Attack of the Rabid Hamsters

I was sitting on the wooden bench in the train station in New Haven, Connecticut when I spotted her. I poked my mom with my chubby four-year-old finger.

“Why is that lady chocolate?” I asked, pointing at the African American woman who was walking across the station platform.

“Don’t point,” my mother said while pushing my hand down. “It’s rude.”

“But why is she chocolate?” I asked again. Chocolate was one of my favorite things in the world. Maybe it’s because my mother used M&Ms to potty train me. But I loved chocolate in general and M&Ms in particular. The lady walking away from us was the same beautiful color as my favorite shade of M&M.

My mother explained that just like hair, people come with different colors of skin. Thus my introduction in 1954 to “colored people.” Watching the civil rights protests later in the decade, I learned to call them Negroes, then Blacks in the Sixties and African Americans in the Eighties. More importantly, my mother taught me, incorrectly as it turned out, to not openly acknowledge people’s differences. One day, after my near death experience in the Army, I was on a day outing with my nurse. She had taken me to Baskin Robbins as a way to apologize for all of the pain she inflicted on me while changing the bandages on my mangled legs. As I stood there leaning on my crutches, with a monster cast that went from toe to taint, a young boy tapped on my leg and then asked his mother, “Why does that man have a hard leg?”

The embarrassed mother pulled him away and starting whispering to her son. The nurse and I both tried to tell her it was okay, but she ignored us and exited the store without buying anything. I understand why she did so, but she was wrong. Acknowledging differences and treating people differently are not the same thing. One is okay and the other isn’t. In fact, most people I have met, especially those with some sort of physical difficulty, appreciate having it acknowledged.

Exhibit A is the chemo treatments for my skin cancer. Applied topically rather than intravenously, they make massive red blotches appear on my face. So for several weeks each year, I look like I have been attacked by rabid hamsters. Since I’m not very good-looking to start with, it’s definitely a scary sight. No one at work is willing to ask what’s going on, so I have to tell people in a meeting or in an email about my chemo treatments. Then the gossip tree takes over. I obviously don’t mind if people make inquiries. One of my students, Hector, who is a man-child from Puerto Rico, told me I needed to stop picking my face. He thought I had a bad case of acne and was aggravating it. I explained my situation to him and then he became concerned until I reassured him that as bad as it looked, it meant the treatment was working and I’ll be all right.

At one of the preschools my wife, Kim, ran, she had a little girl who had been born with only one hand. Before enrolling her, the father had come in to talk to Kim. He was very concerned about his daughter being teased. Kim assured him it would be okay and that as director she’d take care of it. At first, none of the children aged 2 ½ through 5 even noticed. Then a little boy asked Kim, “Where is her other hand?”

“Well,” Kim responded, “that’s the way she was born. Just like you were born with red hair. Everybody is born different in some way.”

“Oh,” the little boy said and then nodded before returning to play.

I know for a fact that the girl made it through her school career just fine. She didn’t let being one-handed get in her way and if anyone teased her, other kids stood up for her. But I’m also pretty sure she stood up for herself without any problem. Being truthful and open with children usually teaches them more about tolerance than insisting on secrecy and shame. I like asking people about their stories. Everyone has one. Some obstacles that people have are easier to spot than others, but everyone has difficulties to overcome. It’s one of the things that binds us together as humans. Learning how someone has overcome physical, mental, or social difficulties is inspiring. I think that by celebrating other people’s successes we uplift ourselves as well as them.

At a time when so many people are focused on differences, I’d like to remind everyone about our commonalities. You just might find that it makes you feel much better than the stories the media chooses for you. At least it does for me.