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Previous Challenge Entry (Level 3 – Advanced)
Topic: Sibling(s) (05/01/08)

TITLE: Crippled Heart
By Emily Gibson


My elementary grade school in the 1960’s became one of the first schools to mainstream special needs children into “regular” classrooms. During those years, the average class size for a grade school teacher was huge, with no teacher’s aides, so the more capable kids got recruited to be “big brothers” or “big sisters” to the kids with disabilities. It created a buddy system for the special needs kids who might need help with class work or who might have difficulty getting around.

I was assigned to be a “big sister” to Michael. I was not happy about it. It was impossible to be popular when your constant companion was a spindly boy with cerebral palsy and hearing aids, thick glasses hooked with a wide band around the back of his head, and spastic muscles that never seemed to go where he wanted them to go. He walked independently with some difficulty, mostly on his tiptoes because of his shortened leg muscles, falling when he got going too quickly due to his thick orthopedic shoes with braces. His hands were intermittently in a crab-like grip of contracted muscles, and his face always contorting and grimacing. He drooled continuously so always carried a Kleenex in his hand to catch the drips of spit that ran out of his mouth and dropped on his desk, threatening to spoil his coloring and writing papers.

His speech consisted of all vowels, as his tongue couldn’t quite connect with his teeth or palate to sound out the consonants, so it took some time and patience to understand what he said. He could write with great effort, gripping the pencil awkwardly in his tight palm and found he could communicate better at times on paper than by talking. I made sure he had help to finish assignments if his muscles were too tight to write, and I learned his language so I could interpret for the teacher. He was brave and bright, with a finer mind than most of the kids in our class and I was impressed at how he expressed himself and how little bitterness he had about the tough road that had been dealt him. He was the most articulate inarticulate person I knew.

There were many times I resented being Michael’s “sister”, emotionally crippled as I was in my own prepubertal need to be acceptable to my peers. I didn’t want to be constantly responsible for him and my friends naturally teased me about him being my boyfriend. Even Michael hoped he could be my boyfriend, more than just a “brother”, and blushed bright red as he made flowery valentines meant for only my eyes.

I never ended up ditching him even though I often wanted to. Every day when he’d arrive at school he’d call out my name in his loud indecipherable voice, as if I was a lifesaver that had been thrown to him as he struggled to stay afloat in the sea of playground hostility. I couldn't turn away from that call. He depended on me to be his only friend, willing to defend him if someone called him a cruel name. Despite all he endured, I never saw Michael cry, not even once.

After two years, the school segregated the disabled kids back to special therapeutic classrooms and though I never saw Michael again, I heard him on the radio six years later, reading an essay he'd written for the local Voice of Democracy contest on what it meant for him to be a free citizen. His speech was one of the top three award winners that year. I was so proud of him and how articulate his speaking voice had become.

I’ve thought of him frequently over the years as I went on to become a health care provider, realizing my initial training in compassionate care came as I sat by his side, learning to understand his voice and his heart. I didn’t appreciate it then as I do now: he taught me far more than I ever taught him. It has made me question which of us was indeed more capable.

Michael had loved his reluctant and crippled “sister” unconditionally. Now, 40 years later, I understand how that love still heals me when I’m broken and inspires me to love the many people I care for daily in my work.

After all, that is what a real brother is all about.

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This article has been read 625 times
Member Comments
Member Date
Irvine Saint-Vilus05/08/08
I enjoyed reading this compassionate story and appreciate the irony of how the capable child was really the "cripple". The end was also hopeful and awe-inspiring. It teaches a valuable lesson, which is to accept everyone as God's creation, regardless of how they look on the outside.
Chrissi Dunn05/08/08
You described this special 'brother' so well. A great lesson for all of us.
Debbie Wistrom05/08/08
Thank you for writing this! Your truthful,kind and loving words mixed with a truthful, kind and loving heart.

You are indeed blessed.

I bet you could write a book about Michael-I'd love to read it and would give it to many.
Dolores Stohler05/08/08
This was super fantastic. Great writing and what a wonderful lesson in caring. You touched my heart.
Myrna Noyes05/09/08
Very nice writing of this touching story! You did a wonderful job of describing Michael, and I especially liked this line: "He was the most articulate inarticulate person I knew." Great message here, too! :)

Debi Derrick05/09/08
There are some wonderfully turned phrases in this essay..."staying afloat in a sea of playground hostility" for one. This is a very touching story about relationships. Nicely done.
Beth LaBuff 05/09/08
After reading your description of Michael… I enjoyed this phrase, "He was the most articulate inarticulate person I knew." The relationship between your MC and Michael is so amazing (and sweet) to read about. Your lesson is wonderful. Nice writing.
James Dixon05/12/08
Thanks for sharing the value of integration. My son has stuck up for a friend with dispraxia. The children no longer have to be asked today – less able children a part of everyday life, but teasing still happens.
Lyn Churchyard05/12/08
A moving story of sisterly love, albeit reluctantly at times. This is not different to most blood relations. How wonderful that Michael was in the top three in the competition, I'd have been proud of him too. Nice conversational voice.
Mariane Holbrook 05/12/08
You did so well with this. Michael is special and you are special for portraying it so beautifully!
Jan Ackerson 05/12/08
Absolutely wonderful--this should be a full-length work.
Tessy Fuller05/12/08
This was a great article. I only wish more kids were like you were in dealing with people different then them.
Willena Flewelling 05/12/08
Wow... important message well conveyed. "He was the most articulate inarticulate person I knew" was my favourite sentence too!
Joshua Janoski05/13/08
A wonderful story in every way possible! I loved seeing your compassion towards Michael, and I loved how you realized years later why God had put him in your life. I also appreciate your honesty in admitting that you didn't always want to be around him.

I have a disabled sister, and it can be tough at times, but God definitely does put them there for a reason. Every person serves a special purpose.

Loved the story. Thank you so much for sharing it. :)
Dee Yoder 05/13/08
Touching and tender. I remember kids in my school who were mainstreamed during those years; I never really thought about how strong they must have been to endure all the teasing that went on around them every day. Well written message.
Sara Harricharan 05/14/08
Indeed, it is all of what being a brother/sister is about! I liked your title and I'm glad that you were the 'big sister' to this guy. What a story-thanks for sharing! ^_^
Joanne Sher 05/14/08
Incredibly moving and wonderfully written, Emily. I hope you DO expand this. Wonderful descriptions, and you touched my heart with this.