Schuyler doesn’t always share much in the way of information about her days at school, at least not immediately. She takes time to process before letting little bits and pieces slip out, almost always in the context of other conversations. So it was that a week and a half passed before she told us, on the last day of spring break, that she didn’t want her external speaker on her iPad to be too loud because she didn’t want people to look at her “like a freak”, and that this was a result of someone at her school (someone she even knew, from her middle school cheerleading squad) calling her a freak the week before.
Before I go further, I want to stop right here and clarify something. This isn’t an outrage piece, or a sympathy piece, either. Schuyler is fifteen, and she goes to school in a district that isn’t exactly diverse. It’s not the Thurston Howell III enclave that it once was, but still. Being different here isn’t a direct path to success. She’s been subject to weird looks and snotty remarks, particularly when she’s speaking with her natural voice, but she’s always been pretty good about laughing it off. Her take-away line from her beloved Back to the Future movies has always been “What are you looking at, butthead?” She’s not getting bullied or anything. She’s just living in the same world as the rest of us, where every so often someone’s a dick. It happens.
What was interesting was how she had quietly internalized the remark, with no tears or drama, and tried to adjust her own behavior accordingly. Her speaker is new, a replacement for the model that has sadly failed her consistently over the past six months or so. This new speaker is loud, much louder than the one it replaced, and her fears of getting the funky look weren’t entirely unjustified. Not because, as she said, she might be a freak, but more along the lines of how you might look at someone if they walked up to the counter of your favorite taco joint and shouted their order through a bullhorn.
Schuyler understands the necessity of using her iPad and speaker to communicate. She is also aware, in ways that I can only imagine, that doing so makes her different from everyone around her, and to a fifteen year-old girl, different is rarely good. For Schuyler, I don’t think it’s being different that bothers her. She’ll proudly tell anyone who asks what church she goes to, for example, that she is a theist, which means she believes in God but not religion. In this town, that’s a bold statement. But the difference of disability still rankles her. She can hear a thousand times that being different isn’t a bad thing, and I’m pretty sure she even believes it, up to a point. But only just to that point, somewhere shy of emotional truth.
“Freak” feels like an archaic term, one that has largely been taken back by those against whom it has traditionally been used. Schuyler herself gets that; one of her favorite songs is “Beautiful Freak” by Eels, a song with which she also self-identifies. It wasn’t the word itself that got under her skin, I suspect. It was hearing herself described as different, in a way that wasn’t meant to flatter. And it came from a classmate, a peer. To a fifteen year-old girl, those are the blows that land.
As parents, the best we can do is remind her over and over again that being different isn’t a bad thing, that she doesn’t need to hide her disability, and that people are much less comfortable with her when they’re unable to understand her.
“Do you know what the opposite of different is?” I asked her. “The same. Everything the same. How does that sound to you?”
“It sounds boring,” she said. “I don’t want to be like everyone else.”
Even though I know that’s not entirely true, or even mostly true at this stage of her life, it still comforts me that the thought is lodged in her head, ready to bloom when the time is right.
You’re such a beautiful freak
I wish there were more just like you
You’re not like all of the others
And that is why I love you
Beautiful freak, beautiful freak
Some people think, you have a problem
But that problem lies only with them
Just ’cause you are not like the others
But that is why I love you
Beautiful freak, beautiful freak
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