Are We Lowering The Barre…Or Raising It?

Project Up dancers performed at the 2013 Dizzy Feet Foundation Gala in LA

Project Up dancers performed at the 2013 Dizzy Feet Foundation Gala in LA

Well, hello again dance lovers!

Last week, I wrote about dance costumes. If you read through the comments on this blog and all over social media, you notice that people raised some big issues – the objectification of women, the exploitation and over-sexualization of children, our body-shaming culture, the prevalence of explicit lyrics in music and much more. Perhaps I should have shared what happened that led to me to write it, since I’ve never written about this topic before. I also want to share with you the one comment out of thousands that…well, it hurt my feelings.

I attended a dance competition in another state because my students with special needs were included in this event, offering the opportunity to spread our message of acceptance and to show hundreds of dancers, their teachers and their families that dance is truly for everyone, regardless of their challenges. This video is an example of what my incredible students and their teenage volunteers can do and there’s another video link at the bottom of this post:

* I’m only speaking about female dancers in this post. This does not mean I am negating or disrespecting the presence of boys in the dance world.*

For about six hours, I watched dancer after dancer perform in her underwear. Maybe its because I was in another state or maybe I just haven’t paid attention to this trend but it was surprising to me how different these costumes were from what I’m used to seeing.

And then it happened…a beautiful girl in the teen category (which means she is not older than 16), a girl who I do not know, from a dance studio I’ve never heard of, did her 11th leg tilt facing the audience and she had – well, let’s just say she had a hugely unfortunate wardrobe malfunction involving the bikini bottom she was wearing – without tights –  resulting in what must have been the most embarrassing moment of that lovely young girl’s life.

There was an audible gasp from the crowd but she maintained her composure and finished her performance, as dancers are taught to do. I was left with a roaring rage directed at the adults in her life who allowed that to happen to her. Adults who selected her costume. Parents who paid for that costume. Adults who did not insure that the costume was properly anchored with butt glue or toupee tape (yes, these items are part of competition dance and apparently many other activities children do these days). And so I wrote my post and hit “publish,” expecting that maybe 5,000 people might read it. Imagine my surprise when half a million of you showed up!

I’ve dug through thousands of comments on social media to see which way the pendulum of public opinion is swinging and according to my scientific poll numbers (obtained by me and my husband adding up likes, positive comments and negative comments with a calculator), 80% of the people who read it agree with me and 18% vehemently disagree with me. The remaining 2% were commenters who admitted they hadn’t read my post but had an opinion anyway. Oh, social media, you can be so entertaining!

Many of those who disagreed with me said they were dance moms. Go figure? The refrain of “It’s only sexual because you’re making it that way…get your mind out of the gutter…quit slut shaming girls” was common amongst my detractors. It’s interesting to me that the original post never used the word “sex.” And I did not shame the dancers…they are children, who have absolutely no choice in the matter. A dancer is going to wear whatever the hell her dance teacher tells her to wear.

And what was the comment that wounded my soul? It said, “This is just another example of the older generation trying to impose their views on the rest of us.”

Older generation? Wait a damn minute, now. When did I become the older generation?

Oh, right…it was when I turned 55 last October and an envelope from AARP showed up in my mailbox, uninvited and unwelcome. I cut up the membership card and threw it in the trash. Whew…that was a close call. I can still pretend I’m not eligible for senior discounts or early bird specials! According to TV commercials, I am actually a candidate for a senior care facility…worry-free living for seniors age 55 and up, they said. I’ll pass on that. I may not understand how the Kardashians became a thing but I’m not going to go quietly into the nursing home just yet. I wrote once before about how I feel about getting older and now someone else feels compelled to remind me that I’m no spring chick.

But you know that old saying, “With age comes wisdom?” It’s true. Or at least it gives you the hindsight and perspective to see things a bit more objectively. Back when I was a teenager, we got a lot of mixed messages from our society – it was the ’70’s, after all. But the mixed messages our girls, especially those involved in competitive dance, are receiving today are more convoluted than any other time in my life.

“You can be anything you want to be, you can break that glass ceiling, you can have it all,” we tell our girls. “You own your own body…you are woman, let me hear you roar.” And then we trot them out to perform, all tarted up and twerking, teaching our girls too early that “sex sells.”

Dance is an activity that should leave a girl feeling empowered, strong and confident. It is an activity where her body is her instrument and as such, should be respected and celebrated. But are we celebrating our young dancers or are we exploiting them? Maybe I’m just too old to understand the answer. But I am still young enough to know that you can be trendy without being tacky and you can give girls confidence in themselves without selling them out.

There has been an evolution in competition dance that has turned it into demanding sport with a higher degree of difficulty than ever, which must be considered when selecting attire for class and performances. If a costume matches age-appropriate music, adds to the story of the dance and can accommodate the dancer’s movements without leaving a tender young person exposed, that’s a win. But if its gratuitous skimpiness, if its just dancing in your underwear, then I think it’s time for a revolution.

