During the school book fair a few weeks ago, the Principal and I were talking about Limb Loss Awareness month. She asked me if I would be willing to come in and speak to students about limb loss. Of course I said yes. Last Friday, April 26th, the day before Show Your Mettle Day, I was blessed to go in and speak to five separate classrooms of fourth and fifth grade students and it was an experience I will not soon forget. Many of these students have seen me out and about at the school, but other than pointing and whispering, none had actually acknowledged me (or looked me in the eye); I was determined that would change.
I approached my speaking with these words in my head, “It is vital that when educating our children’s’ brains that we do not neglect to educate their hearts” (Dalai Lama – 1935). I wanted to walk away with them not only being educated, but hopefully more compassionate. I began each class in the same manner. I told them I was there for two reasons: the first was that it was limb loss awareness month and I wanted to tell them about amputees and that we are not anything to be afraid of or to laugh at…amputees are just like them. Before I gave them the second reason, I asked them if they knew what the only thing standing in the way of them achieving their dream was. Some of the answers I got were: “my parents”, “my grades”, “money”, “being sick” and my absolute favorite, (which is technically a second thing standing in your way of achieving your dreams), “death”. After they answered, I told them none of those could stop them (except death). That actually, the second reason I was there was to show them that the only thing standing in their way from achieving their dreams was themselves and their attitude. If they believed they were not good enough to make the baseball team, then they wouldn’t. If they didn’t think they were pretty enough to get asked to a dance, then they wouldn’t. If they didn’t think they were smart enough to get on the honor roll, then they wouldn’t. I think this got their attention.
I decided that I would let the children’s questions guide the direction that my presentation went, so I only wanted to spend a few minutes talking about what happened. I told them that my bones got really sick and after 20 surgeries in eleven years, I had the amputation. Then, I told them we were going to get their main concern out-of-the-way right away and if they wanted me to, I would take my leg off and show them what the residual limb (I tried to avoid the word stump) looked like. Of course they all made all those faces and noises that only ten-year olds can do, but they all wanted to see it anyway (with the exception of one girl who started to cry and the teacher let her go into the hallway – she later came back and asked a bunch of questions). Before I removed my prosthesis, I wanted to make sure they understood it was not going to just fall off, so I picked a student to try to pull it off. It was actually pretty fun to watch. One boy almost pulled me off the chair! Then, I explained the whole removal process and what each part of the prosthesis was. When I got to the liner, I slowly rolled it off (yes, I was being extremely dramatic) and at the bottom said, “Ok, are you ready???” A lot of them covered their eyes, peeking through their fingers and I removed the liner. They just stared. Every class had several kids who said, “that’s it?” One girl said, No offense, but it looks like a smile.” What I discovered is, having no experience with limb loss, many of them expected that the residual limb would look like it had just been hacked off – muscle and blood still showing (I blame this on movies and video games). So once that was out-of-the-way and I had their attention, I began the question and answers.
I passed around my prosthesis and my water leg and other props as I began. I was not prepared for the hands that went up. I brought candy to bribe the kids with questions. I don’t think it was needed (several kids even said, “I don’t need candy, I just have a question”). I brought “filler” information to use if there was a gap in questions. That was not needed either. I had 45 minutes in each classroom and I did not get to all the raised hands in any classroom. We talked about all the ways a person could lose a limb and the Boston bombing. I got some amazing questions…..and some pretty funny ones, but each question really helped me gauge what children believe about amputees. I could go on forever about what they asked, but below are some of my favorite questions (each was asked in more than one classroom, except my favorite) and my answers (paraphrased of course):
I think in just about every class I got asked the “would you rather” questions.
QUESTION: “Would you rather lose your right leg or your left leg?” MY ANSWER: “For me it doesn’t matter, but for some people, I imagine they would rather lose the left leg since you drive with your right”.
QUESTION: “When will you get your leg back?” MY ANSWER: “Do you mean my real leg…like when will it grow back? (as I tried not to laugh) “Never. Once your limb is amputated, you will use a prosthesis for the rest of your life.”
