This letter was not written by me, but my husband. I had recounted to him an unpleasant exchange that Uly and I experienced with a young child at a local indoor play space. We discussed it briefly, shaking our heads at the daunting reality of knowing how close our son is to recognizing when hurtful things are said to/about him. At just turned two, Ulysses still thinks every face he sees is a friend. Our conversation was short, as the husband and our older son had to zip off to an activity. Sometime after they were gone, my phone chimed with an incoming email and I read the following words from my husband:
Some of you we know well and others we are enjoying becoming acquainted with. I’d like to (re)introduce you to our youngest, Ulysses. He was born with many very visible differences, and a few not so visible differences. We all have these not so visible differences. I like to think that our differences are what make us the same… What gives us a common bond, a human bond, our humanity. So when Uly is specifically excluded from play within the context of our group… Our safe, known everyone for years group of friends and acquaintances for being weird… “Weirrrd” in the pejorative sense, not the “we’re are all weird”, “celebrate differences” weird, I am both shocked and saddened. I am not asking you or your children to actively include him in your play. I understand his differences are new to children, and children are honest about their feelings, but please discourage active exclusion. I hope, but do not expect, that knowing him will broaden you and your children’s scope of reference for how the world works. I hope you’ll embrace knowing him.
There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,
Than are dreamt of in your philosophy. – Hamlet (1.5.166-7), Hamlet to Horatio.
Uly has a difficult life ahead of him. I want him to feel safe and accepted now when his world view is so impressionable. I want this to remain our group, our community of friends. Your kids’ questions are awesome. Ulysses is just as curious about the concept of feet as you might be about his hands. Please answer your kids’ questions about him, or ask us if you don’t know. Reticence and avoidance only perpetuate the “otherness”, the “weirrrd”ness. Encourage curiosity, don’t turn him into one. The more it is talked about the more he is accepted.
That is all.
A few things. Yes, we homeschool. I don’t write about that part of our lives much; it’s a choice that makes some people inexplicably uncomfortable, but I’ve been at it too long -my oldest is nearly fifteen!- to feel inclined to explain our reasons. Assess all your choices. Pick the one that works best for your family. You’ll know if your kids are thriving or not. You won’t ever catch me wearing an “Ask Me Why We Homeschool” button because I don’t care to proselytize our lifestyle nor do I feel any obligation to help critical people feel more comfortable with my choices. I would happily talk about good books for kids all day long, though.
I texted my husband a response right away, something like, “Damn! Tell me you have an app that inserts appropriate Shakespeare quotes into writing!” but he said, no, it just popped into his head. We’ve been together more than eighteen years, and I still have plenty of fresh proof that I picked a good one. I certainly could not have composed one coherent sentence while also accompanying a child on an activity, but he can hyperfocus on just one thing for a few minutes. I am always thinking of so many things at once! Hence, the inexhaustible busyness of my youngest has impacted the frequency of my writing!
I decided to publish his letter on my blog because I think it’s the framework for an important dialog, for anyone who might read it. While it’s true that all of us have differences, most of us can blend in without our differences being the first thing people notice about us. Uly’s differences are no secret! His lack of lower legs are every bit a part of him as his dandelion puff of hair. But while it would be rude for my children to go on and on about another child’s hair color, for example, it is rude to go on and on about Uly’s physical appearance. So, I take the “asked and answered” approach that I’ve always used myself as a parenting strategy. When my kids ask a question of me, “mom, can I have a cookie?” and I answer, “yes! after lunch!” and in five minutes I’m asked again, “Mom? can I have a cookie?” I avoid potential frustration on both of our parts by reminding them, “you already asked and I already answered!” So it is with new friends we meet. We are happy to answer questions. But Uly is a busy little kid! He’s got better things to do than wait for you to wrap your mind around his differences. The understanding might take a while, especially for children who have limited life experience. But the kindness should be present right away!
(above picture taken on our late September road trip to southern California. We stopped for a night in Klamath, CA to visit Trees of Mystery. IF you like kitschy road trip attractions like we do, I recommend that place! We traipsed a half mile through slick, soggy woods on a trail from our motel to the ocean. Uly fell asleep on the walk and his dada held him while I took pictures and the big kids explored. The setting sun light was magical. I’ll add a few more pictures from that evening for context.)