Let’s raise the barre for dance, not lower it.

Program Director Melissa, Artistic Director Hayley and dancer Katie with Nigel Lythgoe

Program Director Melissa, Artistic Director Hayley and dancer Katie with Nigel Lythgoe

 

Dance Teachers: Please Put Some Clothes On Your Students

Dance Teachers, we need to talk. You have got to stop sending children out to dance in public in their underwear. Maybe you’ve added some rhinestones to that underwear or maybe you’ve strategically placed a piece of chiffon somewhere but come on…underwear is underwear and we all know it.

And Dance Parents, you shouldn’t allow your children to do this, even if your Dance Teacher thinks its okay.

I go to dance recitals and competitions and feel like I’m in “The Emperor’s New Clothes.” Surely I’m not the only adult among the hundreds in attendance who thinks it’s inappropriate to send kids on stage to dance in their knickers. Am I?

You may be wondering what qualifies me to state such an opinion, so here are my credentials:

  • I’ve been involved in dance either as a student, a performer or a teacher since somewhere around 1963.
  • I started my daughter’s dance training at a traditional ballet school but when she was lured by the showy world of competition dance, I was sucked into being a Dance Mom.
  • I created an arts education program for kids with special needs and dance represents a significant chunk of what we do at Merrimack Hall.

Surely this sufficiently convinces you that I’m an expert on the topic of dance competitions…but I have been called an opinionated know-it-all before so feel free to disregard my impressive resume and chalk this up to me being obnoxious. It won’t be the first time I’ve stated a strong opinion that I was convinced was irrefutable only to have people tell me I’m being an asshole.

I am not a prude. If you know me, you know that I excel at cussing and have strong liberal leanings. I have an open mind about most things, particularly the arts. But as the years have rolled along, I’ve watched kids’ dance costumes get smaller and smaller and  now…well, costumes seem to have disappeared altogether, replaced by what they call “hot shorts” or “bloomers” worn with what appear to be bras from Victoria Secret while they are performing for an audience, under the glare of stage lighting. I’m not sure what I find the most objectionable – sending 8-year-olds out onstage dressed like this or sending 17-year-olds in this attire.

Maybe Dance Teachers think they are costuming their students like the people they aspire to be…perhaps Misty Copeland or Beyonce. So, I offer you Exhibit A:

MIsty Copeland

Misty Copeland is not covered up in this photo or in the incredible commercial she filmed for the Under Armour campaign. But…

  • She’s Misty Copeland.
  • She’s a grown woman.
  • This is an ad for base garments, otherwise known as UNDERWEAR and is not apparel that is advertised as a dance costume.
  • Notice that both the photo and the video take place in a rehearsal space…not on stage in front of an audience.

And take Exhibit B:

Beyonce

I adore Beyonce and think she is a positive, empowering role model for girls. Obviously, she isn’t wearing much in this photo. But:

  • She’s Beyonce.
  • She’s a grown woman.
  • She’s Beyonce.

I’m guessing that even Mrs. Carter would Exhibit C objectionable:

Single Ladies

I could go on and on about this picture and the dance these 6-years-olds performed, which nearly blew up the internet when the video went viral a few years ago. This specific dance and the controversy around age-appropriateness was a hot topic back in 2010 on Dr.Phil, with Anderson Cooper and with many other reputable journalistic outlets.

But I’m just focusing on the costumes right now.

I’ve seen dozens of teenagers dancing in “costumes” like Exhibit D (which is featured in an online dancewear catalogue) at competitions and recitals:

dancewear

See what I mean? She might as well be naked. But she’s a professional model, she is in a rehearsal space, there’s no one else in the photo and the catalogue calls this item “activewear,” perfect attire for dance class, yoga, pilates etc. It is important for dancers to be able to see their bodies, to check their turn out and lines while taking class in front of unforgiving mirrors. Dance class is one thing but in front of an audience? I vote no.

This trend seemed to start when young dancers stopped wearing tights. But you can dance barefoot while wearing footless tights, you know. And at least tights would add a layer. I sat next to a man at a competition recently and he told me that he couldn’t watch dancers dressed like this – said it made him extremely uncomfortable so he scrolled through Facebook during these numbers. His daughter is only 7…by the time she’s a teenager, they may just be wearing a thong and pasties.

I thought costumes were supposed to enhance a dance piece or advance the story of the dance. Have a look at Exhibit E:

shutterstock_291046667 copy

This stock photo is representative of a photo I saw where about 25 teenage girls were wearing sequined bikinis while dancing on scaffolding. What story could a dance teacher be telling that requires girls to wear bikinis while dancing on scaffolding? Maybe the dance teacher who chose to costume her students like this is actually preparing kids for careers as erotic dancers. I have nothing against erotic dancers and quite enjoy a well-done strip show…when the performer is over 21, everyone in the audience is over 21 and I’m enjoying a nice cocktail. At a “family friendly” dance competition…not so much.

