was worried that they wouldn’t give me many other chances because after all, I had really had a good ski, while the other kids had just fallen in the water, but within a couple of hours, I got to try again and then again. A lot of the other kids wouldn’t do it after the first few tries.

A few did get up on the skis but clearly I was different. I had never been athletic before and the whole thing confused me. I wasn’t special. Not in anything but academics at least. I was a good student but hopeless in social or physical realms, a complete social outcast and a stereotypical nerd, other than being female and growing up rural with physical chores that made for a bit of unskilled muscle.

Once a couple of the instructors came over to me while I was getting the life jacket on again for another try. One of them seemed to be showing the other one my legs. I don’t remember the exact words but apparently they theorized that the crooked, curved bones in my legs that made me run in a grotesquely flailing and inefficient manner, might have by chance given me a water-skiing advantage.

I spent not just that day but the entire week on the water and I was allowed to water ski just about as much as I could stomach. I learned to cross wakes and ski through obstacle courses. I got to go as fast as I could handle and face fear. I couldn’t recognize anyone’s face because I couldn’t see and the noise of boats made it so I usually couldn’t hear what anyone said either. I was almost entirely cut off from the human world during that time, but I didn’t really care.

It was all physical—the water, the sunshine, the cold wind, the pull of the line, my aching muscles the slap of impact when I did fall, which I did a lot once I started crossing wakes…

It was more fun than I could ever remember having and the only bad part was contemplating the end of the week and my return home to chores, boring schoolwork and mean kids at school who ostracized me.

But then at the end of the week, several adults came to me and said I could join the Oregon state women’s team and go to the National Special Olympics water-skiing competition in Florida. There was even a picture of me in the local newspaper, goofy grin and huge glasses behind a water ski dramatically posed for the camera, but the clipping was lost somewhere in the past thirty years.

I went too. It wasn’t as much fun as that week on the Columbia. There was a lot of waiting around and when I finally got to compete, the place and the skis and everything was unfamiliar and I didn’t do very well.

But that didn’t really matter.

I told myself none of it really mattered. it was “only” the Special Olympics after all. I didn’t even tell my friends at home much beyond that I got to go water-skiing. No one made a big deal about it. I got third place in some category or other but I didn’t feel like I’d won.

That wasn’t the point. The point was that engagement with the physical, that sense of being one with my body, of being physically strong and worthy.

Today when I hear about the Special Olympics facing funding threats or I hear people use the Special Olympics as a slur or a joke, I can’t help but think on that. I did other Special Olympics things as a kid. I ran track and field in the local competitions. I didn’t really like it and I didn’t win with my flailing legs, but it was good exercise. I did know how to push myself. That was good too.

But I know those two weeks of water-skiing—one on the Columbia and one in Florida—changed my entire self-concept as a teenager. I went from just surviving and fighting everyone and everything because I was rejected and wrong and hurt to nursing a ferocious desire to “show them all.”

I’m not saying the second impulse was even healthy. I was driven for the next twelve years to succeed academically and professionally. I competed for and got a scholarship to study abroad when I was sixteen. I competed for and got scholarships to go to a prestigious private college. I competed for and got a coveted place as an international stringer for a national newspaper and became a journalist in the Balkans and Eastern Europe. I traveled through more than 30 countries.

Did it start with that miraculous moment when I didn’t fall down, despite all the predictions? Time-wise, yes. It coincided with the sea change.

Psychologically it is hard to say. But I’ll stand by the Special Olympics. I’ll do whatever I can to make sure it goes on, because I think it did play a role and does play a role with a lot of kids who are beaten down and at the bottom of despair. It’s one way to rise out of that.

Note to younger self

If you could send a message back in time, what would you tell yourself as a child being bullied?

I was recently asked this question as an intellectual exercise, but I had to wonder at the deeper reasons for the question. Is there something we can learn from adult memories of bullying or retrospective advice that might provide some practical help for those in similar circumstances today.?

My experience is only mine. It is particular and specific, possibly too specific to be applicable to others. But I do know this. There are things I did not hear from adults or peers that would have helped and some things I heard a whisper of but not enough. I know there are ideas that would have helped because I eventually found these ideas myself and they helped a great deal.

But I had to invent this wheel and the chariot that rode on it. No one gave ,me the pieces. It is possible, of course, that someone tried and I didn’t listen. Or that I wouldn’t have understood these things as a child, even if someone had told me. But I don’t think so. I think these words would have helped.

So for what its worth and in case someone out there must give advice to a child facing pervasive bullying or social ostracism, here is what would have helped me: .

Yeah, the kid in red and black with unmatched socks looking hopefully toward all the kids in pastel colors, that’s me in first grade.

