Tag Archives: Middle School

My First Speaking Event: Cerebral Palsy and Bullying

30 Oct

Last Thursday, I had my first speaking event. I spoke to an elementary school book club in Asheville who had read Out of My Mind, in which the main character in the novel has Cerebral Palsy, the same disability I have. I was asked to come and speak about being bullied in school because of my Cerebral Palsy.

Below is the talk I read to the students and their parents of the book club (disclaimer: I have changed the names of people in order to protect confidentially):

When I was 7 years old, I played on a coach’s pitch baseball team, and there is one game I’ll never forget. I was up to bat, and my coach, Mr. Mark, stood on the mound smiling at me. He pitched the ball, and even though I hit the ball, it didn’t go far. It landed close to Mr. Mark’s feet. There was a player from the other team standing behind Mr. Mark, but Mr. Mark grabbed the ball and kept it away from the other player. At first, as I was running to first base, I didn’t know what was going on. I just knew that the first baseman hadn’t caught the ball yet, so I kept running. As I was almost near third base, the biggest grin spread across my face as I realized what Mr. Mark had done: he was giving me my very first home run. I remember running as fast as I could from third base to home plate, and as soon as my feet touched home plate, everyone in the crowd jumped to their feet and cheered for me. In that moment, I got to be a normal kid, and I got to feel the happiness that comes with completing a home run. If only for one night, I wasn’t a girl with Cerebral Palsy. I was a baseball player, a team member, and probably one of the happiest people in my hometown, if only for a moment.

Just like the character of Melody in Out of My Mind, I have Cerebral Palsy. Though I am not in a wheelchair or unable to talk like Melody, my Cerebral Palsy affects the way I walk because my muscles are really tight and because I don’t have very good balance. Because of being physically different, I was always an outcast in school. I had trouble making friends, and it was hard not having someone who knew what I struggled with on a daily basis. When I walk, it is very evident that I am different, and because of my visible differences, I was an easy target for bullying in school.

I had my first bullying experience when I was in kindergarten. At that age, I had to use canes to help me walk. Because of having to use canes, I wasn’t able to walk very quickly, and there was a girl named Ashley who enjoyed picking on me because she knew I wouldn’t be able to run away. Every day on the playground during recess, Ashley came up behind me and pulled my hair. It wasn’t a friendly pull either. She grabbed a fistful of my hair and yanked as hard as she could, laughing as I screamed in pain. She pulled so hard that I couldn’t even try to get away from her. Every day, I came home crying, and every morning, I woke up dreading having to go to school and see Ashley on the playground. I felt like crying when I realized I was completely alone. No one was sticking up for me, and it made me really sad. One day, my teacher, Miss Sandy, came up to me and told me to hit Ashley with one of my canes to help her realize that what she was doing was hurting me. See, Ashley was mentally disabled, so she didn’t know any better, and hitting her was one of the only ways Miss Sandy knew to make her stop. I never did hit Ashley though. I couldn’t do it. Hitting her would make me just like her: someone who wanted to hurt someone else. I don’t think Miss Sandy really wanted me to hit Ashley though. She was just trying to teach me the importance of trying to stand up for myself. In many ways, it felt impossible. How was I supposed to stand up for myself when it felt like I didn’t have a friend who would stand up for me?

I’ve struggled with forming friendships my entire life. As a kid, I wanted friends more than anything. I think that is the reason I never told a teacher that kids were making fun of me. I became afraid that once I told a teacher, the people who picked on me would call me a “tattle-tale” and the other kids would distance themselves even more. Because I was so physically different from the other kids in my class, all I wanted was to feel like I fit in. In my early friendships, many of the people who became friends with me were my friends out of pity. Even though they didn’t specifically tell me that, I could tell it was true. I could tell by the way they looked at me that they felt sorry for me. When I was young, I kept those friendships anyway because all I wanted was a place where I felt like I belonged. Many of those friendships didn’t last long though because most of the people who had been spending time with me left when they got tired of pretending to be my friend.