Now, I realize that there are categories of people who perform in public wearing in very little clothing – like track and field stars or gymnasts. They are wearing garments that are aerodynamic and help improve their speed or they are wearing leotards because anything else would get tangled up on the uneven bars. Of course, dance teachers have to insure that the costume they select won’t trip up their dancers or impede their movement. But there’s a line of good taste and I hate to be the one to tell you but Dance Teachers, you have crossed that line.

So, Dance Teachers, please rethink your costuming choices. And Dance Parents, please voice your objections to costumes like these, if you have them. Barely there costumes like these do not make a dance more competitive and parents shouldn’t be afraid to voice concerns over immodest attire.

Maybe I’m wrong or maybe I’m just being an asshole but I think our kids deserve better.

Stay tuned…in future posts, I will offer my expert opinion on tilts, leg extension, crotch shots, props, music selection and much, much more.

 

Saban and Swinney Share A Secret For Their Success

Monday night, I will be glued to the television to watch Alabama and Clemson duke it out for the NCAA National Championship. I will be pulling for Alabama…I went to school there and will be on the edge of my seat to see if the Tide can clench an unprecedented 16th National Championship. I’m nervous about our chances for victory because Clemson is a formidable opponent. I’ve heard lots of people say, “No way an ACC team beats an SEC team in the title game,” but I know that Clemson is the finest team we’ve faced this year. And not because of anything they do on the practice field or in the locker room…not because they have some secret training tool or better athletes than we do. Actually, Clemson and Bama share the same secret to success and it has nothing to do with football and everything to do with what Dabo Swinney and Nick Saban encourage their players to do off the field.

Saban

University of Alabama Coach Nick Saban

Every major NCAA football program shares the same practices. All of them recruit the best athletes they can find, all of them scout their opponents and hire top coaches and trainers who specialize in preparing elite athletes for competition. All of them have thousands of boosters who donate millions of dollars to their programs. All of them have elaborate stadiums, time-honored game day traditions and legions of devoted fans. All of them give the young men they coach every conceivable opportunity to develop their raw talents. All of them work to mold the student athletes they coach into men, into leaders both on and off the field. There’s not much difference between any of the Division I schools and how they approach the development of their football teams. So how did Dabo Swinney and Nick Saban end up on top?

Clemson Tigers Coach Dabo Swinney

Clemson Tigers Coach Dabo Swinney

Clearly, both teams have enormous talent. They both have experienced coaches leading them. They both have motivated athletes and both teams will show up Monday night ready to compete, fully prepared for a game that is the culmination of all of their pre-season goals and dreams. But it takes something extra to end up playing for the Championship; a certain amount of luck plus that indefinable element that turns a group of young boys into a united team. Swinney and Saban have ended up on top because of all these things but they both have an added element to their football programs. Both of these coaches are affiliated with programs for people with special needs and both coaches involve their players in that affiliation.

Right now, you’re probably thinking I’ve lost my mind. What in the world could spending time with a person with Down syndrome have to do with becoming a contender for the football National Championship? How could someone with cerebral palsy have any affect on the outcome of a high-stakes athletic competition? What does a Division I athlete have in common with a person with autism? I think it’s their involvement with people who are routinely marginalized that has given Saban, Swinney and their players the edge.

Alabama’s legendary coach, Gene Stallings, once said this to me (I’m paraphrasing): I’ve spent my life around the most elite athletes in the world. I’ve watched professional football players achieve physical feats that I never imagined. But the most impressive physical, athletic achievement I’ve ever witnessed was when my son, Johnny, who had Down syndrome, took his first steps at the age of four. Those first steps represented years of practice, struggle and determination.

Saban has been involved with The Rise School at the University of Alabama since he arrived in Tuscaloosa. His personal foundation donates thousands of dollars each year to The Rise School, a national model for early intervention and inclusion. His athletes routinely volunteer at the center, always showing up for their shift in a coat and tie. The Rise School’s founder, Dr. Martha Cook, told me once that there’s nothing that moves her heart more than seeing a 300-pound linebacker sitting on the floor playing with a three-year-old child with cerebral palsy. She told me that Saban’s requirement that his players spend time with her students is evidence that he is “producing not just athletes, but men.”

Swinney has been involved with Clemson’s groundbreaking Clemson Life Program since he began his tenure and his personal foundation, like Saban’s, donates thousands to the program. Clemson Life is a full-on residential college program for students with special needs and has received national attention for the unique nature of its elements. Swinney invites Clemson Life students to closed practices, picks them up in the team’s bus and even lets them touch the fabled rock at Clemson’s stadium, a privilege only given to Clemson’s football teams. In this moving video, its evident to me that Sweeney has instilled respect for everyone, regardless of their abilities, in his athletes.

