Walden's old location, at W 88th Street & CPW, courtesy http://www.thecityreview.com/uws/cpw/cpw279.html
“…a high-rise apartment building at 279 Central Park West that replaced the Italian-Renaissance-palazzo-style Progress Club that was subsequently converted into the Walden School.”
I start first grade at the Walden School, on West 88th Street. It's a regular, albeit progressive, private school with a liberal admissions policy. I mingle with kids of all colors, many scholarshipped, many others from the creative elite of the Upper West Side. As the only wheelchair-riding student, I'm a pioneer of sorts. It's not exactly wheelchair accessible—each morning Dad has to schlep me, in wheelchair, up a small flight of steps at the entry, and every afternoon Mom hauls me back down again.
One evening I overhear Mom and Dad talking in the kitchen. They are grateful for Walden. Dad says he isn't sure about its prestige but Mom says it will be fine. Best of all, she says, Walden doesn't see me as a typical handicapped kid. Dad agrees. It's making an exception for me, he says.
Judy, my new class teacher—a tall, slender woman with dark hair and warm eyes as expressive as a cartoon character's—quickly makes accommodations. For example, at the end of the first week she gathers the entire class in a circle and introduces me. Just me! She explains why I use a wheelchair and then says something funny:
"Would any of you like to touch Ben's wheelchair?"
If they touch it, she explains, they won't be afraid of it. She is making a kind of case study of me, testing the concept of mainstreaming for her master's thesis.
I'm startled that anyone would be afraid of my chair. Yet right away a few hands shoot up, then more. Soon I'm surrounded by grubby eager fingers. Many of these kids quickly become my new best friends. Within a day I'm appointing a trusted subset to be my first choices for wheelchair-pushing. We make a game of it—they compete to be my Chief Wheeler, and I choose the winners. "You were totally accepted by your classmates because you were so cute and so bright, just like everyone else, except you were on wheels," recalls Judy, my teacher, four decades later.
At the end of the semester she notes on my report card that I have "leadership skills." If so, it comes from necessity. It's a survival skill, a form of gentle manipulation that maybe all handicapped kids learn. Taking charge. Putting people at ease.
One kid, however, isn't so easy to figure out.
[For more, come back in a few days ... and thanks for reading!]