QUESTION: “Would you rather lose and arm or a leg?” I actually thought this was a great question and had to think about the answer for a minute. MY ANSWER: “For me, I would much rather lose my leg. I do so much with my arms and hands, I can’t imagine having to learn to do all of that, but I am pretty sure if you ask an arm amputee the same question, they would probably say they would much rather lose an arm because they use their legs so much. It is very much about prospective.”
QUESTION: “Do people laugh at you and make fun of you?” MY ANSWER: “Yes. But I take that as an opportunity to educate them about why I am different and how I am the same. I know that a lot of times people make fun of other people because they are insecure about themselves and they try to take attention off of themself by drawing it to other people. Sometimes, people are just mean and if they continue to make fun of me, I ignore them and tell myself mean people are not the kind of people I would want to be friends with anyway.”
QUESTION: “Can you (insert activity here – run, do sports, etc)”. MY ANSWER: “Amputees can do anything you can do. Like I said, the only thing stopping us is ourselves”. Then I brought out one of my “props”. I created a three-ring binder with pictures and descriptions off of my “Show Your Mettle” blog. I showed myself doing yoga (the head stand picture thrilled them). I showed amputees skiing, rock climbing and bike riding. I also had pictures of Brittany Hamilton (the amputee behind the movie Soul Surfer). On several of the pictures, I heard “I can’t even do that!”.
QUESTION: “Do you think you are still pretty?” Now I had to be very careful not to go off on one of my tirades. Many of you are quite aware of my feelings about this particular way of thinking. I know little girls, especially at this age, are struggling with self-image issues. MY ANSWER: “I think I am prettier now than I did before I lost my leg because now I can show that I am strong and brave and can handle whatever life throws at me. It also makes me more aware of what actually makes a person beautiful. There is no point in having a pretty face if you are mean and ugly on the inside.” Just because you look a little different on the outside does not make you ugly.”
QUESTION: How do they take your leg off?” Thank goodness I was prepared for this question and I had a very non-graphic diagram of how the surgery is performed. I held the picture up in the front of the room (so there was a bit of distance between the students and the photo) and walked them through the general process. This is the photo.
QUESTION: “Did it hurt when they cut it off?” MY ANSWER: “Well, I wasn’t awake when they did it, so I didn’t feel it, but yes, it hurt for a few weeks after the surgery.” I figured telling them that at times, I was screaming and crying from the pain, was not necessary.
QUESTION: “How long did it take to cut it off?” MY ANSWER: “It took about four hours and then another two for me to wake up”. I was actually quite surprised to learn that many of them pictured an amputation being an axe chopping the leg off and it taking about ten minutes.
Jacob Abbott (1803-1879), an American writer of children’s books is quoted as saying, “A child can ask a thousand questions that the wisest man cannot answer”. My favorite question asked by a student still makes me think and rethink my answer, but in the end, I believe the answer I gave was completely truthful. QUESTION: “If you could have your leg back without any pain, would you?” MY ANSWER (after a long pause). ” I don’t know. Honestly, I have made such a difference to so many people’s lives and have had the opportunity to educate people, like I am doing today, I really don’t know if I would want to miss that opportunity. I would rather help many people than just help myself.”
I ended each class by telling them that I hoped they had learned something and the next time they are out with their friends and see an amputee or a person with another disability, I hope they will take the chance to educate their friends that we are no different and there is no need to point, stare and snicker. I truly believe that I made a difference, at least to some of these children. This week many of them have come up to me and said hello. I couple have even hugged me when they saw me. I truly feel blessed to have been given this opportunity and look forward to being able to do it again. I think I will contact some of the school districts and see what I can arrange during diversity week. I believe educating children make for better adults, thus making a better future. As Frederick Douglass, a former slave who went on to become an orator, writer and statesman said, “It is easier to build strong children than to repair broken men”…..children are our future after all.
As always, thank you for allowing me to be part of your day.