Clemson Life student at football practice

Clemson Life student at football practice

So what is it about football teams spending time with people who have special needs that gives them the edge over other teams? It’s my contention that the Tigers and the Tide view their accomplishments and abilities through a different filter because they regularly spend time with folks who share none of their physical ability but have the heart it takes to be a winner. How can you take for granted your superior physical ability when you spend an hour with a child in a wheelchair? How can you allow yourself to squander even one minute of your practice time when you have hands-on experience with people who will struggle their entire lives to tie their own shoes or to acquire the skills they need to live independently?

When both teams take the field Monday night, they will be equipped with everything they need to win…the finest preparation, a carefully thought out game plan and their own athletic prowess. They will also be equipped with a level of compassion and humanity that you can only experience when you spend time with people who have special needs. Those football players have been influenced, their hearts have been moved and their appreciation for their own skill has been humbled by seeing people overcome the odds every day…just to say their own name…or complete an academic assignment…or navigate a world that is designed in ways that prohibit their full involvement. I believe the players for Clemson and Alabama will bring to the field an inspiration and motivation to win that isn’t based on self-serving goals but instead is based on a true appreciation for the worth of every person’s abilities.

I could be wrong. Maybe Clemson and Alabama have ended up on top because they worked harder than every other NCAA team or because luck played out for them. But I don’t think I’m wrong. I think these two teams ended up on top because their coaches have instilled in them a perspective for winning that comes not from competing with the most exceptional athletes in college football but from interacting with people who have overcome obstacles and challenges those young athletes will never have to face.

And to me, that makes Saban and Swinney the best coaches in college football. And in my book, both teams deserve the National Title for this reason alone.

But I will, of course, be yelling Roll Tide all night!

Another Post About My Boobs

It’s been six months since I had a preventative double mastectomy, thanks to the BRCA 1 gene mutation that has run roughshod through the women in my family and to paraphrase one of my daughter’s favorite bands, it’s been a long, strange ride. There have been moments of hilarity and others of sadness. Sometimes, I go for days without thinking about the implants that are in my chest now and other times when I think about them constantly. There are days when I forget the rule I imposed on myself about a month after surgery – never accidentally glance in the full length mirror while naked – and when I catch that unexpected glimpse, I don’t recoil the way I did when I made up the rule.

I guess time does heal all wounds…and what time won’t heal, a good plastic surgeon will!

I had a follow up surgery two days ago, a “revision” as the plastic surgeon calls it. One of my good friends asked me why in the world I was having another surgery “at my age” so I told her to shut the hell up. She said, “You look fine with your clothes on so why bother?”

I answered, “Because sometimes I have to take off my clothes…like, I don’t know…to shower? And because sometimes when I’m in a hurry and brush my teeth while still dripping from the shower, I’m disgusted by the puckers, folds and pockets that I can see, right where my breasts used to be. And because I’m a woman, albeit an old one, who would still like to have breasts.”

And then I told her to shut the hell up again, just for good measure.

There was some aspect of cosmetic to this surgery but mostly it was done because I didn’t want to spend another day with my boobs refusing to go where I’m going or another night when the left one decides not to roll over with the rest of me. When I bend down to pick something up or to feed the cats, the boobs don’t want to stand back up, too. The type of reconstruction I had involved a small “muscle pocket,” whatever that is, with the implant snuggled in it but they didn’t feel snuggled. The way the damn things were moving around in my chest, I was afraid if we didn’t do something to anchor them better they might end up on my back.

The surgeon re-tucked the bottom incision under each breast, making them tighter and less likely to go their own way. It seems like the surgery might have done the trick because this morning when I bent forward to wrap my wet hair in a towel, my boobs were with me by the time I was upright. As an added bonus, the surgeon suctioned some fat from my abdomen and injected it around the implant to serve as a cushion. I told him to feel free to do any sculpting he wanted while he was at it but I don’t think he did. I’m black, blue, yellow and green from my upper chest to my lower abdomen but even through all the bruising, I can see that I still don’t have a flat belly…I’ve never had one but an old gal can dream, can’t she?

Another friend suggested that I had this surgery purely for vanity’s sake. I couldn’t believe she would say that to me because she knows I’m not the slightest bit vain.

Okay, I’ll admit it…I am sort of vain.

But it wasn’t vanity that drove me back to surgery. It was the discomfort, the rolling implants, the frustration with not being able to find a comfortable sleeping position, the implants stubborn refusal to cooperate with my movements that made me want to “tweak” (the plastic surgeon’s word, not mine) my breasts one more time. And it was the hope that by securing them better, I might be less aware of them…every minute of every day.

