“I just have to ask,” said my sixth grade shop teacher (in front of the entire class), “are you special?”
“Special,” of course, being the
non-politically correct term of the day for individuals with developmental disabilities.
I was not special. I was a strong student; I took the hardest classes and received the highest grades. I tutored my peers, participated in honors societies and was the one sent to do various tasks because I finished my work long before everyone else. I prided myself on these facts.
I can’t recall now what prompted him to ask such an awful question. I believe it had something to do with a T-ruler–perhaps I looked at it a few seconds too long before getting to work. Instead of giving me time to grasp this new tool, he assumed that there must be something wrong with me. A cognitive defect maybe, or simply the woeful lack of the all-important Y chromosome.
My parents sent angry letters and phone calls were made and this teacher eventually apologized. Ultimately, I was able to overcome any perceived “deficiencies” and successfully build a lamp and a book shelf.
But the damage was done. From that day forward I, like so many of my female counterparts, became convinced I had some inherent inability to build things. I became convinced that I did well in school merely because I was a good student, and not because I was smart. I was an imposter among my peers, who I was sure were in their rightful places. Everyone else belonged there; I was a fraud.
Which is how I ended up the other day on my knees, frustrated, staring helplessly at an activity walker I was attempting to put together for my daughter. There were just so many pieces and parts! Yes, I could wait until my husband came home, but goddammit it’s a child’s toy. I have a master’s degree.
I came across a post the other day that advised women to “be the woman you want your daughter to become.” I don’t want my daughter growing up believing that women can’t put things together or take out the trash. I don’t want her to believe that girls can only play with Legos if they are pink or purple. I don’t want her to bypass the fields of science, math or engineering because the perception persists that these are fields in which men excel and women struggle. And more than anything, I don’t want her to hang onto false words spoken by some asshole who is having a bad day. I want her to be confident in her abilities and to trust herself.
I think I’ll always feel a slight wave of panic wash over me when I see an instruction booklet thanks to that horrible question posed to me over two decades ago, but I’ve learned that it’s okay to take my time. It’s okay if I don’t get it right away. It’s okay to work in collaboration with someone else–life doesn’t have to be a solo sport. I’ve learned I’m not an imposter. I’ve worked hard to get where I am and nothing anybody can say can change that.
And more than anything, I’ve learned that some people matter and some people don’t. When I pick my daughter up from daycare, she bounces happily in her seat when she sees me, and possessively wraps her chubby arms around my neck in an impossibly cute display of affection.
She seems to think I’m pretty damn special. And you know what? Maybe I am.