Tumbling in America

After some hesitation and a brief “will she be welcomed?” conversation with the teacher, I sign Fiona and her sister up for Pre-K Tumbling class. Fiona is a walking, miniature willow tree. Her limbs are thin. Her gait is unstable. Each year her school must write a manual on how to teach her. The gymnastics teacher and I decide I should forego the studio’s glass-windowed watching area, where the parents usually stay, and head out to the gym to help my girl.

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Profile of Fiona standing on a hula hoop on a cobalt blue tumbling floor.

In our first class, the kids stand in a circle to introduce themselves. I hold Fiona’s talker up, and with it she says her name. Then the kids line up for handstands and somersaults and backbends. Fiona is smiling, giddy, eager to let the teacher thrust her upside-down and right-side-up, although she can’t do the moves herself. She’s a good listener, though. “Touch your chin,” the teacher calls when she needs everyone’s attention, and my kid does.

Next, the little students all take several bouncing trips down the length of a long trampoline. The other kids are stocky and firm and cannot be easily pushed over. They hurl head-first onto the long trampoline and bounce high, claiming their fates of loft and air and flight. When it’s Fiona’s turn, she walks on feet the size of baby sparrows, confused about why she can’t take off. But she is here, happy, giggling as she gets off the tramp. I think perhaps this is a success.

At the end of class, the children are asked to make a choo-choo train by each putting their hands on the shoulders of the kid in front of them. The train lines up ahead of Fiona, and it lines up behind her, and she’s standing in a gap in the center. I help her put her hands on the shoulders of the kid in front. One girl is not in line, and a teacher asks the girl to join, nodding to the wide open space behind Fiona. The girl looks at Fiona with a hint of pre-k disgust and shakes her head. “You don’t want to join the line?” asks the teacher. The kid shakes her head no and backs away from my daughter.

Then the little kids call out “choo-choo” and walk toward their parents in a linked line, except behind my daughter, where the train has been broken.

To be clear, this is not the first time I’ve witnessed my kid’s social rejection. I don’t expect all kids to be completely welcoming of my girl, at least no on first meeting her. If you’ve spent any time with a preschooler, you know how inherently ungenerous they can be. They don’t share, they cry out “mine,” and they sometimes discriminate against people who are wearing the color green.

But this rejection stung differently. It was the first I’d seen in post-election America. Occurring in early December, this was the first rejection I’d witnessed since the country elected to its highest office a man who openly mocked someone who is disabled. And that is a jagged pill to swallow. Because if the president of every American child can bend his wrists, jerk his arms around, and talk with a pained and inarticulate affect in order to imitate, as he said, “the poor guy, you gotta see this guy,” then we live in a land in which bullying, ostracizing, and abuse are sanctioned. How will we teach the four-year-olds of gymnastics class?

The above is old news. I’ve never wanted to write about it here because to me it seemed an obvious game-changer, and what more could be said? The video speaks for itself. But it didn’t change the game. To boot, an elaborate counterargument developed around it, touted by Fox News, Ann Coulter, and Catholics4Trump. There is even a twelve-minute video dedicated to the counterargument. I’ve watched it. The dissenters argue that the billionaire has done several lighter versions of his body-jerking mockery, hurling his arm against his chest and slurring his words in a few other instances when he imitates someone he doesn’t like. The rebuttal argues that Trump simply does this when he imitates people.

But this is a recognizable gesture. It is the grade-school playground mockery of a person with disabilities. It is, as Ann Coulter unfortunately worded, “The Standard Retard.” “He was just doing the standard retard,” she argued, and if she is right, it makes matters worse. When our president-elect imitates someone he wants to mock, he sometimes uses his body to call them “retarded.” His limbs become the epithet. He makes his body odd-seeming, out of the norm, less-than-functional. This is ableism at the heart. The fact that he uses a much lighter version of this gesture on non-disabled people doesn’t make him any less ableist, any less offensive, any less cruel.

I cannot, will not forget. And I’m grateful that Meryl Streep said the same at the Golden Globes two nights ago. Her words bear repeating:

“There was one performance this year that stunned me. It sank its hooks in my heart. Not because it was good. There was nothing good about it. But it was effective and it did its job….

“It was that moment when the person asking to sit in the most respected seat in our country imitated a disabled reporter, someone he outranked in privilege, power, and the capacity to fight back. It kind of broke my heart when I saw it. I still can’t get it out of my head because it wasn’t in a movie. It was real life. 

“And this instinct to humiliate, when it’s modeled by someone in the public platform, by someone powerful, it filters down into everybody’s life, because it kind of gives permission for other people to do the same thing. Disrespect invites disrespect. Violence incites violence. When the powerful use their position to bully others, we all lose.”