When I first wrote about my conflicting feelings about having a preventative mastectomy, I received hundreds of messages from women around the globe, women who are facing the same tough choices I had or women who have battled cancer. One woman wrote to me, “The entire process – the decision-making, the surgery, the recovery – will take a physical and emotional toll on you that no one can prepare you for.” Boy was she ever right! There are still times when I want to cry over the loss of my breasts – and sometimes, I allow myself to. But most of the time I can fend off the melancholy by reminding myself how lucky I am.

Lucky that I found out I carry the gene mutation, lucky that I have a supportive husband and children to nurse me back to health, lucky that I dodged the breast and ovarian cancer bullet that was headed straight for me. At those moments when I feel sorry for myself – like the first time I wore a swimsuit or the first time I bought new bras – I remember what the pathologist told me a few days after my mastectomy; that my left breast was riddled with pre-cancerous and atypical cells and that I would have definitely found a lump in two years or less. So lucky.

Now that I’ve been through the pain and indignity of a mastectomy, I don’t know how women who have cancer do it…how they suffer through a surgery so awful and then immediately go to war with an enemy as insidious as cancer. Sometimes, I feel guilty that my fate was easier than theirs, guilty that I’m complaining about implants that bob around while they are fighting for their lives. My friends who have cancer tell me they are glad that genetics have advanced to this point and they are happy we have options that were unheard of just a few years ago.

The doctor says it will only take three to four days to heal and that if I’m not satisfied with the result, he can “tweak” some more but I’m done with tweaks. As long as we’re headed in the same direction, my boobs and I will be just fine from now on.

 

On Taking A Child With Autism To Public Places

You’ve probably heard about the Broadway actor, Kelvin Moon Loh, who took to his Facebook page to state his dismay over the behavior of the audience at last Wednesday’s matinee of The King and I. If you haven’t, you can read all about it here.

Kelvin Moon Loh...my newest hero!

Kelvin Moon Loh…my newest hero!

In a nutshell, a mother took what Loh assumes was her autistic son to a matinee of the Broadway hit and during a particularly intense scene, the child had some sort of outburst. Audience members turned on the mother, some saying things like, “Why would you bring a child like that to the theatre?” The show continued, despite the interruption caused by the child and subsequently by the audience but the actor was clearly upset over how the audience treated the mother and the child.

Children’s misbehavior, and their parents’ reaction to it – or lack of reaction to it – was in the news back in July, when the parents of a toddler went to a Maine diner. The diner owner reportedly screamed at the toddler and threw the family out of the restaurant because the toddler was disturbing other customers. The social media maelstrom that resulted from that story had people taking sides about when and where it’s appropriate to take small children. Thousands of people commented on this story, some stating that children shouldn’t be taken to restaurants at all, others believing that children should be welcomed in public places regardless of their behavior, and pretty much everyone who weighed in on the matter acted like an asshole.

Who knows what really happened in that diner but we should all be able to agree that there are certain types of restaurants where we should not take our children – the white tablecloth, expensive kind for sure – and others (like diners) where children should be welcomed, even when they cry or throw sugar packets or act like heatherns. Whatever happened, the story stirred up some powerful opinions on both sides of the argument that mostly left me glad that my children are now adults (although that does not necessarily preclude them from acting like assholes in restaurants).

This theatre matter is different, though. First of all, a ticket to a Broadway show is exorbitantly expensive. No one wants to have their Big Deal Moment ruined by someone else’s rude behavior…like the time Alan and I went to a Broadway matinee with another couple and the man bought M&M’s at intermission. This highly-educated, rarified friend of ours sat down for Act II and proceeded to extract one M&M at a time from the package, as opposed to pouring a few at a time into his hands, which resulted in a loud and annoying crinkling noise every few seconds. I was cringing but trying to ignore it when the man on the row in front of us turned around and hissed, “Would you stop rattling that damn paper?” Of course, when he said this the ripple of who was affected by our friend’s candy munching spread even further.

Or what about cell phones in the theatre? How obnoxious is that? Celebrities like Madonna have been chastised for texting during Broadway performances. Patti LuPone stopped a performance to rant at one cell phone user and swiped the cell phone of another. Then there are the show talkers (who whisper/talk to each other during performances), the nitwits who repeatedly get up from their seats and the jerks who ignore the pre-show requests to refrain from flash photography. Clearly, it’s not just children who can disrupt a performance.

There are two things about The King and I story that bother me. The first is that the show is billed as “family friendly” which I take to mean that children are welcome. And anytime you invite children to attend something, you have no way to know what to expect. Take a child to a dark theatre, put live action on the stage in front of them and who can predict what might happen, even from the most well-behaved child. Don’t bill your show as “family friendly”- and don’t buy a ticket to a “family friendly” production – if you’re not prepared for anything from screaming fits to poopy diapers.