Yeah, the kid in red and black with unmatched socks looking hopefully toward all the kids in pastel colors, that’s me in first grade.

1. It is not you. It is them.

2. It is not you. It is them.

3. It is not you. It is them.

4. Even if there is something you could do to make them bully and ostracize you less, it would only be less. You didn’t do something to “bring it on yourself.” Adults who say that want to believe it because they don’t want to believe kids will really do this to a disabled child for no good reason. It makes them really uncomfortable about the state of the world and the nature of humanity. And they don’t want to take responsibility for making ethics education a major priority. It is not your fault. You don’t have to figure out how to be more perfect. They are the problem.

5. “Social skills” are good. You should pay attention to well-meaning adults who try to tell you how to respond in ways that will help you. BUT those adults do not know what it is like. The social skills are a band aid to an epidemic. They are not worthless but your social skills are pretty average. You can figure out how to be a little more perfect, and maybe that will help. It will definitely help you win in job interviews someday. But it is still not your fault. It is them.

6. You are being bullied and ostracized because your eyes look different, because you are physically different and because of your family background. None of those things are actually bad about you. You are not the problem. The problem is in the minds of other people, in how they were brought up to be judgmental and bigoted and in the kind of society we have. It is not you. It’s them.

7. All the constant hype about how the most important thing in life and happiness is your friends, their number and their fun-ness, is wrong. People are only saying this to help kids who don’t get good grades feel that they aren’t a failure. There are plenty of ways to be happy without a bunch of friends. Find fun by yourself and with one or two friends. Being alone is not shameful or a failure. It can be lots of fun.

8. You are inherently an introvert. Even if you didn’t have a disability and you looked just like everyone else and you came from a typical family, you wouldn’t be the life of the party or the center of a crowd of friends. Some people get their energy from being with people. Some people get their energy from being alone. You will have fun with people but you need to be alone a lot. Being alone is not shameful or sign of a failure. Being alone will help you to be energized and to have fun with your friends when you do go hang out with them. Look at the things you actually like to do. Most of your hobbies, the things your really love, are hard to do in a big group and work better alone or with one or two friends.

9. Decide to be happy, even if no one will accept you. You will one day do this and you will be much happier. No one told me this, so it took me a long time to get. Maybe you could do it earlier and be happy sooner. Build yourself a happy life. Discover the joys of creating, art, writing and nature. Find work you love, no matter how little it pays. Focus on your passions and those good people who will stand by you, even if they aren’t perfect or if they live far away. You don’t need the rest of them to be happy.

10. Bullies shame themselves. Bullies destroy their self-respect. Self-respect is crucial to happiness. Your self-respect gets battered and bruised by being bullied but at least you still have yours. Theirs is gone forever, at least any honest self-respect. They can only ever lie to themselves about being a good person. I never did stoop to their level. but there were times I wanted to.

11. Don’t worry. Those adults who tell you that you have to fight back to stop bullying, even though you’re blind or one against ten and it is clearly a stupid idea—those people are just wrong and they think bullying is something completely different from what it really is. You really are worthy. Their sickness is their own problem.

12. You will be told to be quiet a lot. The people you trust most, your family and close friends will tell you to be quiet because it is hard for them to hear what is happening to you. When people exclude you, they will tell you to be quiet. They will tell you they are excluding you BECAUSE you are not quiet enough. They want your silence. A lot of people who have a disability or other difference have been silent. It does not help. Silence can help you to survive for a moment or two. Don’t be ashamed of the times you were silent to survive but know that it is not what you have a right to. You have a right to speak the truth. You have a right to be heard.

13. Those who love you need to listen, but it is hard for them to hear when you have been hurt so much that mostly what comes out is screaming. Start with “I feel…” State the feeling first. That helps them hear. When they still don’t listen, it is not your fault. It is not your fault that you are emotional or that your words don’t come out all concise and coordinated. Keep working at expressing yourself in ways people can understand. It is helpful. But there is no perfect. Being gentler and calmer will help sometimes. Sometimes it will make them comfortable with dismissing you. Being concise will help sometimes. Sometimes it will let them make their own assumptions.

14. You are enough. It won’t go away because it is them, not you. And you can’t change them without a major change in society. But you will escape from the power of bullies someday.

As i said, this is not a universal message. Bullying comes in different forms. For some kids it is only a few times. For some the physical part is worse than the psychological part, and for others it is visa versa. This is just my message to myself. It would have helped. Now I know what I needed to hear, what could have saved me a lot of dark years, but no one knew it then.

Those who meant well, meant well. They couldn’t know but maybe someone who knows a bullied child will discover a bit of transferable truth in it. I hope so. Feel free to share.