This week’s story is far away from the snow and ice of January. It’s almost twenty years ago in June. I was taken to this place while in traffic listening to music a couple days ago. The Beatles song ‘Hey Jude’ popped on and suddenly I was there.
To tell this story, I need to share with you a name I was called in elementary school: Retard’s Sister. It’s an ugly word in an ugly phrase. I know the term was medical jargon some years ago but in my childhood it was an insult, made all the more venomous by the fact that it was true.
My sister is, to use appropriate terminology, developmentally disabled. The details of why and what and whatever are unimportant here. What I will say is that I likely have an elevated level of compassion and empathy because of not only my experiences with her but others like her. In middle school I was at a school assembly where the head of the class for the non-ambulatory (read: wheelchair) kids said she needed a Teacher’s Assistant. I literally leapt out of my seat in the bleachers and ran down to her, “I can help! My sister is disabled!” I was gently told that we could talk *after* the assembly, but my concern was that someone would get to them first. Someone less qualified who didn’t care like I did.
I did that job for two years in addition to a smattering of other activities like softball, school field trips, plays… but the most memorable of these events was always the year end picnic. Every year at the end of the school year, all of the school district’s disabled classrooms would get together downtown at a rented pavilion at the park. The teachers, the aides, the bus drivers – everyone. The kids had everything you could imagine. Games and toys and BBQ and cookies. The tube fed kids would stick to normal diets, of course, but maybe they would blow bubbles or get their faces painted after lunch. It was just happy.
I can remember running around with kids, some I knew, some I didn’t. Disabled, autistic, Down’s, wheelchair – it didn’t matter who we were or that we didn’t go to school together. We were playing.
And there was a karaoke machine.
I was such a ham in those days. But I had nothing on these kids. They lined up to put in their request and when their name was called? They jumped up like they won the lotto. And they would sing. Sing free of worry or judgement and fear. Just sing with all their heart. My sister was fond of country, so we did a duet of ‘Don’t Rock The Jukebox’. I would run around helping out on and off, but it all stopped when I was my sister’s belting buddy. I wasn’t Retard’s Sister – I never was. I was just ‘Sister’. Plain and simple.
When the song, ‘Hey Jude’ came up, there was a singalong. Over a hundred voices singing ‘na na NA naaaah, heeeey Jude’. Over a hundred voices having a great time.
Take a sad song and make it better.