Tuesday, January 29, 2013

No Thumbs? No Problem!

       Richard had no thumbs. Yes, his hands looked exactly like the ones in this picture. He was a slight young man; only five feet tall and about ninety pounds at age eighteen. He seemed happy enough. We mostly judged that by the expression on his face, because he was totally non-verbal. Richard was one of the students at the special school where I taught in Minneapolis. He wasn't in my classroom, but he was in my Boy Scout troop and I saw him every day at lunch and recess. He observed everyone and everything around him, and was almost ninja-like in his movements. He would be standing next to me one minute, and then the next second, he was on the other side of the playground, but I never saw him run.
        Five fingers and no opposing thumbs made practically everything difficult for Richard. Imagine dressing yourself...zippers, buttons, belts....with no thumbs. To eat, Richard had to lace a spoon through his fingers, in an over/under manner like weaving; same thing with holding a pencil. Go ahead, try it. He had no use for a knife and fork, because he could not eat solid food anyway. Richard was born without a lower jaw, so he could not chew. All his food was pureed in a blender by the school cooks and he ate it with a spoon. Not even the best of school lunches can survive that in an acceptable form.
       No thumbs, no lower jaw; neither one of these obstacles seemed to inconvenience this amazing young man; and Richard was truly amazing.The most astounding thing about him, besides his unflappable pleasantness, was his ability to catch flies, bees, and hornets out of mid-air flight,. He could literally snatch them while they were flying past him. One of these insects would jet past and Richard would just swoop his hand after it...ZAP....the little critter would be hanging helplessly by their wings, between his second and third fingers. It happened so quickly, I kept wishing for a slow-motion film of it.
        He was not born with this skill....he learned it, practiced it, and perfected it. He did not do it to show off, although it sure was entertaining to watch. It seemed to be done for amusement and to fill his time at recess. This was in the before "handicapped adapted" playground equipment era. Richard could not grip the chains from which the swings were suspended. He could not hang onto the merry-go-round or climb up the ladder to the slide. Sitting on the teeter-totter and not being able to hang onto the hand grips would have been dangerous, unless we had tied him on like a cowboy on a rodeo bull. We had tried many times to hold onto him to enable him to do these normal kid activities, but he did not like being held as closely and tightly as was required to be safe. So, he made up his own playground game....bug-catching.  He never hurt the ones he caught. Richard always took great care in studying them for a minute or so and then letting them go. I never saw him get stung, either.

       What might be the life lesson to be learned here, from this severely physically deformed young man?

       For me, it has become so plain over the past 30 years since I spent so many recesses with Richard.
It's really true: a weakness can be transformed into a strength. A negative can be morphed into a positive. Serious life obstacles CAN be overcome and turned into advantages.  Lemons can be made into lemonade.
I do not believe I have ever seen a better example of this in my entire career than Richard. He is a glowing example of taking an obviously distinct and crippling disadvantage, and using it as an opportunity to reframe it and develop an exceptional skill. Even with his significantly diminished intellectual capacities.
       Are there students you know who think they have something so horribly wrong with them that it will ruin their lives? Tell them about Richard. Tell them to stop complaining about the school lunch.