I recall hearing, years ago, that no Bas Yaakov school, in Lakewood, New Jersey, would convene until every girl wishing to attend a Lakewood institution had a place in which to learn. In simple parlance, that meant that the leaders of that community were actualizing the articulation that lots of folks make, but few back with behavior; every child is valuable and should be treated accordingly.
That policy, of finding a seat for each young woman, was a policy that proved no neighborhood daughter was so undesirable as to need to leave town for something as fundamental as education. Lakewood’s movers and shakers taught that providing care for all of its youth was neither too inconvenient nor too difficult to achieve.
More specifically, Lakewood children with learning differences, with economically compromised backgrounds, and with social or psychological issues, all were insured that, like their “more perfect” siblings, friends, and peers, they were integral to that klal and as such, at least publically, would enjoy having their wellbeing touted as equally important. The heads of all of that city’s girls’ institutions sat through meeting after meeting to reach their desired end of having 100% of their applicants matched with schools.
I hope that the principals in Lakewood are still scheduling those problem-solving sessions. As a people, we need more examples of acceptance and fewer of shaming. Sadly, as a whole, we run from, or oppress, or both, nonconforming children.
Consider, that in a recent issue of a popular Jewish publication, a parent, whose child is graced with psychologically-marked nuances, urged readers to write in to network with her. That essayist, who went by the moniker of “Name Withheld,” and who wanted moms and dads to band together to advocate for their stigmatized children, could not bring herself to disclose her family identity for fear of “creating problems.”
On the one hand, she surfaced the issue, of children with emotional handicaps, in front of a readership, which, less than a decade earlier, had been notorious for chaining their physically diverse children to porches so as not to “sabotage” marriage prospects for their other offspring. Accordingly, that writer was brave.
On the other hand, that writer was perpetuating the very sort of problem she meant to work against. By staying anonymous, given her fear of social reprisal, that writer not only was not protecting her “typical” kids from being spurned by employers, but was certainly feeding the prejudice that exists against her atypical child. Accordingly, that mouthpiece for a worthy cause functioned as and modeled the rhetoric of the worst sort of coward, as a bully.
There is something very wrong when we, as individuals, or as a collective, allow our anxiety about others’ opinions of ourselves to cause us to invalidate, let alone to neglect or to abuse our children. “Dissimilar” does not and never will mean “less valuable.” Too many moms and dads are still humiliated when their friends discover that their children are missing fingers or toes, are on alternative educational routes, have eating disorders, are cutting themselves, or have acted out suicidal tendencies. Too many moms and dads are left feeling isolated in their experiences. All of those moms and dads ought not to have to have those feelings.
Hashem decides the form of life and the set of experiences each of us will receive. If He wanted each of us to have stellar middot, whatever “stellar” might mean at a given instance, He would have fashioned us that way. Rather, we are born with “flaws” and go through a variety of hard times, in part so that we can rely on Him, in part so that we can learn and practice cooperative living, and in part so that we can better ourselves. Those “less-than-brilliant” qualities are, in truth, the places from which the greatest amount of light can issue.
That said, it bodes poorly for us, as a nation, let alone as a nation that prides itself on ethical conduct, to shun anyone, especially a child, who does not meet our imagined watermarks. It’s also impractical to do so; countless anecdotes exist of “perfect” spouses, employees, students, whoever, who were later revealed to harbor inclinations toward, for example, theft or adultery. As well, countless anecdotes exist of “imperfect” spouses, employees, students, whoever, who were later revealed to harbor inclinations toward, for example, superhuman patience, tolerance and understanding. It is simply stupid, on many levels, to adjudicate human worth based on social biases.
Instead, we need to embrace and to move forward with things, both temporary and permanent, beyond our control. Whereas it is sometimes taxing to parent kids with overt “disparities,” it is no less rewarding than guiding kids whose variations are less palpable. My own clan, for instance, features persons with allergies, an individual with an acute anxiety disorder, a couple of loved ones with learning distinctions, and an individual who avoids rather than confronts. We’ve dealt with serious injuries and illnesses, with loss of life, and even with some garden variety neuroses. My family and friends are Blessed by those riches.
My kin’s litany of growth opportunities is not remarkable, though, which is my point. If we Jews could be a little more conscientiously open with ourselves, if we could mature just a tad, if we could stop huffing and puffing over children with needs, we would be able to make better use of our resources.
A large number of families feature out-of-the-ordinary sons and daughters. “Dissimilarity” is commonplace. There is no disgrace in the variety of forms in which Hashem has made us. There is dishonor, however, in discrediting aspects of creation. Each and every person is a holy construct. Our job is not to stratify people according to our blind conceptions, but to accept and to empower all comers.
Fifty years ago, no one spoke of “cancer” or of “divorce.” Shame, as was manifest in whispers and in euphemisms, was the only way in which last century’s people referred to those topics. Today, in contrast, alongside of making better treatment choices for cancer victims and alongside of offering more emotional support to divorcees, our society has ceased to even consider hiding the existence of such gongs on. Our children, both our average ones and the ones bestowed with superlatives, deserve nothing less.