Up front, I will admit that I am completely incapable of scheduling and keeping track of Marshall’s health care. Left to me, he would miss most of his appointments. In case anyone is struggling with keeping track of what medical care your child with Apert syndrome might need, I’m going to try and keep an updated list of the facilities and professionals who are part of Marshy’s care.
If you think I might have missed an important area of care, please let me know and I will add it to the list. Note also that care and certain procedures offered differ in various parts of the world.
Plastics – syndactyly release; eventual cranial and possibly facial surgery
ENT – tubes for drainage of ears; tonsils and adenoids removed; partial septumectomy; monitoring hearing along with audiologists
Orthopedics – monitoring lack of normal shoulder range
Opthalmology – monitoring vision and checking for scarring due to inability to fully close eyes at night; monitoring pressure on the eyes (an indication that skull surgery is necessary)
Respirology – sleep studies to determine severity of sleep apnea and to find possible solutions such as using a CPAP machine
Neurology – using yearly MRI scans to check for increased intracranial pressure and enlarged ventricles
Dentistry – dental and possible jaw issues being monitored
Cardiology – apparently, heart issues are common; Marshall’s echocardiogram at 9 months did not indicate any heart problems
Occupational Therapy – monitored and lead the recovery from his syndactyly release (healing from skin grafts to his hands)
Outside of the Hospital
Speech and Language Pathologists – this is key, especially since many of our children are late to hear or speak; look for courses on how to work with your child to develop language skills
Occupational Therapy – home visits to work with Marshall on using his unique and stiff fingers; strengthening his arms and shoulders
Family Therapists and Social Workers – there is no shame in taking to people who can guide you through the powerful emotions that are inevitably a part of raising your child, as well as the effect it can have on siblings
Hearing – there are many options for assistive hearing devices you may need, in addition to devices that will your child’s teachers may need in the classroom
Government Grants – there is help out there depending on where you live; Canada has a few provincial and federal aids available. If you need help filling out an application form, let me know and I’ll try to help.
Schools – As a teacher, I can tell you that some schools may try to give up on your child. Do not let them push you around. Advocate loudly until they can do it for themselves. If you ate having problems with your school board being unsupportive, send me a message with any questions and I will answer them to the best of my ability.
AboutFace – without their emotional support, I’m not certain I personally would have survived the fear of the unknown. Take a look at their website. These are beautiful parents and families who can guide you through the scariest and hardest moments.
Facebook – there are several private groups where news, questions, and tears are shared. Meeting and talking to others who have gone through what our family is going through had been enormously helpful.
I never wanted to be a teacher – at least not until I became one. The Asian immigrant parent’s dream is for their child to become a doctor or a lawyer, or if that fails, an engineer or perhaps a classical musician. I avoided practicing piano like the plague, I was awful at math (hey, I break stereotypes, okay?), I didn’t yet have Bob Odenkirk’s Better Call Saul character as a legal profession role model, and I barely (BARELY) finished my Bachelor of Science degree in physiology. An Asian immigrant parent’s dream child I was not.
Somehow, my dad convinced me to apply to teacher’s college and here I am, fifteen years later, still plying my trade as an educator. I’m lucky to have the job, but it’s hard not to feel like a fraud sometimes when I hear how some of my colleagues always dreamed of becoming a teacher. Don’t get me wrong – I think I’m pretty good at what I do, and I make it fun for myself (and, yes, my students), but some days I wonder how much of what I teach them will really stick in their minds as they move through the educational system.
We’ve been reading Wonder together over the past few weeks, and my class can’t get enough. They beg me to spend more time on the book. If they had it their way, we would do nothing but read Wonder. It’s a fantastic book, but it’s also an emotional slog for me to get through the chapters and to discuss and analyze with them. Some chapters hit too close to home.