It wasn’t until I became friends with a boy named Tommy in first grade that things began to change. Tommy was the first person to visibly stick up for me. He confronted the people who picked on me, telling them it wasn’t okay to pick on someone who couldn’t help that she was different. Tommy’s friends laughed at him for sticking up for me, but he didn’t care. He stuck up for me anyway and was there for me no matter what. Tommy also saw the numerous people who became friends with me because they felt sorry for me. He knew how much that hurt me. Even though Tommy wasn’t disabled, he saw how I cried day after day when another person I thought was my friend just got tired of trying. Tommy’s presence in my life didn’t stop other kids from picking on me, but I began to feel a little less alone. Even now, I don’t have many friends. However, the few friends I do have are incredibly close to me, and I am happy to say that one of those friends is still Tommy.

When I was in fifth grade, I took a required PE class. In my PE class, dodge ball was typically the game of choice. Every week in PE, I was chosen last for dodge ball. I even remember one particular day when one of my friends, Allie, was the team caption. This made me excited because I thought: Yes, finally! I won’t be picked last because Allie will choose me since we are friends. The team picking began, and I waited with excitement for Allie to say my name. I looked towards her with a smile on my face, and my smile faded as I realized she was picking everyone else but me. Finally, it came down to Miranda, a girl who had just broken her leg, and me. It was Allie’s turn to pick, and I started to inch towards her. And then you know what happened? She chose Miranda over me! Miranda, the girl no one liked because she was so mean, and the girl who couldn’t even move as well as me because she had broken her leg. I couldn’t believe it!

As I got older, I thought the bullying would stop, but it didn’t. The summer after my sophomore year in high school, I attended a creative arts camp. One day I was walking back from a creative writing class, and out of the corner of my eye, I saw a girl named Lauren imitating the way I was walking. I turned to her and said, “Hey, what are you doing?” “Imitating the way you’re walking,” Lauren said. When I asked her why, she explained that she was supposed to observe people as an assignment for her theatre class. Even though I told her she hurt my feelings, Lauren didn’t listen. As I walked away, I watched as she laughed and continued to imitate me. I ran back to my room and cried, so sad and frustrated that I was still getting picked on. Even at an older age, getting picked on hurt just as much, if not more. Lauren knew what she had been doing. She saw how I cried in front of her, and yet she still continued to imitate me and laugh at me. I couldn’t understand why she would be so mean on purpose. I ended up telling a staff member about what happened, and she contacted the teacher to find out that it was never a class assignment. The next day, though, something good happened. Lauren did the one thing I never thought she would ever do: she said she was sorry.

Being bullied, either physically or emotionally, is hurtful for anyone, but it’s especially hurtful if someone bullies you for something you have no control over, like a physical disability. My bullying experiences have affected me my entire life. I remember the details of every bullying experience I’ve ever had. I remember how alone and broken they made me feel, and how it seemed like the bullying would never stop. Typically, kids in school try to be different because they don’t want to blend in with the crowd. For them, it’s important to stand out. In my case, I have always been incredibly different, and all I have ever wanted was to be normal. My differences have never stopped me from trying to be as independent and normal as possible though.  I have Cerebral Palsy, and I am a survivor.

Speaking at this event was an incredible experience. I was nervous to speak about my bullying experiences since they were a part of my life I had never verbally discussed before. However, it was such a relief to finally talk about being bullied, and it gave me a sense of closure. It was also wonderful to hear from the kids in the book club and answer their questions. One girl in particular asked what my best grade in school was and what was my worst. It truly made me smile because I realized how wonderful it is to hear questions from kids. They make connections many of us as adults seem to have lost as we have gotten older, or maybe kids are just never nearly as shy to ask whatever seems to pop into their head. Either way, it was a great evening. I have even been asked to come back to that same elementary school to speak to the fifth graders, and my contact information has been passed on to two other elementary and middle schools in Asheville. I suppose it’s time to make myself some “business” cards!

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Being Bullied: The Effects that Can Last a Lifetime.

9 Oct

About two weeks ago, I randomly received an email from a woman who works at an elementary school in Asheville. She informed me she had received my contact information from the program director of Easter Seals in Asheville who spoke very highly of me. She then told me there is a book club at the elementary school, and in the book the children are reading, the main character has Cerebral Palsy. Based on the high remarks she received from the Asheville Easter Seals program director concerning me, she asked if I’d be willing to come speak to the third through fifth graders about my experiences with CP. Specifically, she asked if I could speak about my experiences of being bullied during my school years.

