Not a Mask -- A Lesson at Jamba Juice

>> Sunday, May 20, 2007

So we’re at the Jamba Juice after gymnastics class, about to enjoy a Banana Berry Smoothie, when Elizabeth and I notice a girl about 14-years old with a deformed face.

For a moment I thought it was a mask and that she and her friend were having a joke. Her head was bald on one side and the face was quite deformed and enlarged. In a startling moment of realization I recognized that she was a real person -- she wasn’t wearing a mask -- and stopped staring. As we walked by, Elizabeth paused and said very naturally, “That girl has a silly face.”

Suddenly I come face to face with my instincts and a lifetime of social training -- which were at severe odds. In my conflicted state, I simply smiled politely and ushered Elizabeth quickly through the door.

Here’s what society has taught me: When your child says something about a person’s appearance that is too frank, scold the child harshly. Tell them it’s not nice to stare. Ask them, “How would you like if someone said you had a silly face?” Say something that isn’t very helpful like, “Everyone looks different -- even you.” In other words, make a big fuss causing your child to feel bad about her own feelings and causing the person (in this case the 14 year-old girl) to feel even more self conscious.

Here’s what I wanted to do, but was too afraid. I wanted to acknowledge Elizabeth’s comment and say, “Well, she does look different. Do you want to say ‘hi’?” Maybe ask the girl, “Have you heard that before? Does it bother you?” I figured at 14 years of age, she’s probably heard about everything, so maybe we could introduce ourselves and learn about one another. Of course she probably just wanted to be left alone to enjoy her drink. But nothing ventured, nothing gained, right?

Regardless, I wasn’t mortified by what Elizabeth said, and I didn’t think she was evil. Mostly I was relieved. She could have said much worse. We try to avoid certain words in our house such as ‘ugly’, ‘stupid’, and ‘dumb’. But these words manage to attach themselves to our girls like viruses while they’re at daycare. (OK, maybe I’ve said ‘stupid’ a few times while watching T.V., but I never said ‘stupid-head’ -- she got that straight from daycare.)

That Elizabeth said she looked ‘silly’ seemed kind of innocent. It’s the same word she uses to describe a Hammer-head shark at Sea World, or the way a penguin waddles. It lacks malice and is used to describe anything unusual.

And, honestly, the girl looked unusual. I know it must be hard for a girl -- especially a teenaged girl -- to be different in any way. I’m sure she has some really bad days, and I’m sure that the last thing she needs to hear is some toddler say she looks silly.

But how painful must it be when people actively avoid looking at you? Our eyes are like our hands. We touch people with them. Our gaze can validate and encourage. We need touch to feel included in the world. Every time we look away, we create a wall, excluding someone from our human social group.

What to do... what to do?

When the time is right, I’ll have a talk with Elizabeth about being polite. In a calm setting at home, we’ll talk about the girl we saw at Jamba Juice. I’ll tell Elizabeth that she’s going to see lots of interesting people in her lifetime, and that some of them are going to look ‘silly’. I’ll tell her that she might not want to say they look silly, or ugly, because it may hurt their feelings. And maybe I’ll suggest that when we see someone who looks different, it might be better if we just looked them in the eyes and said, “hello”.


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