After one earlier chapter, during which the protagonist’s sister talks about Auggie’s craniofacial difference, I had to pause to catch my breath. I saw one girl lean towards another and whisper, “I think he’s going to cry.” I didn’t cry, but I was definitely steeling myself to tell the class about my personal connection to the book and what it meant to me to read about Auggie’s fictional-yet-all-too-real struggles.
The class was stunned. And then stories about their own experiences with being different or knowing people who were different poured out of them. At the age of eight or nine, they’re still quite innocent, and the empathy and compassion in their eyes was so real. It was all I could do to hold myself back from embracing all of them and thanking them for being my students.
Last week, Marshall paid them a visit. Even before they knew his condition, they wanted to meet my children, probably just to confirm that I am, in fact, human, and not a sixty year-old ex-supermodel like I tell them I am (part of that is true). Since explaining Marshall’s Apert syndrome in broad terms to them, they’ve been feverish in begging for a visit. And so, twenty years younger than I became a teacher, Marshall stepped (or was carried) into a classroom for the first time in the role of an educator.
A lot about this visit has terrified me. My coworkers still either don’t know about Marshy or haven’t let on that they’ve found out. I still don’t know if I can handle talking about Marshy, other than to say that I love his sweaty cuddles and the way he calls to me with his single-toothed smile. Bridget thinks I’m too paranoid and that no one will even notice if she passes them in the hallway.
I’m also terrified of showing this much of my private life to my class. It feels like I’m crossing a personal boundary that I’ve kept in place all my career. If ever there was a good time to make an exception, though, Wonder and Marshy are a pretty good reason. Sometimes I hope that maybe meeting Marshall as a baby will spare him a small bit of hardship at school in the future. A quick little calculation tells me that maybe one of my current students will be one of Marshall’s high school teachers. Who knows?
Seriously, though, knowing how amazing my students are, this is as safe a place as any for me to share the joy I get from Marshall with other people, and start to let go of the fears I have of letting him out of my protective bubble. I can’t hide him, I don’t want to hide him, and it’s time I start to show the world how beautiful my boy is.
My class made me feel so proud of the young men and women that they are becoming. I had to hold my emotions in check constantly because I didn’t want my personal struggles to colour their reactions to meeting Marshall. They sincerely gushed over how cute he is, and exploded in joy when Marshy said, “Dada” a few times. It looked like Marshall knew he was getting a lot of attention, because he would turn his head to the side and slowly glance at them with a big smile on his single-toothed face. Yet the whole time, for some stupid reason, I was worried about others teachers walking in and my big “secret” being revealed to my co-workers (I’m at a new school this year). Bridget couldn’t care less, and walked down the hall with Marshy, stopping to talk to a teacher down the hall. I don’t know why I am still scared to talk about him at school.
It’s not shame. Honestly, it’s not. I think I’m still trying to envelope him in my cocoon in an attempt to protect him for as long as I can from stares. His visit to my class, though, has given me so much hope. There are at least twenty children who are going to grow up with an understanding of and empathy towards facial differences, and that makes my anxiety feel a little less scary.
I got a few notes in student agendas from parents thanking me for introducing my little boy to the class. The notes were full of genuine emotion, and though those parents may never find this blog, I thank them for their messages. Little by little, Marshall and my students are teaching me so much about humanity.
I’m an elementary school teacher. It’s a good job, I know, and one that is valued by a lot of members of society, even if the government tries its damnedest to make us think otherwise. I spend the day entrusted with the care of other peoples’ children, and at night, I have my own two kids. I try to keep my two worlds separate – no work comes home if I can help it, and my family life is kept out of my classroom. That isn’t always easy, especially when I have a rough night with a lot of wake ups, but generally, I’ve been successful in separating the two halves. For all my students know, I could have been a model in a previous life (I was, you know).
For perhaps the first time, I’m allowing the line between home and work to blur. I’ve started reading R.J. Palacio’s now-famous teen novel Wonder to my class. I don’t know why I waited until now to start, but now feels like the right time. My students are loving it. They ride the same waves of emotion and anger as me, and I think it’s genuine. We’re still fairly early in the book, but their hearts are already breaking for Auggie as he starts at a school for the first time. They’re cheering for his new friends, and the anger is palpable in the classroom when someone makes fun of his facial difference.
