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Nearly ten years ago, my husband and I made the difficult decision to move our daughter mid-year from the school she’d been attending for more than five years, since first grade. Her learning disabilities had placed the curriculum out of her reach. Sixth grade is a pretty typical point at which kids who have any language-based disabilities (and she has many) hit the proverbial wall. Reading assignments increase at around that time. Longer papers are expected. In-class discussions become more complex, and for a child who has auditory processing weaknesses, as my daughter does, it grows harder to keep up.
It was a difficult decision in large part because we knew it would cause her pain. She had taken great pride in attending the same school as her brother and sister. She desperately feared any kind of formal confirmation that she had these issues that couldn’t be wished away or even worked away. She was putting in five, six hours a night on homework to prove she could do it, and she could, but she was making herself ill. And there was another problem, too. Just as the homework assignments had grown more complex, so had social interactions. Her difficulties with both expressive and receptive language were making her the recipient of seemingly every mean impulse her classmates felt. She was the “weird” one, the one people whispered about, and the one people excluded. Having no idea that she was diagnosed with disabilities—in part because she then wanted that kept private—her classmates treated her with all the classic disdain, even cruelty, that is reserved for any child who cannot fit in.
Two days before her final day at the school, her teacher announced to the class that she was leaving at the end of the week. When my daughter got home that day, I asked her how that had gone. “It was fine,” she said. “I told them that I have disabilities and part of why I’m leaving is because they were so mean to me.”
“What did they say?” I asked, taken aback.
“Not much,” she said.
I was surprised that she had shared the fact of her disabilities, and also that she had stuck it to her classmates like that. My first thought was that she was trying to make them feel bad, but I came to believe that she had simply been telling the truth, and also sharing the part of the situation that didn’t feel like her “fault.” She couldn’t stay at that school, but not only because she had failed. They had also failed.
When I went to pick her up that Friday, going inside to help her empty her locker and to thank her teacher (whom I had quite liked) I was in a foul mood, angry at the universe for inflicting so much pain on my child, and furious at the little monsters who had made her life so much more difficult. Walking into the classroom, though, I was greeted by a scene I couldn’t have imagined. My daughter stood by her teacher’s desk surrounded by children who had tears in their eyes, on their cheeks. They hugged her. They gave her cards. They told her how much they would miss her. When I made my way to her locker, I found it festooned with notes, and inside I found a giant rolled-up poster, signed by everyone, filled with hearts and kisses and phone numbers and email addresses. “Let me know how you are! I’ll miss you!!” and even “You’re my best friend ever. Hope the new school is great.” I found a gift that one child had brought in, clearly chosen and wrapped with the help of a parent.
A crying boy came up and told me how bad he felt that they’d been mean to my daughter. “I didn’t know she had problems,” he said. I couldn’t bring myself to reassure him, the words “Oh, that’s okay,” sticking in my throat. But I managed something along the lines of, “Well, we all have to learn not be mean at some point. I’m sure you’ll do better in the future.”
The notes, the hugs, the tears, the gift all surprised my daughter and also made her feel better about leaving. Practiced at denial and at reading flickering positive signs as if they were the whole story, she could now move on feeling as though she had left friends behind. She didn’t forget about the bullying, we would discuss it over the years, but as she faced an unknown future the reality of all that unkindness had been tempered. She was given another story to tell herself, and that story gave her hope.
My own take on the episode has everything to do with those behaviors that as a society we put beyond the reaches of decency. Those children, comfortable enough making fun of a “weird” kid, knew that by making fun of a disabled child, by leaving a disabled child out of social events, by whispering about her in front of her, they had crossed the lines of acceptable behavior. They had done something appalling—appalling even to eleven year olds. They understood that making life harder for someone with disabilities is cruel in a way they didn’t want to be cruel. What had felt like natural enough social sorting to them all—however we adults might view that too as bullying—had been revealed to be a species of meanness that they knew was in no way okay.
Which brings me to Donald Trump. I will blow past the ridiculous, laughable lie that he wasn’t mocking Serge Kovaleski’s disability by contorting his own arms, shaking his body, and altering his voice. He was mocking him, and in doing so, Trump has proved himself to be a person with no decency. At seventy, he knowingly, publicly engaged in a behavior that those eleven-year-old children could hardly bear to think they had done. The norms of our society that sixth-graders recognize as inviolable present no limits to Donald Trump. And while the children might not have been able to articulate all the reasons that mocking disabled people is simply out of bounds, a seventy-year-old man should be able to do so, should believe that to be true, and should effortlessly conform to this most basic requirement of our society.
The other day, I was out registering voters, wearing a Clinton-Kaine button. A Trump supporter sitting on a nearby bench called me over and began explaining to me that all Clinton supporters have short memories, and need to remember what the nineties were like. I interrupted him. “Let me spare you the effort,” I said. “I have a child with disabilities. This person mocked someone with disabilities. End of story for me. It’s not my only issue by any means, but it’s enough.” The man nodded and, surprising me, said that he too had found Trump’s mockery unsettling. “But you don’t have to worry about his policies…” he began, and I interrupted him again. “It isn’t only about policies,” I said. “It’s about protecting my daughter from learning that this country would elevate a man who did that, a person with no decency. It’s about my being terrified about what that will say to her.” And to my surprise, the Trump supporter nodded again, and said, “Well, I understand that. I can’t argue with that.”
But of course, he will still vote for Trump. I have little doubt.
And should Trump win, this man of vile behaviors who eschews apologies, should he be elevated to represent us all, we will lose our moral standing as we try to teach our children right from wrong, as we encourage them to grow to be people who understand when they have crossed a line, and who try to make amends when they have. In a world in which it is okay for our president to mock a man with disabilities, we might well never see again the ultimately beautiful sight of a classroom of children disowning their own cruelty, choosing to be on the side of decency and care. And for that loss, that terrible loss, we will have no one to blame but ourselves.
I dedicate my No-Trump vote to my daughter, to all the disabled kids out there who are mocked and bullied, and also to any children and any adults who are able to understand when they have done wrong and who grow kinder and more compassionate from the experience of admitting what they have done.