My First Lesson in Dignity
It was literally like a fairy tale. I waited in a shadowy backstage corner, watching tiny Little Bo-Peeps, Blind Mice and Cats with Fiddles file by in order of height and take their places on the metal risers. I petted the stuffed puppy pinned to my Old Mother Hubbard skirt and struggled to hear over the dull roar of nervous kindergarteners awaiting their PTA debuts.
The hero of my personal tale was a formidable lady with many years experience over most of her peers, and she was in a huddle with some of the other teachers, clearly discussing the problem of me, the little girl who walked funny and had an alarming penchant for falling down.
With the help of the beloved Mr. Rogers, I had recently worked out that I was a disabled kid, but it would be many more years before anyone looped me in on cerebral palsy. In the weeks leading up to the program, they seemed to be trying out various places for me to stand. I now understand they just didn’t want me to climb on the risers or be trampled by my classmates. We had come all the way to opening night, and they were still trying to agree on a way to let me participate and keep me out of the way at the same time.
“Separate but equal” was already a rapidly emerging theme in my short life. I didn’t yet know I could or should question it, but Mrs. Roberts was a no-nonsense teacher, and when I heard her say things like “You can’t even see her over there!” and “What if she wants to stand with her friends?”, I knew what she was opposing had to be nonsense.
That was more than three decades ago at the time of this writing, and I spent most of those working up the nerve to own the empowerment Mrs. Roberts offered me that day. The reasons for that are numerous and nuanced enough to fill their own book, but every time I was pushed to the side, discounted or excluded I heard her voice in my head.
Even when I still wasn’t brave enough to stand up for myself, I knew I deserved better, and I knew I couldn’t be the only one.
If I was being disenfranchised, then other people like me were too, and it was in that revelation that I found the purpose for my voice. Mrs. Roberts not only taught me how I should expect to be treated, but she provided an excellent example of how to stand up for others. That was the most important thing learned in kindergarten.