Kelli O'Hara and Ken Watanabe on Broadway

Kelli O’Hara and Ken Watanabe on Broadway

The second thing that bothers me about this story is more important, I think, and it’s this…how did anyone know this child has autism?

I know a lot of people with autism and most of them do not have any physical characteristics that give an indication of their diagnosis. Did the audience assume the child had autism because of the nature of his outburst? Because I know plenty of children who don’t have a diagnosis of autism who can behave atrociously.

And more to the point, what difference does it make if he had autism or not? He was a child, taken by his mother to an appropriate event, a child who had a strong negative reaction to something that occurred on the stage. Any child could have reacted in the exact same way. Would the audience have been more compassionate towards a “normal” child?

kid with autism

Many parents of kids with autism have told me that one of the most challenging aspects of their child’s diagnosis is the fact that they appear to be typical kids, making their inappropriate behavior more difficult for strangers to understand. Many of these parents have told me they’ve been publicly shamed or chastised for not properly “disciplining” their children too many times to count.

“Can’t you make her behave?” they’ve been asked or “If he was mine, I’d whip him” others have said. “If my child had an obvious physical disability or a condition like Down syndrome, people might be more understanding of his odd behaviors or frightening outbursts,” one parent told me.

Taking a child with autism to a public place can be torture – for the parent and for the child. No parent wants their child to be upset or to unintentionally upset someone else. Autism can hijack not only a child’s life but the life of their family as well.

So what are parents to do? Children – with autism or without – learn by doing so we have to take a risk and take them to that restaurant or that party or that musical.

We have to prepare them for what they can expect and we have to do our best to plan for every possible contingency.

We should remember the question Loh posed in his Facebook post…“When did we become so concerned with our own experience that we lose compassion for others?”

kids with autism

So, you can act like an asshole to someone who’s child is misbehaving because you assume they aren’t doing a good job parenting. Or you can be a human being and show some empathy.

And you can assume a child is autistic or you can realize that an autistic child is a child, first and foremost.

 

 

Writing Stories With Billy Bob Thornton

Billy Bob Thornton has written a lot of things – Oscar-winning screenplays, best-selling books, chart-topping songs. He sometimes writes on his own, sometimes with collaborators. Back in April, he wrote a story with a new group of co-authoros…14 teens and young adults with special needs who are in my weekly creative writing class.

Billy and the Creative Writing Class celebrating their amazing story

Billy and the Creative Writing Class celebrating their amazing story

During our class time, it was clear that Billy was enjoying himself.

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As the story took shape, it was obvious that he was impressed.

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At the end of the class, it was apparent that he was moved and inspired.

_DSC0866

Turns out, he was even more impressed and moved that I thought he was because one of the first things he did when he got back in the music studio was to write and record a song based on his experiences with our students.

How cool is that?

The title of the song is “They Don’t See What We See” and it will have its debut on Monday, August 17, 2015 at 7:00 p.m. when The Boxmasters return to Huntsville to perform this song – just for us. The song will be released on a future Boxmasters album.

Not only has Billy chosen Merrimack Hall for the premiere of this new song, he is refusing any fees for his performance, making the event a huge fund raising opportunity for our non-profit organization. I hope you will join us for what is sure to be an amazing concert! Tickets are available at www.merrimackhall.com.

Want to read the story our students and Billy wrote together? I thought so!

Billy gave the class the following story-starter:

Annabelle and Scotty are twins who want to open their own school, one where students are allowed to study any subject they want. But…they have to figure out how to raise the money to start this school.

Our students took that ball and ran, collaborating with Billy to create this amazing story (note – if you see a word misspelled or a sentence structure that is out of order, that’s how the story was dictated or specified by our students; also note that some of our students took offense to Billy’s proclamation that he was a fan of the Arkansas Razorbacks, which is reflected in their story):

Scotty, Annabelle and The Freedom School

Written by: Billy Bob Thornton, Chelsie Atchley, Zoe Thompson, Anna Ryane Roth, Tristan Cranford, Kate Burnette, Dana Anderson, Cami Hladky, Laura Beth Matus, Maria Rivette, Katie Slaton, Eleanor Saft, Carolyn Snoddy, Jeffrey Anderson, Connor Furber

Scotty and Annabelle are 13-year-old twins who live in North Calorina. They have lived all over the world – from Germany to Italy to New York and even moved to Alabama once.

Scotty and Annabelle had an idea for a new type of school, one that would allow each student to study only the subjects that they were interested in learning about. They named this new school The Freedom School.

Scotty and Annabelle had wonderful ideas for the subjects that would be taught at The Freedom School. Algebra, theatre, dance, visual art, horseback riding, movie studio and broadway cast, history, choir, theatre, English and biology were just some of the subjects they wanted The Freedom School to offer. But by allowing each student to choose their own subject to study, the twins knew there would be many exciting subjects they hadn’t even thought about…like concept car design.