The email was completely out of the blue, and I was stunned. To have received this kind of opportunity without searching for it is incredible, and I am excited for such a wonderful opportunity. However, the tricky part comes with the focus of the talk: my bullying experiences in school.

It is safe to say my bullying experiences were the worst part of my childhood (excluding my intense surgeries and physical therapy, obviously). As a child, I could not understand why I was being targeted out of everyone in my class. I understand now that children are especially curious about those who are different from them. However, I didn’t know why it always had to be me. During those times, I also didn’t understand why I was so different. All I wanted was to fit in, and by getting bullied I stuck out even more.

I got my hair pulled in kindergarten because I had no way of running away, I got pelted with a dodge ball in middle school because I couldn’t move away from the ball fast enough, and every day in gym class, I was picked last. Though I know those experiences helped me to develop a thicker skin very early on in life, many of the experiences were just plain cruel. There is no other way to say it. They resulted in me coming home from elementary school crying to my parents on a daily basis. I cried over more than just the bullying though. I cried over hating I was so different. I cried over not being able to fit in because my experiences were so different from most of the other kids my age. I cried because it wasn’t fair. None of it was fair. I was a nice kid. I smiled at other kids, I laughed with them, and yet I still didn’t ever really fit in with them.

The complex social aspects of school are difficult for any kid. However, they are especially difficult for any kid who may be a tiny bit different from their peers. I only hope to try to convey this to the children I’ll speak to at the elementary school in Asheville. I don’t want to berate them or tell them to stop being mean. After all, they are kids. Kids are curious, especially regarding things they don’t fully understand. I only hope to explain how children with disabilities should be treated just like any other kid. Yes, they are different, but pointing out their differences and excluding them from activities because they are a little bit unique only makes it that much more difficult for them.

Despite growing a tougher skin due to being bullied, I have carried my bullying experiences with me ever since I was a kid. I remember the specific moments in detail. I remember who targeted me, and I remember exactly the way I felt when I came home and cried. I know now that many of my bullying experiences were not intentional. They were just moments of kids being kids. However, that does not mean I still don’t remember the feeling of walking into gym class with my fingers crossed, silently hoping I wouldn’t have to be pelted with a dodge ball by the one girl who always got so much satisfaction out of being the one to hit me.

Try like hell.

27 Sep

Sometimes I wonder what my life would have been like if I hadn’t been born with Cerebral Palsy. I wonder if I would have decided to be a dancer or maybe an athlete rather than an aspiring psychotherapist and a writer. I wonder if I would have spent my childhood climbing up into trees to read books rather than becoming all too familiar with hospitals, surgeries, and physical therapy. I wonder if I would have had a big group of friends throughout middle school and part of high school rather than coming home every day crying because I had no friends due to my differences. I wonder if I would have spent my time hiking beautiful mountains rather than having to wonder if I’d have the stamina to make it up the next hill.

Earlier this week, my dad said, “Sometimes I wonder what it would have been like if you hadn’t been born with Cerebral Palsy. You could have had a wonderful life. You wouldn’t have had to struggle so much.” Though in the moment I wanted to interject and say I have had a wonderful life, I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t say the words. As soon as I wanted to say something, the memories all came back. I saw myself sitting in a hospital bed screaming out in pain because of the spasms that wouldn’t stop. I saw myself in kindergarten getting my hair pulled every day because I was the one child on the playground who was unable to run away. I saw myself shaking as my classmates pelted me with doge balls during middle school gym class because I couldn’t move away quickly enough. I saw myself crying as a girl I didn’t know imitated the way I was walking and then said she did it because it was a “class assignment.” I see myself at 21, struggling with depression and still not being able to truly accept and be comfortable with having a physical disability.

You would think after 21 years I would be used to the cards I’ve been dealt in this life. The truth is, I’m not. Every day of my life is a challenge. On top of having to convince myself to go to class when my back and my muscles hurt, I have to try to convince myself to get out of bed and face the day even though I’d rather sleep to escape the overwhelming sadness and hopelessness that hovers over me like a dark cloud.

I’m trying to learn to hold on to the good moments, though they are few and far between. The color of the changing leaves during autumn, the few (but true) friends who have been by my side through all of this darkness, a dad who has never given up on me, a smile from a child fighting cancer after completing an art project I taught her. In the darkness of depression, it is very hard to remember those good moments, especially when the bad days outnumber the good. However, I’m trying. It’s all any of us can really do. We try like hell, and hope against all odds that we can kick this life just as hard, if not harder, as it kicks us every single day.

