Fri, May 4 2012 10:06 | Beliefs
|Credit: Mikey O.|
I taught at an international college in Lithuania. My students were lovely. Most had been about twelve years old when the Baltic republics succeeded from the Soviet Union. And most had stood in the human chain which stretched hand from grasped hand from Vilnius in Lithuania, through Riga in Latvia and north to Tallinn in Estonia – 600 kilometres of solidarity and peaceful resistance. Thanks to the drama and suffering they had survived nearly every student was an old soul and a survivor.
One of my favourite classes was Oral Communications – a.k.a., How to Give a Speech. I taught my students to make eye contact, to speak in a moderate but varied tone and to use simple, but efficacious hand gestures. As they gave their speeches I scribbled comments on a sheet of paper and graded them on the spot. I made helpful suggestions like, “Make sure to look at your whole audience and not just the cute girl in the corner,” and “Bring a glass of water with you next time for that tickle in your throat.” On one occasion, mid-way through the semester, I wrote, “Hey, Laura, where’s your other arm!?” I thought I was being so jocular, cleverly drawing this student’s attention to the fact that she had given her entire speech with one arm tucked firmly behind her back, leaving her free hand the sole responsibility of making all the gestures. I docked her a few points for this bizarre oversight.
I passed out my comments and grades at the end of that day’s speeches and traipsed off to my suite in the student dormitory. But the image of Laura standing at the front of room, one arm doing all the gesturing, stayed with me, so much so that I started to piece together a “portrait” of Laura in that class. Long, thick blond hair always cascading over her shoulders. A winter coat always draped over those same shoulders like a shawl. A shy and demure spirit. And as this portrait formed in my mind a sense of mortification grew within me. I slithered down the hall and found my friend Natasha.
“How many arms does Laura have?” I blurted as soon as I saw her.
“Well, one.” She replied as if everybody knew this, as if this was the dumbest question she’d ever heard.
I collapsed into the nearest chair. “One, only one!? Are you sure!?” I buried my face in my hands and groaned.
Natasha hurried on. “Yeah, she was born with only one arm. She’s really self conscious about it.” She paused. “That’s why she always wears her jacket over her shoulders.”
I thought I might throw up. I had never felt like such a jerk. Hey, where’s your other arm?! I had jeered like a snot-nosed schoolyard bully. Ten points off for the missing limb, you freak!
So I wrote a very long, very grovely note to Laura, apologising profusely, explaining my ignorance of her one-armedness, awarding extra points for bravery and begging her forgiveness for my incredibly insensitive comment. I might even have included a small sketch of a sparrow. (“Look! I drew you a picture!”)
I learned something important that day. We are all disfigured. Some people’s disfigurement is more obvious (whether in body because they are missing a limb or whether in character because they mock those who are missing a limb). But we are, each one, disfigured. And therefore we journey imperfectly with moments of sheer knee-buckling insecurity or, worse, moments of self-aggrandising narcissism. But, never mind; we hobble on toward the good goals of kindness, of justice, of creation care and godliness. We are a mixed bag. But the point is to keep showing up, keep dancing, keep grasping the hand nearest and giving the speech.