This hearkens back to one of my weirder elementary school memories. Some time in either fourth of fifth grade, we had a school assembly for a presentation by a puppet theater troupe, the ostensible point of which was to give all of us some exposure to (and presumably sensitivity training regarding) handicapped individuals. The puppet characters in the show were all human children, but some of them had disabilities: wheelchair-bound, blind, MD, CP, things like that. I seem to recall at that time, smack in the middle of the 80’s, this was a topic that came up a lot in pop culture anyway, but the puppet show was clearly aimed at the ten-and-under set specifically. One of the few details I remember vividly was that one of the vignettes in the show involved a non-handicapped kid meeting a kid in a wheelchair and the kid in the wheelchair wanting to put the other kid at ease and saying if the other kid had any questions, anything at all, he didn’t have to feel embarrassed about asking. So the other kid hems and haws a bit and then finally asks the kid in the wheelchair, if he can’t move his legs or stand up, how does he go to the bathroom? And the kid in the wheelchair answers the question, after a fashion without getting too graphic, but of course all the children in the audience (myself included) are at this point laughing hysterically because somebody said “toilet”. In retrospect this really strikes me as brilliant because it’s exactly the kind of thing that little kids would be naturally curious about but feel like they weren’t allowed to bring up.
Anyway, the whole show was vignettes like that where a generic kid meets a kid with a specific handicap and they talk and the generic kid asks questions and the handicapped kid answers them and the generic kid realizes that they have a lot more commonalities than differences and one physical condition doesn’t define the whole person and all that tolerance and understanding afterschool special stuff which of course I have nothing against in the slightest. So another one of the vignettes involved a boy meeting a girl who had … some kind of neurological deal? I forget exactly what, but she was prone to getting confused, for example. The boy asked the girl why she was wearing a big chunky red ring and she explained it helped her remember the difference between her left and her right when she got mixed up, because it was super-easy to remember “red ring right”. The puppeteer repeated it a few times in this singsongy way that clearly embedded it in my brain forever. Thus, when in doubt, red ring right.
I’m sure everyone out there approximately within my generational cohort had similar experiences with mandatory enlightenment exercises at school. When I look back on them I’m generally grateful for the attempts, at least, although sometimes I cringe at how insufferable I was as a budding young nerd. After the puppet show there was a more freeform interactive demonstration where the students could check out some items the presenters had brought along, like wheelchairs and crutches and things like that. Again, this strikes me as perfectly reasonable, if a kid sees another kid with that kind of apparatus there’s a conflict between rampant curiosity and whatever civilizing effects have thus far succeeded in teaching the kid that it’s rude to stare and totally unacceptable to ask for a closer look. Separate the novel items for actual disabled children using them and destigmatize them? Sounds good to me. Another area of the interactive feature had a presenter put socks over students’ hands and then tell them to try putting on and buttoning a shirt. This was intended to stoke a certain amount of compassion for others suffering from mobility impairment; the intended effect was pretty much lost on me, though. Because I was in the process of building my identity as one of the smart kids, a problem solver, somebody who could figure things out. So I was not going to put the socks over my hands and struggle with the shirt and give up and acknowledge it was very hard and reflect on what it must be like to live like that. No, I was going to focus and concentrate and succeed in getting the shirt on, and that’s what I did. I think one of my teachers even offered me a little “My, my, aren’t you clever?” but in retrospect I believe she was (inwardly) rolling her eyes at least, and probably wanted to smack my smug little head. Certainly I wanted to smack myself years later when I recalled how utterly I had missed the point. (Kind of like realizing Freddie Mercury was gay?)
I know that empathy is one of the trickier parts of the human condition and it’s not always fair to expect it of young children. Arguably it’s one of the major challenges of raising kids and continues to be well into teenagerhood (and beyond). You’d think I could cut nine-year-old me a little slack, maybe even acknowledge that even if I didn’t consciously process the fact that motor muscle failure isn’t a game for other kids, on a subconscious level the development of my empathy might have been getting primed in some way. Maybe. Trust me, though, I really was a bit of a know-it-all brat back in the day, and honestly it’s better for me and everyone else in the world who has to deal with me if I keep alive a good supply of embarrassing memories of proof to that.