Social rejection through the eyes of a CP adult.

3 Oct

I walked into my Community Psychology class this morning to see the following prompt written on the board:

Journal about a time when you experienced disapproval or rejection from peers. What happened? What kind of thoughts and feelings did you have?

When I was in middle school, I took a required Physical Education class every year. In my middle school PE classes, we played “slaughterball,” which was our definition of dodgeball. I think “slaughterball” is a more accurate description of the game though. Every week in PE, I was chosen last for slaughterball. Even though being chosen to play was better than not being chosen at all, being chosen last was one of the worst feelings I ever experienced during my middle school years. When someone who sprained their ankle the day before and was on crutches was chosen over me, it pretty much felt like getting punched in the stomach.

Even though I know that many middle schoolers go through the experience of being chosen last for a game or sport, it didn’t feel the same. Though I know that other kids who were chosen last may have experienced the same feelings of hurt, frustration, and not being good enough, I know that I was chosen last simply because I didn’t have the level of physical ability that my other classmates did. I can’t even count the number of times I came home from school crying because, once again, I had been chosen last. I think it was even harder for me due to the fact that I couldn’t change the fact that I had CP, while the person who had sprained their ankle would be healed and ready to run around with the other kids in a matter of weeks. There never was a 6-week period for me to “recover” from my Cerebral Palsy. At the same time, it’s not something that I suffer from. It is just something that I have. No amount of exercises or talk therapy can change the fact that I am a 20 year-old girl who has Cerebral Palsy.

I’m incredibly familiar with social rejection. I’m way more familiar with it than I want to be. From being chosen last in slaughterball to getting pelted last in slaughterball because the other kids knew that I couldn’t move fast enough to avoid the ball coming at me, I’ve felt it all. I know what it feels like to be stared at, not just by kids but by adults as well, due to the fact that I walk funny. I know the feeling of sitting in my high school auditorium  watching a mini-play in which the main character had Cerebral Palsy…letting the tears come…and wanting so badly to just get up and walk out of the auditorium, but knowing that doing so would cause me to draw even more attention to myself. I know the feeling of having people avoid me due to the fact that I make them uncomfortable or they are just unsure how to act around me. I know what it feels like when someone is dying to ask me what is wrong with me but can’t seem to even say it because they are too afraid of bringing it up and hurting my feelings. Worst of all, I know what it feels like to have someone imitate the way I walk and then using the bullshit excuse of “I’ve been told to observe people for a class.” No, I’m not kidding. That happened.

You could say I have felt more than my share of social rejection. Sadly, the majority of the social rejection that I have felt stems from the simple fact that I have a visible physical disability, so I naturally become an easy target for teasing and social rejection. However, don’t think that I am saying that all the other kids who have experienced social rejection but don’t have CP are any less important. That’s not what I’m saying at all. However, I think it’s important to understand that due to my CP, I became an easier target for teasing and social rejection, so in my eyes, it hurt worse simply because I was being teased about something that I couldn’t change. Despite the fact that I have gotten stronger due to experiencing so much teasing and social rejection, it wasn’t easy. It still isn’t. Even now, if I get funny looks due to the way I walk, it hurts. It makes me want to cry or scream. It takes me right back to how I felt in middle school when I was chosen last for slaughterball because of the simple reason of having a physical disability. Being triggered to those moments of rejection in my childhood only takes a moment. I’ve always known that. However, the prompt in this morning’s Community Psych class made me remember just how easy it is for me to feel exactly how I did in middle school. It only takes a moment, a trigger, or even the two simple words of “social rejection”….until I’m back in the gym of my small town private school getting pelted with a red rubber ball because I wasn’t able to move quickly enough.

The Different Faces Of Curiousity Regarding My CP.

13 May

Since starting my memoir this past January, the number one thing that I have realized is that no one knows exactly how I felt growing up and living with Cerebral Palsy except me. As a writer, that can often be a hard way to start off since I don’t have other sources to gather much information from. I just have my own memories and feelings of how my CP has impacted my life.