I’ve had to choke back tears a few times already. I haven’t let them know yet just how personal this story is to me. It’s amazing how much of a parallel I can draw between our lives and the book. The same worries. The same thoughts. The same guilt and sadness. The same small victories.
At some point – maybe before we finish the book, maybe afterwards – I’m going to bring Marshall with me. As much empathy as they have for Auggie, and as amazing as our conversations and discussions have been, I want to put a face to the story for them. I want them to know how much it means to me that they care about treating everyone with dignity and respect, no matter the differences. In this small way, maybe one day they’ll stop someone from teasing a classmate who is different, or they’ll tell a friend about their experience meeting someone with a craniofacial syndrome. Maybe this is the one thing they take with them from our year together.
With March Break upon us, I’ve been reading ahead so that I can think about how I want to introduce them to Marshall, why I want to do this, and where to go with it after they’ve met him. I have to be careful where I read the book, because my fists clench, I weep out of frustration and fear, and I often close my eyes to thank Auggie’s friends for being his friends. For those of you reading this blog and following Marshall’s life, Wonder gives a surprisingly accurate glimpse into the lives of families with children who have a facial difference. Do yourself a favour – actually, do us a favour – and read Wonder. It’s beautiful.
The people I held dearest in my heart have always been my grandparents. As a child, I didn’t realize just how much I loved them, but once I hit my teenage years and I became intolerable just about anywhere else, their home was always a safe place for me to go and let my guard down. When I was away for three years living in Vancouver, I missed them more than anyone else, and they were a major reason why I moved back to Toronto despite having started my teaching career on the other side of the country.
My fondest memories are of my grandmother cooking me incredible meals, and then sitting across from me watching me enjoy her work. If not for her, I might have been twenty pounds lighter with more moderate eating habits.
When Quinn was born, my heart burst with happiness to see them holding their great-grandson. I felt so fortunate to still have them around. Three years ago, when they moved back to Taiwan after spending the previous thirty-five years in Toronto, I sat Quinn in their arms and took photo after photo, aware of the fact that this might be the last time I would see them, and the last time my family would span four generations.
My dear grandmother passed away a year ago, and last month, my grandfather died just short of a full one hundred years of age. I never made it to Taiwan to see them after they moved back. It was always the cost, the time, the fact I had my own family to take care of now. It breaks my heart to know that Marshall never had the chance to lie in his great-grandparents’ arms, because if there’s one thing I can be sure of, it’s that they would have loved him unconditionally and would have looked past all of his differences without hesitation.
At night – sometimes ten times a night now that his teeth are starting to come in – when I go into his room to comfort Marshall, give him a bottle, or pat his bum, I whisper to him about my PoPo, his great-grandmother. I run my fingers through his curly hair and tell him PoPo would have loved him, would be proud of him, and would look after him. I am about as staunchly atheist as can be, but the urge to hold on to her and feel her around me makes me wonder sometimes if maybe she is in some afterlife looking down on Marshall and Quinn with her usual smile and carefree laugh.
I wrote this three days ago and have hesitated to publish it because I know I come off sounding full of regrets and wishing that things were different – AGAIN. I’m going to publish it anyway because, I suppose, I need to own those feelings and let myself know that maybe it’s ok for me to feel that way.
In addition, it’s Friday night right now and we’re back in the hospital for the first time since early-June. Marshall has some sort of virus and has enough trouble breathing that he can’t stay asleep for more than a few minutes at a time. So, that means he’s going to spend some time back at Sick Kids to be monitored and to make sure it’s nothing more than a cold. Bridget’s there tonight, and then I take over tomorrow morning.
