difference in an insular world

A sharp girl in the front row asked me how long Calvin's longest seizure was. She and some of her classmates gasped when I told them it lasted for forty-five minutes. I went on to describe how, because the emergency medications meant to stop the seizure hadn't appeared to be working, my husband and I had thought our son might die. Calvin was two years old. As I panned the classroom, what I saw looking back at me were fresh, young faces wrought with deep concern and empathy.

The sixth graders' other questions were varied, thoughtful and many, curious minds a sign of intelligence:

What was Calvin's first word?

Does anyone else in your family have epilepsy?

Will Calvin ever be able to have a job?

Does Calvin have any siblings?

Who helps you take care of Calvin and do you have a job?

How many kinds of seizures are there?

How do you make a seizure stop?

Will Calvin ever grow out of his epilepsy?

How does Calvin communicate?

I had come to talk to the students about disability and difference, and to answer their questions about Calvin and his epilepsy since he can't do so for himself. When I spoke about cannabis, telling the students how the oil I make from the herb has virtually eliminated Calvin's daytime grand mals while also helping him better endure and complete a four-year-long benzodiazepine withdrawal, one student asked me why marijuana is federally illegal.

There was not sufficient time left in the social studies class to go into much detail, so I summarized by saying that marijuana was outlawed a long time ago (in the 1930s) because of greed and racism. Had I time to explore the nuance I'd have mentioned the corrupt government officials who leveraged fear and racism to justify making marijuana illegal. I would have said that cannabis remains illegal because these same forces are still in play.

I wish I'd had time to delve deeper into marijuana's history and tell them the truth about the deceitful, racist head of the Bureau of Narcotics, Harry Anslinger. I wish I'd been able to tell them about the pressure and collusion from DuPont and Hearst who feared hemp as a rival to their plastics and paper. I wish I'd been able to explain how wrong the War on Drugs is, how hard and unjust it has always been for People of Color and their communities, how criminal it is for our government to falsely insist that cannabis is as dangerous as heroin, claiming it possesses no medicinal properties, while simultaneously holding a patent on cannabis for its neuroprotective and anti-inflammatory properties. I wish I could have told them that the worst people in government and the private prison industry are hell bent on locking up folks—particularly minorities—for low-level drug offenses like simple marijuana possession, and keeping the millions wrongfully languishing behind bars from getting out.

Though I was unable to school the students on the history of cannabis, I hope I may have planted a seed in their brains about an amazing medicinal herb that has gotten a bad rap. I hope, too, that I got them thinking about disability and difference. Perhaps I inspired them to go a step beyond tolerance—because tolerance is not good enough—by befriending and embracing those like Calvin and others who may look, act, sound, dress, speak, live, love and worship differently from themselves. I hope I sparked inside them the desire to stick up for the bullied and disenfranchised and to openly and unabashedly condemn the cruel, unjust and hateful whether they be adults or children.

The night before my presentations, Michael and I watched the film Son of Saul. From its first scene I was gripped and unsettled, witnessing a grim cinematic account of the inner workings of Holocaust concentration camps. I'd seen horrific photographs and films taken of the camps when I visited the Holocaust Museum in New York last May. In my twenties, while backpacking solo through Europe for seven months, I'd visited Dachau. And yet, scenes of Jewish men scrubbing the human mess that awashed the gas chamber floor nauseated me. Still, I clenched my teeth and fixed my eyes on the screen, feeling I should bear witness to their suffering, my own discomfort but a whiff of what Holocaust victims and their families endured. Had the sixth graders already studied the Holocaust I would have told them that children like Calvin were some of the first scapegoats to be rounded up and killed by the Nazis because they were deemed a stain on the Aryan race.

Frighteningly, this world is still rife with this kind of hate and savagery, our own nation led by an insecure man who incites fear, denigrates and scapegoats immigrants, dehumanizing them by calling them animals, a man who maligns People of Color, shows contempt for the poor, mocks the disabled, and enacts policies harmful to every kind of human save the straight, White, wealthy few.

For an hour I spoke to each class of sixth graders fielding their thoughtful questions, their faces gazing at photographs of my son on a dry-eraser board. At the end of the second session, a girl with dark braids and features which I took to be a beautiful blend of races, hopped off of her chair and embraced me. She hadn't asked me any questions, but it seemed she grasped my message, which was one of trust, love, worth and understanding of difference in an insular world.

Photo by Michael Kolster

1 comment:

  1. Beautiful -- I'm so grateful that you do this work and just know that you are making an impact far beyond what you might imagine.