Even though I may have friends and family who want to understand, no one can say they know exactly what I faced. Growing up, not having anyone who understood was hard. I attended a private school in my hometown from 1st grade until 10th grade, and even though the kids that I went to school with were some of the same kids that could be found on my street on the weekends playing in front yards and riding their bikes up and down the sidewalk, they didn’t really know me. They wondered about me, that I could tell. The way they stared but never said anything told me how they felt. Growing up, I hated the staring, and I still do. However, when I was at school and didn’t have much of anything to “hide behind,” there was no way to escape the staring. The kids I went to private school with hardly ever asked what was wrong with me. Either their parents had told them, or they just weren’t sure. As I was growing up, I quickly learned that I was the one that was going to have to initiate friendships. People weren’t going to walk up to me begging to hang out with me or sit with me at lunch, and that was something I had to deal with early on.

Therefore, I initiated things. I had to let other kids know that I was comfortable with myself so that they could be comfortable with me. When the other kids asked what was wrong with me, I’d say, “I have Cerebral Palsy. I was born with it.” That seemed to satisfy most of the kids. Though I knew they still didn’t fully understand, they were curious. All kids are curious. Therefore, I just had to find a way to answer their question without having to go into so much detail (since I didn’t fully understand things when I was that young either). Heck, I didn’t understand why I was different from all the other kids my age, so how could I explain that to the kids I went to school with. I couldn’t. It’s that simple.

These days, I’ve been hesitant to explain to friends about my CP just because I’ve realized that for most of them, it doesn’t matter. They are my friends, and they could care less about what’s wrong with me because to them it’s not a big deal. To them, it doesn’t define me. Even though it took me a long time to be able to vocally say that my Cerebral Palsy doesn’t define who I am, I have reached a point where I can talk about my CP with my friends (which I think is because I have started writing my memoir and am no longer afraid to be my true self). No, my CP doesn’t define me. However, it still affects me on a day-to-day basis. That’s not something that can be denied. Therefore, when I’ve told my friends about my CP, it hasn’t been hard for me. It’s been easier to talk about, and after I’ve opened up about it, I’ve gotten so much support from my friends about my strength and courage. And in my mind, getting that kind of response is worth facing the fear of talking about the disability that, though it may not define me, has impacted me on a physical and emotional level that most people can’t even fathom.

For me, every single day is a struggle, which is not something that most people know. Most people don’t realize that I still feel a large amount of physical pain, especially in my back, which often causes me to stop, place my hand on my lower back, and breathe through the pain. Even on the days when the pain gets bad though, I choose to be a fighter. I choose to be a fighter because honestly, what other choice do I have? Giving up has never been an option for me, and so rather than simply allowing myself to wallow in self-pity, I’ve learned to thrive.

Fun Sick Days Don’t Exist In College.

12 Apr

During my childhood, being sick was an exciting time (if it wasn’t the stomach bug or another nasty equivalent). Being sick in the middle school days meant staying home from school, being curled up on the couch in pjs watching tv, having my mom make me soup and get popsicles and ice cream from the store, and best of all, sleeping. Sometimes when I was younger, I looked forward to those days, even if I was feeling pretty crappy. It meant having a break from school, which wasn’t exactly needed during the younger years, but something I gladly took anyway.

Being sick in college is not nearly as fun. Since there’s so much schoolwork to get done and most teachers penalize you for assignments being late or for missing a test, there’s no “fun” in being sick. Yesterday, I had 2 classes and worked at the bookstore for 4 hours despite being tired and coughing so much that I thought I’d cough up a lung eventually. Once I was done with classes yesterday, I came back to my dorm room to try to sleep, but I had no luck due to my constant coughing. After I had “rested” for about an hour, I had to get back to working on all the schoolwork that my professors have piled on over the last week.

No matter how old I get, I think I’ll always want my mom when I’m sick. Someone to make me soup and buy me popsicles and basically spend the day babying me. Everyone feels rotten when they’re sick, and all anyone wants is to feel better. Though moms can’t wish away sickness, they still do a pretty good job making sick days the best of the worst days. Ever since yesterday, I’ve wanted to be at my house curled up on the couch in pjs not having to worry about anything but sleeping and getting better. Though I know it’s important to get better now too, I’ve got so much due. As a kid, I never thought I’d need more time for “life.” I used to think there was so much already. College beats that thought right out of you, but leaves the sickness lingering….waiting to attach itself to the next tired and stressed college student.