I met Pat when I was six years-old and a new student at the Catholic elementary school I attended in Scarborough, Ontario. I didn’t know it at the time, but that was the start of a lifelong friendship. We’ve done a lot of stupid things together. If you’re bored, I wrote about one of those adventures in a newspaper a number of years ago.
I still remember being a fairly new student at the school, entering a class where many of the kids knew each other from their Kindergarten class the year before, and being nervous about meeting new people. Pat handed me a birthday party invitation some time halfway through the year – my first birthday party invite! I can still remember the party, the house, his black dog, and the fun we had that day.
I changed schools for my grade 7 year, but we still lived in the same neighbourhood, so there was still a lot of time spent together playing basketball or hanging out. That summer, to mark the end of an era at the same school, Pat, our friend Jerry, and I spent an entire night watching really bad movies and drinking our way through FORTY-EIGHT cans of orange and grape Crush. Unsurprisingly, Jerry spent the next morning vomiting streams of purple liquid.
Before you knew it, we were adults and living in different cities. I moved back to Toronto after a few years away, but we were never to live in the same neighbourhood again. Pat now lives in the west end of the city, and I live in the east. Toronto’s a big city, and with busy work lives and busy home lives, our get-togethers have grown progressively less frequent.
I last saw Pat on my birthday in September of last year. Bridget had organized a surprise for me at a Mystery Room, where I was met by a group of good friends. Afterwards, a few of us went out for a dinner of Korean BBQ. Bridget was four months pregnant then, and we were blissfully unaware of how different our lives were about to become. We parted that night with Pat and Christine the same way we always parted – with promises to get together again soon.
Marshall’s birth and the accompanying surprises have been like an episode of X-Files where time has been lost and all memory erased. It seems unbelievable that I have not seen Pat since that day over one year ago.
This past weekend, I wanted to change that, so I packed Marshy into the car and we made the quick drive out to the west end of the city for a visit. It’s been a while since I’ve had to introduce Marshall to someone who hasn’t seen him yet. I still get anxious when I’m out with him in the stroller, but I’m starting to have times when I forget that people might notice something’s different and stare. I had that briefly on Saturday, but soon it felt like old times again. Things were clearly different. I felt about ten years older than the last time I had sat in their living room. I was happy to see them, but I definitely felt a sadness as I thought of how different my life is now compared to what I thought it would be when we were teenagers.
I love Marshall with all of my heart. I wouldn’t change a thing now, mostly because wishing for that would be futile. That much needs to be made clear first of all, but when you’re young, and you’re in class with your third grade teacher, no one tells you how hard life might be. You believe that you can be anything and anyone you want to be – Prime Minister, an astronaut, a lawyer, a doctor, a professional basketball player (I’m still hopeful for that), a teacher – but no one tells you of the times when you’ll be sleepless, or desperate for a medical miracle, or you’ll wonder if there’s a light at the end of the tunnel.
I tell my students what my teachers told me thirty years ago – you really can be anything you want to be. I tell them that because everyone needs to dream and to have hope. Life would be too unbearable and crushingly daunting without dreams. In many ways, I do believe that they can be anything and anyone they want to be. I cling to that hope for them, much like I hoped for wild futures for myself when I was their age. But really, all I would really hope for if I could go back in time would be for an easy life of happiness.
I’m happy I took Marshall to see Pat. Marshall is starting to be a little fussy when strangers hold him, but when Pat sat him on his lap, Marshall was calm, looking up at this new person inquisitively. I left the visit feeling happier than when I arrived. It felt like old times, sort of, but with some complications and challenges thrown in. I think someone like Pat would have handled the changes we’ve had at home differently. He’s much more laid back, and I doubt he would have gone to the dark places I’ve been to mentally since Marshall’s birth. It was pretty neat to see Marshy in his arms. I felt like I was introducing Marshall to two people who will be in his life in the future, two more safe people he will be able to be himself around in case life ever gets too crazy, two people I’m sure he’ll be comfortable being around as he grows older.
