By Geri Mariano
I am not a parent, so the ubiquitous phrase “Back to School” does not elicit the glee it might otherwise from adults counting down the days until their children leave the house each morning. However, I am excited that the school year is fast approaching. And the reason for that is simple: school had, and still has, a tremendous impact on my life.
Unabashedly, I was one of those students who actually looked forward to returning to the routine of school each September. While I enjoyed the summer months, my physical limitations (I was born with abnormalities of all things skeletal) meant that I could never be as active as most kids. Therefore, school was a place I could belong–and even thrive academically –with peers for six to seven hours each day. So, during the spring of 1972, my mom and I made the rounds of Northern Westchester school districts as I was due to start Kindergarten come September. Our mission was to meet school administrators and find which districts would welcome a student with special needs; there was no federal mandate to publically educate children with disabilities at that time.
In all my presentations, I give much credit to the Byram Hills School District for accepting me before it was legally required to do so. Was everything hunky-dory from my first day to graduation thirteen years later? No. Were restrictions placed for my own “safety” (and likely school liability)? Yes. Were parents more nervous than my fellow Kindergartners? Yes! Was I made to feel an oddity from classmates? Happily, mostly No … and this is why I embarked, several years ago now, on sharing my stories.
When at Smith College, unable to walk quickly about campus, I zoomed around on what I affectionately called my “buggy”. My daily routes (to classes and my work-study job) took me past a campus pre-school where, unsurprisingly, the children who saw me would stare, point or giggle. A wise teacher flagged me down one day and asked if I might meet with the children. I readily accepted. Introducing myself, I asked them if I looked “funny.” When they admitted that I did, I agreed with them. I don’t remember all we talked about, but, when leaving, I suggested that now that they knew me, maybe I wouldn’t look so weird to them. Suddenly, I had many new friends, and each day after, there were waves and shouts of “Hi Geri!”
Pieces of a puzzle I hadn’t realized existed began falling into place. I thought of my Byram Hills classmates and how they had always known me. Years later, when reconnecting with many through social media, they all confirmed my hypothesis: they’d always accepted me because they always knew me as just Geri, one of them. I was never a stranger, so I was never seen as “different.” And had they known of any bullying incidents, each offered they would have quickly taken care of the situation. What an amazing gift!
Still, I am reminded how important it is to teach our children, and how adults in particular have their part to play–especially after one discouraging encounter at a local department store.
A group of three or four pre-teen girls began following me around while I was shopping alone. I can accept a look here, a stare there, even a pointed finger or snicker. But what I cannot abide are triple takes or being trailed by youth of an age that should be better mannered. I remember turning, raising my shortened arms, asking “do you have a problem?” The girls quickly moved away, but, minutes later, stealthily began following me again. I then turned to track them to the adult charged with their behavior. Loathe as I am to complain to a stranger, I interrupted this woman on her cell phone and simply stated that the girls had been very rude. Shrugging, the woman responded, “What do you expect?” I expect adults and parents to do better.
My mom often admitted I was dealt a bad hand and that life isn’t fair. However, she’d continue, that did not mean the world owed me anything; nothing would be handed to me on a silver platter. Has life been a struggle? Yes. Have I had good times over the years? Absolutely. Would I like life to be easier? Of course. But I’d also like to see better understanding in the world for a whole host of difficulties.
I choose to do my part to facilitate that understanding, at least of differences, in our community and elsewhere. Will you join me? Thanks, Just Geri
Longtime Armonk resident Geri Mariano was born with diatrophic dysplasia, a lifelong condition that affects bone and cartilage resulting in many physical and social challenges. To learn more about Geri, please visit her website: www.justcallmegeri.com