There was just one problem with their idea for The Freedom School…they had no money to pay it. They estimated that the school would cost $5 million. Where could a couple of 13-year-olds from North Calorina come up with that kind of money? They needed a fund raising campaign.

When they told their friends about their concept for The Freedom School, everyone’s reaction was, “I love that school!” All of their friends agreed to help them raise money by being on a committee.

Then, the twins asked their parents for help. They asked their dad if he would help them get a loan from the bank. Their father said, “Sure, I will,” and signed all the papers. But the bank wouldn’t give them the total $5 million, so they set out to raise the rest.

Someone they know who works at Disneyworld told them they could design and build a new ride for the theme park and they could keep all the money people paid to go on the mine-train ride they devised. They took a plane to Orlando, rode a bus from the airport to the hotel, another bus from the hotel to the theme park and then stood in long lines to see the existing attractions. They worked on their design but got distracted and spent $60.88 to take a side trip to Mexico.

When they returned from Mexico, Scotty said, “Back to business, Annabelle. We’ve got money to raise!”

First, they had a lemonade stand where small lemonades were $.25, larges were $1.00 and the lemonade special was pink lemonade with a slice of lemon to make it extra sour. They served cookies with the lemonade – chocolate chip, sugar, any type of cookie you can think of – and made $600.

Their friend, Tristan, offered to make a film called “Tristan’s Adventures, Starring the Cartoon All-Stars.” All the money made from this film would go towards the school. The movie was based on a dream Tristan had about travelling from Alaska to Canada, ending in Northern California, where fairies, pixies and goblins were featured.

Scotty and Annabelle got local TV stations to invite them on the air to tell the community about The Freedom School and donations started coming in from everyone.

Then they had a bake sale, which all of their friends helped them put together. They didn’t make much money on the bake sale and, feeling discouraged, Annabelle said, “We can’t do this. By ourselves, we can do nothing!”

Their friends said, “That’s not right, Annabelle! You have us to help you. Together, we can do it!”

Their friends organized a charity baseball game, which included T-ball for the younger kids. Every time someone made it to first base, a $2,000 donation was made. Annabelle said, “Who in the world will donate that much money every time someone gets to first base?” Her friend Chelsea said confidently, “Don’t worry…somebody will!”

Atlanta Braves player Freedy Freeman came to the charity game to help out because he’s a really nice guy. Someone suggested they could invite some of the Arkansas Razorbacks players to help too, but Scotty and Annabelle didn’t think much of the Razorbacks.

Katie told the twins, “Actually, I’ve been thinking of how I could help you raise money. I’ve decided to use $99,000 of my money to hire Billy Bob Thornton to direct my movie, “Katie’s Big Break.”

The twins thought this was a great idea. When Katie called Billy to offer him the job, he said, “I will donate all the money you pay me to The Freedom School!” The twins were so happy!

Connor told the twins that he had the coolest, greatest idea. Connor was willing to build a new concept car – a Super Car – for their school to sell. The car – called the Nissan GTR 2.0 – was faster than a Lamborghini and had a V12 Engine. The Nissan GTR 2.0 was worth $150,000 and Connor donated the money to the school.

Finally, Annabelle and Scotty met their goal so they threw a party to celebrate. They sent text messages to all of their friends inviting them to the party. Lemonade and cookies, served to the guests on trays carried by waiters, were the refreshments. At the party, everyone did the Hokey Pokey dance, which it was decided would be a subject taught at The Freedom School. The Freedom School opened and kids from all over North Calorina enrolled. Everyone was welcome at The Freedom School…as long as they weren’t a Razorback!

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Caitlyn Jenner…Don’t Shoot The Messenger

In this blog, I advocate for people with special needs. My mantra has been, “We’re all more alike than we are different” and “Normal is a dryer setting.” I was starting to think that our culture might be turning a corner, that maybe we were reaching a tipping point where the differences between us mean less and the similarities mean more. And then along comes marriage equality and Caitlyn Jenner and some people’s reactions to them makes my hopefulness seems premature.

One of my precious friends

One of my precious friends

I watched Caitlyn Jenner’s speech online the day after the ESPY Awards and cried when she said, “We’re all different. That’s not a bad thing. That’s a good thing.”

When she spoke those words, I thought of all the people with special needs I know and love and hoped that those words of tolerance might be applied to them…hoped that the athletes and celebrities in the audience and the millions watching at home – might think of those words the next time they see a person with Down syndrome or autism or cerebral palsy or any other disability…thought that maybe some awareness might be raised.

To me, anytime anyone advocates for the acceptance of others who are different, it’s a win for everyone.

And yet, I look at my newsfeed and see that some of most vociferous objections to the LGBT movement and to marriage equality are coming from people who have family members with special needs. In message threads on the pages of people I know and on special needs blogs I follow, I see spiteful, hateful, intolerant comments. Most of them, of course, identify as conservatives or fundamental Christians. In numerous comments I read, people called Caitlyn Jenner an “abomination.”