Marshall’s still a few years away from school. When he finally takes his first steps into grade one, I hope he meets his version of Pat like I did thirty-three years ago.
Long time, no post. It’s been chaos at home. September marked the start of another school year not only for me (as a teacher), but for Quinn as well for the first time. Big brother Q made the transition from do-whatever-you-want-all-day to Kindergarten student seamlessly. Decked out in Spider-Man gear from head to toe, he apparently loves school.
This, as we know, is not always the case. School really can be such a crapshoot each year; think about all that goes into determining whether or not a child comes home each day gushing about their day rather than sitting sullenly at the dinner table when talk turns to what they did in the classroom – the teacher, the school, the classroom setup, the classmates, just to name a few of the big factors.
(I was going to write about the teacher side of the education experience, but I’ve deleted all of it. I think I’m a little too close to it to write objectively and there are certain things I probably shouldn’t say as a member of the profession.)
Quinn is a very charismatic kid, even if he’s a little cold (maybe shy?) towards new people. He’s good-looking, he talks like he’s ten, and he’s unintentionally hilarious. This might mean he’s going to be a bit of a handful in class, but in the schoolyard, he must be fun. And yet, on Day 2, he comes home saying some kid in his class doesn’t want to be his friend. Look, I’m not delusional – I’m sure the story isn’t quite so simple and even if it is, he’s going to have to learn how to navigate the schoolyard. He should be thankful we don’t live in Scarborough in the 1980s is what I’m thinking, but not saying (GET OFF MY LAWN, YOU DAMN KIDS!).
But given what he has and is, Quinn will hopefully not have too difficult a time making friends. Yeah, it can still happen, but at the very least he’s starting on an even playing field. Hell, he’s probably starting on top given his super cool father who will want to play board games with him for the rest of his life. I can dream, can’t I?
We got some good news over the past few weeks. Marshall has had a boatload of appointments at the Hospital for Sick Children. We’re being seen by so many teams, I can never keep them straight. Sometimes I arrive for an appointment, guided only by the directions in the calendar app that Bridget and I share, only to be surprised that it’s ophthalmology today rather than neurology, or audiology instead of the sleep clinic. Anyway, he had to be sedated for an MRI (poor little guy) but came through like a champ. Apparently, his brain development looks normal (boy, have I come to hate that word) and things look great. His ophthalmology appointment worried me, but again, apparently, he’s right where he should be for his age. Being out of the hospital for the last 3 months has really given him a chance to grow and learn. How good would my vision be if all I looked at was a hospital ceiling while I had tubes put into me constantly to keep me going? Last of all, we got him to fall asleep twice at the hospital for two separate audiology tests, months after the first failed attempt. This one was the most stressful for Bridget and me, especially since we had been cautioned that his hearing might have issues. We spent the last few months looking for signs that he might hear. I’ll come around the corner and call his name to see if he responds.
Through it all, Marshy had one true, true believer – Bridget’s stepmom Julie. She has been so strong over the past seven months, especially when she knew we were falling apart. The day Marshy was born, she came to the hospital to see us and held me while I cried uncontrollably, not knowing what was going on, whether he would live or not. She held me and told me, without tears, that he would be fine and that she would love him no matter what. And you know what? When she holds him, I swear he can feel the love from her touch. He is definitely happiest with her, and she is happiest with him. For months, Julie has been adamant that Marshall responds to all sounds.
Well, she was right. The audiology tests showed that his hearing is good. His cochleae are working just fine.
Back to school, for a minute. Marshall’s three years away from going to school, and in that time, I have the chance to instill in him confidence and strength, and to believe in himself and to stand up for himself and, most importantly, to love who he is. I can do that. Once he goes to school, though, will it all go out the window?
I hope his teachers don’t judge him based on his differences, but instead give him the same chances the other students have. I hope his classmates play with him the same way they play with the other kids. I hope the other parents don’t pity him and force their kids to play with him, and don’t fear him because he’s different and have their kids avoid him.
