Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Part 26 of "Miracle Boy”: Crips get education reform, and I get a man!

Off to NPR West today to record my Halloween commentary.  This is no. 4 for the year, and still I get butterflies.  Wish me luck.

Meanwhile, these humble entries are supposed to be streamed to now.  But I think the Net Fates are against me on this. I keep trying--and failing--to set up an Author's Page ... all because of a short story I contributed to a new collection called Voice from the Planet. Check it out.

As I "type" this (OK, dictate it to my computer), my wonderful agent is submitting our new and improved book proposal to a couple of publishers. Yeah, well, she's wonderful today. If this doesn't work out, I'll still say she's wonderful but I might not mean it as wholeheartedly. Just sayin'.

(Kidding, LKG.  Kidding.)

One final note: After posting the last installment here, I received some interesting feedback. For example, it seems I wasn't the only one threatened by the character I've called Quentin. If only I had known!

I wouldn't have included the incident at all, but some of my early readers suggested I needed to heat up the peril in my story. Readers get involved when characters are in danger. So, in it went.

What follows is what followed that dark event. Enjoy! (And listen to NPR's Morning Edition next Friday.)


In 1975, when I'm in eighth grade, Congress passes the Education for All Handicapped Children Act, mandating full integration of kids like me in regular public schools. It's historic, but if my parents are aware of it they don't tell me—or if they do, it doesn't register.

That same year California Governor Jerry Brown names Berkeley's Ed Roberts to be director of the sunshine state's Rehabilitation Department, the first time a former claimant of government largesse has risen to such a position. I say "claimant," and not "recipient," for a good reason. As a student, Roberts was turned down for educational/vocational assistance because he was deemed unemployable. Now he'll forever alter the criteria for evaluating the potential of people with disabilities.

I haven't heard of Ed Roberts yet, but Mom does tell me about a man in Ireland who is so paralyzed he paints with his left foot. She says he's written a book about it. I'm not looking for role models of people with disabilities, and I can't understand why she tells me these things. She's still concerned that I might need some emotional bolstering due to being handicapped, even though I've already done so much, gotten so far, and scarcely ever felt sorry for myself.

Shortly after my bar mitzvah—celebrated with a buffet of my favorite foods, in the ballroom of the reform temple two-and-a-half blocks from our apartment—Mom says, "It's time you had a man's help."

Help with what? I wonder. Ah, she means instead of the Caribbean women we like to make so much fun of. I'm embarrassed. Does she think there's something ... inappropriate ... going on with them? "For your privacy," she clarifies.

Privacy isn't something I'm especially concerned about. I've been naked in front of almost every adult I've ever known!

The first man we hire is a counselor at a day camp I attend the next summer. It's a handicapped camp on Long Island, which I've consented to since it's the only kind of camp that'll take me and I'm tired of being bored every summer while Alec goes off to sleepaway camp in the woods of New England. It's my first protracted experience among … them.

I try not to stare at how some sit in their wheelchairs stooped over or twisted sideways—or how their legs splay open on either side when they lie supine to get changed into bathing suits. I hope to God I don't look that handicapped, though I fear my prayer is hopeless. At fourteen, I regard my disability chiefly as a matter of vanity.

Austin is the best and most popular counselor, able to lift any one of us easily and swing us around for fun. He always shares his pretzels at lunch, tells us he won't go to Vietnam if drafted because he's adamantly nonviolent, and claims to rush home every afternoon to rescue the bugs in his family's inflatable pool. I want to move in with him and his family. When Mom asks if there are any counselors I'd like to have as my helper in August, it's an easy choice.

We have a small house on Fire Island. Austin stays in the guest bedroom. Once I overhear Mom talking with her friends; all the women have a crush on him.

In the fall Austin attends Yeshiva University. Soon he introduces me to Orthodox Judaism. It's alien, so different from the Reform version I've known, but I love the structure, the myriad rules (and loopholes!) for every aspect of life. No need to chart your own course.

And I think this may be the answer to my confusion and self-doubt—to the bewilderment brought on by divorcing parents, budding sexuality, and being grievously disabled in an overachiever milieu. "I want to keep kosher," I declare to Mom one day.

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