Thursday, March 12, 2009

`Special Needs'

A spinal deformation leaves one of the boys I work with unable to stand upright. He’s virtually quadrupedic and uses a walker on wheels to move around. It reminds me of the drum kit custom-built to accommodate Chick Webb’s twisted, undersized body, and Samuel Johnson in his “Life of Pope” noting “it was necessary to raise his seat.” The boy’s fellow second-graders accept him without fuss and vie for the privilege of carrying his books and lunch tray. On Wednesday, I worked with him for almost an hour on compound words, and he seems just as lazy, wise-assed and likeable as the other 7-year-olds.

At recess, a parent volunteered to accompany the boy while he rode around the schoolyard on a tricycle with oversized handlebars, safety belts and blocks on the pedals. Her manner was loud and smarmy: “Let me help you! Aren’t you a brave little man?” and so on. It was sickening but I’m not sure the kid was bothered. He was happy for the attention though I wonder what his parents would have thought of her self-congratulatory performance. Some people are so disturbed by disabled people they want to hug and kiss themselves just for being in their presence.

Clive James wrote a poem about a Wordsworthian “idiot boy,” his father and the narrator’s encounter with them. In “Special Needs,” James faces our discomfort with disabilities squarely, and weighs the meanings latent in the euphemistic title phrase. He would probably be more sympathetic toward the woman on the playground than I was:

“I can look down again, two thoughts
Contesting in my head:
`It’s so unfair, I don’t know what to do’
Is one. The other is the one that hurts:
`Don’t be a fool. It’s nothing to do with you.’”

James skirts melodrama but its proximity adds to the moral tension of the poem. Melodrama and its implicit falsity of emotion is always a temptation, but James resists the urge to turn the boy into a freak or saint:

“Yes, the boy is bad:
So bad he holds one arm up while he walks
As if to ward off further blows from heaven.”

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