One day, Marshall is going to notice the stares, or ask questions about why he’s different. I still don’t know how I’m going to answer that. He’s just different. I’ve started to have times when I forget that, and yes, there are still times when I’m hyper-aware of it. I notice it most when we see photos of Quinn as a baby, or when friends post photos of their babies. It’s the fingers. The sight of baby fingers – separated baby fingers – is like jumping into a cold bath.
A few weeks ago, I had a really rough night. I tossed and turned, cried a lot, couldn’t fall asleep – probably a combination of school anxiety and home anxiety. I finally got out of bed and went into Marshall’s room. I listened to him breath noisily, and watched his chubby sides rise and fall with each inhalation. After a few minutes, I went to Quinn’s room and climbed into bed with him. We don’t let him sleep in our bed, and we make it a point not to sleep with him, but on this night, I made an exception. I crawled under the covers and cuddled with him, and he was none the wiser. Sometimes, when everything seems too much to bear, it’s good to remind myself of just how lucky I am to have those two muffins.
I grew up in Scarborough, Ontario, in the early- to mid-1980s, at a time when my neighbourhood felt like it was about 98% white. Just the other day, I took Marshall for a drive in the old neighbourhood of Kingston and McCowan, and while it’s a little more multicultural today than it was thirty-five years ago, it still has the feel of a homogenous suburb. I remember a family trip to Salt Lake City to visit what must have been the one Chinese family in the state of Utah, where the Chinese teenager of that family mentioned how hard it was to be in a city that was so racially undiverse. At the time, I thought, “Hell, doesn’t look that different than home.”
We used to throw bad language around like it was an old baseball and we were major leaguers. I don’t know when kids start swearing today, but when I was a kid, we said anything and everything. There’s that delicious feeling of rebellion when you do or say something you know you’re not supposed to, and frankly, no one really taught me not to. I’m not talking about your usual cursing; we would use horrible racial epithets that, for us, were just another word. It’s hard to understand the power of certain words when everyone around you is white. Everyone. I understand that there are distinctions between “white” and “white”, but as far as I’m concerned, with a few exceptions, if you’re white, you’ve started with at least +1 to your life stats.
So, some of the white kids around me would casually throw words like chink and n—– around. I never even thought of the meaning of n—– while I lived in Scarborough, not when I was about as different as it got at good ol’ St. Agatha. I clearly remember an exchange student joining out school for a half a year when I was in grade four or five. He was from Botswana, and probably had the darkest skin most of the people at the school had ever seen. I recall thinking, “Thank god he’s here, because he’ll probably take some of the bullying heat off me.” (It didn’t happen.)
Anyway, once I switched schools and saw more of the city, I quickly learned that my use of the English language needed some altering. Running around somewhere at my new school in grade seven, I let rip the n-word. An older student pulled me aside and told me, “We don’t use that word around here,” before explaining to me why. I was stunned. It wasn’t just another word like “asshole” or “stupid sack of shit.” Why hadn’t anyone explained this to me until I was twelve?!?
Of course, I can honestly say that since that day, I have not used that word, except perhaps in academic discussions with black friends about the use of the word. Using it when I was ignorant of its meaning and origins was one thing, but I couldn’t say it now.
“Retarded” is another one of those words. Yes, yes, I know that it has a proper dictionary definition, and at one time, it was widely used in formal language. I still hear it being used to describe children who are cognitively delayed in some circles, including many American publications, but on the whole, it’s now most often used as a pejorative term: “You’re being retarded” when someone is doing something you disagree with, and “That’s retarded!” as an exclamation of surprise at someone’s or something’s stupidity.
I stopped using it this way around age twelve as well, as have many of the people I know, but it is still very commonly heard, especially on the internet. I also hear kids say it at school, which is when they get the polite lecture/discussion with me. Unfortunately, I know of teachers who have used it in class as well, which is disheartening but, sadly, not all that shocking.