It wasn’t too long ago that people with disabilities were called the same thing.

Alan and me with some of our favorite people

Alan and me with some of our favorite people

A few months ago, I had a meeting with a parent of a person with special needs. For nearly two hours, the parent told me they basically have a zero tolerance policy regarding discrimination against their family member. As the meeting ended, the parent made a disparaging remark about someone who is gay.

How screwed up is that? You don’t want anyone to discriminate against your family member who has a disability but you are okay with judging someone because they are gay? Someone please explain that one to me.

A gay teenager I know wore a pink tiara on his 17th birthday. A teenaged girl told him to take it off. He asked why and she told him that boys weren’t supposed to wear pink, nor should they wear tiaras. He told her that it was his birthday and he could wear a tiara if he wanted to. She told him he was weird. She told him that if he didn’t remove the tiara, she couldn’t be friends with him any longer. She said, “You are a freak.”

He told me later that he was shocked by her words…not because he hasn’t heard words like them before but because the girl has Down syndrome. “We’re both different from the norm,” he told me. “Shouldn’t we stick together?” I would certainly think so.

Two of my favorite guys!

Two of my favorite guys!

Caitlyn Jenner offered a powerful message in her speech – people who are different from what most people define as “normal” should matter…to everyone. No matter what your opinion of trans people may be, even if you think that she’s just a “rich man in a dress” as Conservative Christian blogger Matt Walsh says, Caitlyn used her celebrity to shine a powerful spotlight on a group who has been marginalized.

And anyone who is willing to start a national conversation about how we are all people, no matter how different we are from each other, is doing a great service for anyone who has ever been marginalized.

If everyone would focus on the message instead of the messenger, maybe we’d get somewhere. Instead of focusing on the “rich man in a dress,” shouldn’t we be focused on Caitlyn’s message that every life matters, even if it is drastically different from your own? Instead of focusing on your definition of marriage, wouldn’t it better to focus on the notion that no one’s love is more important than anyone else’s?

I have learned to appreciate the value of every life by spending so much time with people who are largely ignored and overlooked, treated differently because they have an extra chromosome or can’t walk or talk like I do. And when I hear someone – even a “rich man in a dress” – proclaim that it’s okay to be different, I want to believe that the message will resonate and spread acceptance and understanding over us all. But then I read comments and blogs, oozing with judgement and hypocrisy and it seems like those who most need to “get it” are totally missing the point.

Advocates and family members of people with special needs celebrate when “one of their own” receives some sort of national recognition. Like this man who owns his own restaurant or this young woman who is breaking into professional modeling. They celebrate because these success stories start conversations and help people who don’t know someone with special needs see them in a different light.

Whenever the nation’s attention is focused on the topic of diversity, in any form, it elevates the understanding of diversity for everyone.

Whether the conversation is about gay people or racial minorities or trans people or people with special needs…if we can open our hearts to one group who is different from us, it makes it easier to open our hearts to other groups who are different. I can’t understand people like Sarah Palin, who has a son with Down syndrome, when she defends that nut case Duck Dynasty guy who compares homosexuality to beastiality. She doesn’t want you to use the “R” word but it’s okay with her to use inflammatory and derogatory language about homosexuals. I just don’t get it.

Two amazing teens!

Two amazing teens!

I suppose there is one big difference between the treatment of people with special needs and people who are gay or trans. Basically, people with special needs are discounted, maybe pitied and a large portion of our society thinks they don’t have much to contribute whereas gay and trans people are despised by many, considered by some to be morally bankrupt and headed straight for hell. I don’t know what’s worse – to be hated or forgotten.

If you believe that same-sex marriage is wrong, then don’t marry someone of the same sex. If your God and your Bible tells you that homosexuality is a sin and if you believe that accepting the LGBT community means the end of civilization as we know it, then by all means, go to your church and pray for your salvation. But don’t tell me that the only differences that matter are the ones that pertain to you. Don’t tell me that your brand of different is more important than anyone else’s. Don’t tell me that people with special needs don’t deserve to be marginalized and then turn around and marginalize someone else because when you do that, your hypocrisy trumps your message.

Having fun with some of my friends

Having fun with some of my friends

Everyone is different. That’s what makes life so interesting and beautiful and precious. Surely, there will come a day when we will be a society that says, “I may not understand you but I respect and value your life experience” instead of one that says, “If you don’t agree with me, or look like me, or behave like me, or believe what I believe, then you’re wrong and you are my enemy.”

Maybe we’ll become a society where anyone who has ever been mistreated will stand up for anyone else who is mistreated.

It’s probably going to take a lot of messengers – including men who “wear dresses” and women who marry women – to get us there.