The Story of Nan
The following is excerpted from "The Story of Nan" in the book Inclusion: Schools for All Students (1998), by J. David Smith, with permission from Wadsworth Publishing Company ...
My only other experience with "diversity" in those elementary school years was a little girl I will call Nan. She was what might have been called an "honorary member" of my classes for several years. Nan did not come to our classroom except on special occasions ... At school assemblies, Nan was rolled in after the lights were lowered.
Nan had no arms, and her legs were short one more so than the other ... I don't think I ever got close to her I'm sure that I never spoke with her.
A few years passed; my family moved from the city to the country; and I found myself focused on the importance of being a teenager ... One day, while listening to the best rock and roll station in the "Star City of the South," I heard an announcement that would change my life. Just how much, I didn't realize at the time. A summer camp was looking for "junior counselors."
No experience was necessary, and you only had to be sixteen years old to apply. I wrote down the number, called, and asked that an application be sent to me.
Two weeks later, I hardly noticed that it was to Camp Easter Seal that I was sending my employment application. I suppose that I had some vague notion that it was "crippled kids" who attended the camp. The important thing, however, was that this was my chance to get away from home for the summer. It worked. In early June I was on the road to adventure with the opportunity to be the independent adult I was convinced I could be.
The first few days at Camp Easter Seal were glorious. There were lots of other "adults" like me there, both male and female. There were even some college women. The summer held great promise.
On the second day of orientation for new counselors, we went to various activity areas to see what the children would be doing, and how we were to assist ... Our final stop was arts and crafts.
We were met at the door by the very enthusiastic director of the program. She was, beautiful, and imbued with the spirit of popsicle-stick baskets and mosaic tile ashtrays. She was one of the college women. I was immediately dedicated to doing all that I could to promote the arts that summer.
I was so occupied that I did not notice the young woman sitting on the table at the back of the room until the director introduced her as the assistant director of arts and crafts. She had no arms, her legs were very short, and she was mixing tempera paint with a tongue depressor that she held between her toes. Her smile was radiant. Nan had been coming to the camp since she was ten. After six years as a camper, she had been hired as a staff member. I immediately recognized her, but embarrassment held me back from mentioning to her that we had met before. In a real sense, of course, we had not. It was weeks later that I finally told her that we had been "classmates" at Morningside Elementary.
Through the summer, I came to know Nan as a talented and captivating person. She had learned to use her feet for most of the things that "normal" people use hands to do and more. She typed, played an electric piano, and was learning guitar.
The counselors and the children were drawn to her. She was a great talker, a sensitive listener, and a marvelous laugher.
We talked of politics and religion and philosophy as we knew them at that time in our adolescent lives ... By the end of the summer, Nan ... had become a person to me, and somehow her disabilities had faded from my perception of her.
My understanding of people and my vision of life were transformed.
Nan was an important part of the change that took place in me that summer, but there were other factors ... Through my work that summer children with mental retardation, physical disabilities, and speech impairments, I learned ... that work could mean doing something that was critical to the growth of another human being. Things were never quite the same for me again ...
Each summer, a core group of "regulars" returned to the camp staff. Nan and I were "regulars." We grew in the responsibilities we assumed and in our closeness with each other. Nan was central to the camp. She provided us with inspiration through her optimism and courage. Most important to me, she was a reliable friend ...
One day toward the end of my third summer at the camp, Nan asked me if we could talk after lunch ... Nan had been having difficulty making a decision and working out arrangements for going to college in the fall. She had finally decided on the same school where I would be going ... She knew, however, that there were going to be problems.
Some of the buildings had long flights of steps at the entrances. She was also sure that some of her classes would be in second-floor rooms. Getting around in her wheelchair would not be easy. I was quick to reassure her that things would work out with no major difficulties. I was certain we could arrange classes so that I could help her with any barriers that might exist. Things were going to be fine ... and being at college with Nan would be a little like being at camp. How neat!
Things did work amazingly well the first week of college. As it turned out, another friend and longtime neighbor of Nan's was also there ... One of us would meet Nan at the steps outside a classroom building, carry her up, go back for her wheelchair, and repeat the procedure at inside stairs if necessary. Nan waited outside her classrooms for the trip down the stairs after the bell. Often the way was crowded with other students, but most were courteous and made sure we had ample room.
Going to college was a great social adventure for me, perhaps more so in my mind initially than an academic event. I had purchased my clothing carefully. I wanted to "look college." I had visions of the new girls I would meet, the guys I would be hanging around with, and the parties I would be invited to. I was ready to be, not necessarily a Big Man on Campus, but a solidly "cool guy."
Sometimes, as I was carrying Nan or her wheelchair to a class, however, I felt people were staring. It bothered me ...
Camp Easter Seal had been a special place. I am sure that I was not aware while I was there of the many ways it was different from the "real world." The camp was an isolated culture unto itself. Disabilities had a way of disappearing from our perception of people there. As I have said, Nan became, in that environment, a person who was interesting and fun to be with. The fact that she lacked arms, that she did manual things with her feet, became unimportant. But I had known Nan only in that separated, caring, understanding place ...
What I now had to admit was that I was embarrassed being seen carrying Nan up and down the steps between classes.
I knew that other people at the college didn't understand. Their stares convinced me that I was becoming associated with her disability. They didn't understand about Nan; they wouldn't understand our relationship; I would be stigmatized. What would happen to my college social life?
I detested myself. How shallow I must be. What I had thought was conviction was only convenience. It had been so easy to talk and act as an advocate for people with disabilities in the seclusion and safety, and segregation, of the camp. Now with the slightest test of my beliefs, I was selling out, at least emotionally.
Beliefs and commitments, genuine beliefs and commitments, must be public and primary.
Just as I was about convinced that my social life was headed for the rocks, there was a glimmer of hope. I was invited to the party of the fall season. It was what we termed a "cabin party" music and dancing in a rustic and romantic venue.
The invitation came from a socially prominent source: All the really "neat" people would be there. Wonderful! What an opportunity to meet the key people on campus. Maybe I would even have a chance to make them understand why I was regularly seen carrying an armless girl.
I arrived at the Friday night event fashionably late and in my best madras shirt. As I entered the large, open room, I looked around for familiar faces ... Most people, however, were standing with their backs to me at the far end of the room.
I walked in that direction. When I got close enough, I tried to subtly peek over a shoulder to see what the center of attention was. It was Nan! She was sipping her drink through a straw and telling jokes.
That night, through Nan, I met many people. They were all impressed that I knew her so well. That night, also, Nan unknowingly taught me a lesson that has lasted: Beliefs and commitments, genuine beliefs and commitments, must be public and primary. Nan's lesson has been a connecting thread to the discrete events of my personal life and of my career ...