I was walking along the Charles River today when I saw a guy that lives in my neighborhood. This man has no arms or hands. He is often out walking or at the nearby restaurants. I hadn’t seen him in a while and it made me think back to a time a couple of years ago when my then 5 year-old nephew was staying with me in the city.
We were out having a lazy day. My nephew likes to feed the ducks and look for bugs and toads along the river bank behind my apartment building. On this particular day, the guy with no arms was walking toward us on the bike path. My nephew did a double-take like the kind you see in cartoons with the head spinning at warp speed and smoke residue left behind. His jaw hit the ground and he watched, eyes wide, as the guy walked by us. I tried to pull his gaze away as to not make the man uncomfortable but my nephew shrugged me off so he could get a good, long look. The man with no arms, most likely not unaccustomed to gawkers like this, just smiled and walked on past us.
“That man has no hands!” my nephew exclaimed after he had collected himself. I agreed with him and tried to normalize the whole thing by mentioning that he is out often and lives nearby. A few hours later, still on his mind, my nephew asked if I remembered the man with no hands. I said I did. He asked if I knew his name. I told him I did not. “Why haven’t you ever met him?” he asked. “I don’t know. I just haven’t.” He pondered this for a minute and then said: “Well, next time you see him, you should say hi and ask what his name is.” Then my nephew paused and said, “But just don’t try to shake his hand. Because he doesn’t have any.” At this, I burst out laughing. I found this hysterically funny. I mean I could hear the “buh dum chhha” in my head! But when I looked back at my nephew, he was not laughing. Clearly he had not intended this introduction of me and the man with no arms to be a Saturday Night Live skit.
In his very earnest and sensitive way, my nephew just wanted to make a genuine connection with this man, as different as he was in his eyes. He was not afraid of this man as I assumed, but more curious. In fact, he really wanted to know more about this guy. My nephew did not judge or feel like he needed to put up a wall against his disabilities.
The kindness of children (a phrase coined by author and teacher Vivian Paley) is profound, and manifests itself in all sorts of ways. As I look forward to the new class year – two weeks, egads!! – and at least one special needs student in my class, I also look forward to the support and care of the rest of the kids. They will be the ones who take care of one another, regardless of whether they have hands to shake or not.