My greatest fear about Marshall is the unknown surrounding his cognitive abilities. So much is still yet to be revealed as he grows, and hopefully all is okay, but there is a chance…I’m loathe to even think it because it’s too hard still. Knowing this makes the use of “retarded” by people around me sting that much more. Will they refer to Marshall as a “retard” when he’s not in the room? Maybe I’m being too sensitive about it, but when it comes to this, I feel like overly sensitive is the right thing to be.Besides, if you know there are a large number of people who feel strongly about it, do you have to use it when there is a plethora of other choices?
We’ve worked so hard in recent years to curb the use of “That’s so gay”, yet on the internet, we still see it all the time (on that note, is there a lamer, more juvenile insult than “butthurt”?). I have some, but little, hope that “retarded” goes the way of the dinosaurs, but given the amount of support the Confederate flag still garners, I’m not holding my breath that North American society is progressive enough yet to stop using such disparaging language. A crack-addled racist homophobic sexist mayor (no longer, thankfully!) in the largest city in Canada, sports team owners insisting that nicknames like the Redskins and Blackhawks are acceptable, and an American presidential candidate who thinks Mexican immigrants are rapists – I weep for our future.
Toronto sure looks different now than it did in the early 1980s when I lived in the suburb of Scarborough. Today, it’s hard to walk down the street in any neighbourhood other than the Bridlepath – where, let’s be honest, no one walks unless it’s to the door of a Bentley – without seeing people of various ethnicities. It might be hard to believe, but I remember a time when the opening of a new Chinese restaurant was a big deal in Scarborough because now you didn’t have to travel to Chinatown in downtown Toronto to get some food from the homeland.
My brother and I were two of maybe a dozen East Asians at the school. To be honest, I can only name four others (all from the same family), but there were probably a few more. Even the one guy from our class born in Jamaica was white. At that Scarborough Catholic school, the Hotel California of 1980s educational institutions, if you weren’t white, you stood out like a sore thumb.
This is not to say I didn’t enjoy going to school; I had a couple of great friends and I liked running around and the schoolyard at recess, playing basketball, baseball, or whatever was the flavour of the day. Oh, if only Bernard didn’t go to the same school.
Bernard discovered me quite early on during my six years there. My earliest recollection of him dates back to grade two, although it’s entirely possible he had already found me the previous year. Bernard was the worst bully I’ve ever known. Looking back, Bernard was clearly taking all of his anger about himself and projecting it on to easy victims, but at the time, none of that mattered to me. He was shorter than most of his classmates. By all accounts at the time, he was not doing very well academically, to say the least. He was unremarkable academically. And he channelled all of that towards me.
Bernard loved to taunt me. His favourite thing to do was to pull back the corners of his eyes and call out to me across the schoolyard. “Chink!” Call that out in public today and you might have dozens of faces turn to you, but at that time, it was pretty obvious he was talking to me. It was always about my physical appearance, never about anything else. It was always about my eyes being different than everyone else’s eyes.
Those run-ins with Bernard – and there were hundreds, if not thousands, during the six years I spent at the school – have clearly shaped me. I’m hyper-sensitive when it comes to race relations, although I have given myself permission to make fun of East Asians. I definitely don’t put up with racism and bullying in my classrooms, and enjoy having frank and sometimes uncomfortable conversations on these topics with my students. And it’s likely that some of the anger and resentment I carried into adulthood stemmed from those times I had to deal with Bernard’s physical and emotional bullying.
At the end of the day, though, I have to forgive Bernard. It is obvious in retrospect that he hadn’t thought things through carefully when it came to the bullying. Or, he didn’t own a mirror.
The funny thing is, Bernard was South Asian himself.