I wish she were wrong, but I fear she’s not. We’ve already seen plenty of evidence otherwise. Case in point: a few weeks after the election, my friend the poet Steve Kuusisto was headed to a conference, so he called for a cab. On the phone, he told the driver he had a guide dog. The driver refused to give him a ride. Steve wrote about the incident on his blog. Here’s a portion:

“Guide dogs are allowed everywhere,” I said.

 “I don’t care, now you’re going to tell me all about your rights,” he said. (Sneering, he was. Your rights…uttered as if I was some whiny baby.)

“Well yes,” I said, “it’s a violation of state and federal laws to deny a blind person and his dog a cab ride.”

“I don’t care,” he said.

“You should care,” I said. “It will become a big story. Plus there’s a huge fine associated with this.”

“I don’t care,” he said.

“This will become a news story,” I said. “I myself write for newspapers like The New York Times…”

It’s hard to describe the effect this had on him. He began shouting that Donald Trump had won the presidency and “you people” (apparently meaning blind New York Times readers) “don’t matter anymore.”

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Photo of the White House on a cloudy day, partly blocked by Inauguration rafters.

We have work to do. This I know. We have a bully for a president-elect. Every day, with nearly every tweet, he bullies and abuses. We will have to work even harder to ensure that our children don’t become bullies too. That they resist not just name-calling and belittling, but the attitudes such behaviors stem from: hatred, power-seeking, cruelty. That they learn to position their hearts in opposite places: in love, care, openness. But how do we do that when we will have a bully for president? America, I don’t know.

I do know that when we excuse, ignore, or explain away his abuses (through elaborate 12-minute videos or otherwise), we turn his abuses into seeds that will grow deep in us, unseen, sown by our silence and neglect.

In the meantime, my girl keeps going to gymnastics class, keeps squealing in delight at somersaults, keeps speed-walking down a trampoline in the hopes that she’ll one day take flight, keeps tumbling in this land called America.

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11 thoughts on “Tumbling in America

  1. Glad Fiona is having so much fun at gymnastics. I hope she continues to do so, and I am impressed by her listening and instruction following! (My child fails to notice instructions, particularly at a group level.)

    As to Trump… if it weren’t for the position he now finds himself in I could feel sorry for him. He is a pathetically emotionally stunted human being. Unfortunately he is now in a position of power. We – Americans and not – have to keep pushing back against the toxic fear dripping from his government and some of his supporters. (Trust me, it travels a long way.) Keep holding them accountable. Keep reminding Trump that President of America means of all Americans, not just his cronies, not just the ones he’s comfortable with, all. I doubt he’ll listen, and God alone knows what the next four years will be like.

    But I hope Fiona, and the other little girl, and all her gym mates have a great time, and that they forget that she’s anything other than herself, calling out for her to go faster on the trampoline already, grabbing her to be part of the train because she doesn’t have boy germs, distracting her from following instructions by talking about Paw Patrol, or whatever the trendy show is that week.

  2. Thank you! You have articulated exactly why I couldn’t understand that “counterargument”. It has been bothering me for a while now and I just couldn’t put it into words.

  3. I found your blog after listening to the One in a Million Baby podcast. Your writing is wonderful and this post particularly spoke to the dismay and sadness I’ve felt about the election that goes far beyond policy disagreements. As far as preschoolers go, I think sometimes we hesitate to point out difference in conversations with our kids, whether we are talking about race or ability, as though stating the obvious ways in which people are all different might be inherently offensive. I’m working on talking to my four-year-old about difference and inclusion and it feels not only like parenting but also like the most important kind of political activism I can do right now.

  4. Thank you for your blog, its been buoying me for months now. As today is MLK day, and as I am equally afraid of the bully about to be president, I’ll share some recent experiences of hope. My daughter is 17 months old and has recently gotten a gait trainer. We live in a small-ish apartment with no yard on a hilly street with jagged sidewalks, so in order to give her fun opportunities to use it, we’ve been taking her out to parks and plazas and other public spaces. Out of necessity, I frequently need her to get from a curbside parking space to the park or plaza in question in her gait trainer, and so she’s been doing a lot of walking on city sidewalks. Both on the sidewalks and in the parks and playgrounds, we get lots of friendly and interested questions from curious little kids and lots just coming up to say hi. I think it’s been as amazing an experience for me as it has for my little girl, who is suddenly face-to-face with other little people she’s previously only seen from her stroller or my arms. I know that at some point, she will have her first rejection experience, but I was super nervous about taking her out in the gait trainer, and I am encouraged about humanity by how well it’s gone.

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