I’ve been taking Marshall out every day for a walk in the stroller. I usually stop in at a local cafe and get a coffee, but he stays in the stroller for that quick transaction. Then, I’ve been taking him to the neighbourhood toy store where he is always enthusiastically greeted by our friend Erin. She rushes over to tickle his feet and as long as he’s awake, she usually scoops him up for some cuddles. At this point, I tend to step back and consider my options. At first, my instinct was to go and browse in the corner of the shop to deal with the anxiety of Marshall being in plain view. With warmer weather finally here in Toronto, and Marshall’s tendency to sweat like Patrick Ewing in a double-overtime playoff game, he’s usually in a short-sleeved, legless onesie (I’m sure it has a specific name, but it eludes me at the moment – a halfsie? quartersie?). His fused fingers and webbed toes are clearly on display. Without a hat on, his head and face look different than a typical three-month-old.
Recently, however, I have forced myself to stay in sight, taking ownership of him when someone inquires about him. I hold my breath and wait for people to say something about his differences, but it hasn’t happened yet. Maybe it’s the clientele, but people have either not noticed, which is possible I suppose with a quick glance, they are too polite to say anything, or they don’t care. A few weekends ago at a wedding, a fellow attendee at the table clearly noticed and did a quick double take, but that was it.
Bridget found an article online a few months ago written by the mother of a child with differences. In it, she asks that people who notice her child is different come forward and ask questions. It’s more awkward for the child to notice parents hushing up their children or acting embarrassed when there is pointing. Personally, just reading about someone being approached with questions makes me queasy, but I think I understand the thinking. As tough as it is for me to face this publicly, one day, Marshall is going to start to notice the stares.
I’d like to think that as a society and as educators, we’ve progressed quite a bit since the early-80s, but I don’t think that’s actually true. I think that teachers are much more aware of bullying today, identify it as a problem quickly, and there is much more dialogue. I do not, however, think there is much less bullying as a result. Maybe it’s just something kids go through in trying to establish a playground hierarchy. I see it all the time. It’s much more subtle today than the open fisticuffs we engaged in routinely, but the subtlety almost makes it crueler. I would much prefer Bernard’s invitations to fight over any cyber-bullying that happens today. At least in the old days, we got some exercise out of it. I kid, of course.
When I was seven years-old, I got really sick one day at school. The teacher took me to the office and had me call home, where only my grandmother was available to pick me up. I called, but when she answered, I wouldn’t talk. I was ashamed that I spoke Chinese, especially given that in that environment, my lunches with white rice in them were considered weird and exotic. Somehow, my wonderful grandmother figured out what was going on from my silence and the muffled admonishments from the teacher and principal in the background. She picked me up, and I went home, my face hot with shame that I would deny my heritage when in fact I wanted to be so proud of it.
As I’ve said before, I really do love Marshall’s beautifully fat face. Bridget hates it, but I love to cuddle him and call him my little Rob Ford. I like to feel the sweaty fat folds on his forearms and yes, I am still enjoying the brushing and picking of his cradle cap. And yet, I feel the same shame I felt thirty some odd years ago when I don’t show him off the same way I proudly paraded Quinn around the neighbourhood when he was the same age. I don’t fold back the cover of the stroller when I buy my daily coffee; instead, I quickly pay and head back out onto the sidewalk, always breathing a small sigh of relief.
I would guess that Bernard teased me each day because, despite the possible absence of a mirror at home, he knew that he himself looked vastly different than 95% of the school population in that 1980s Scarborough Catholic school. His skin was dark, and in that sea of white, he would always be the first person noticed in his class photo. Maybe I was his daily therapy, his only outlet for the fears and frustration of not having someone else there he could relate to and share his love of whatever his version of my white rice lunches might have been. Or maybe he was just an asshole. I don’t know.
Marshall is going to have his share of Bernards, no doubt. Until then, Bridget and I are going to have to build his self-confidence and his sense of self-worth so that his Bernard’s taunts roll off him harmlessly. I hope he embraces his difference and somehow, in some way, loves himself so that he doesn’t feel ashamed of who he is, because he had no choice in the matter.