That Poor, Poor Boy

I take the last seat in St. Helens B at the Airport Sheraton. The room is chilly from the air conditioning but warming up from the bodies packed inside. I like the workshop leader immediately, with her confident but everywoman quality, half girlfriend/half talk show host.

Because this is a writing conference, her talk is on characters. Why people, real or fictional, do what they do.

She gives us an example of a fictional hero, a young baseball player named Joe, pitching in The Big Game. All through the movie he has wanted to win this game for his father, so that he will finally have this thorny man’s respect. At the movie’s climax, Joe’s on the mound. It’s a tight game. The father watches Joe from the bleachers like a hawk. And here comes the next batter from the opposing team, a boy who has watched all season from the bench, and now his coach is putting him in.

At this point, the writers in the room are nodding. They know this scenario. They know this character. Now the workshop leader wants to jack it up a notch. She says not only that, the batter has a disability.

There’s more nodding. Bigger nodding. Because a boy who sucks at sports is one thing. A boy who has a disability, by conventional wisdom, is. even. sad. der.

(Casey Martin is a professional golfer with a birth defect in his leg. Peter Gray played in the Majors with one arm. Karen Gaffney, who has Down syndrome, swam across Lake Tahoe.)

Joe takes pity on the batter, tosses him a grapefruit, the batter hits it. Joe’s team loses the game and his father’s respect. But Joe is a winner, a hero, because he wins his own self-respect.

Now the workshop leader wants this audience of writers to help her invent a main character. She gets us started with a woman who wants to buy a bed and breakfast.

She says: Why would she want to?
Someone calls out: She’s always wanted to.
Workshop leader says: Raise the stakes.
Someone calls out: Her mother had a B&B and always told her daughter she’d sold out by not taking on the family business.
Workshop leader says: Raise the stakes even more.
Someone calls out: She needs the money to care for a disabled relative.

The game stops. Nothing seems to trump a person with a disability.

Except maybe a child with a disability. Because then the workshop leader drops the punchline. “Perhaps it’s that poor boy still trying to play baseball.”

Laughter.

I’m not saying that a boy with a disability can come off the bench and drive an eighty mile an hour fastball down the third baseline. (Some people without disabilities may also have some trouble.) I’m just wondering how it feels to live your life with people on your team, in your classroom, your community, seeing you first and foremost as an object of pity.

Or people in your church.

The Gospel reading this morning is (another) story about Jesus helping a person with a disability. This time, in Luke, it’s a woman whose body doesn’t stand up straight. It’s pretty common in church to hear about Jesus fixing people whose eyes don’t work, whose legs don’t work, etc. He heals the people. Restores them. Makes them whole. Sometimes I imagine seven-eighths of a pie moping around on two legs, until Jesus comes up and miraculously pops in the missing slice.

I am no one to be criticizing Jesus. Or the Gospel or the church and its traditions which I’ve been trying to follow faithfully for almost forty years. But just from where I sit in the pew, four rows back, I see at least two people with disabilities. How does it feel to sit there hearing someone with a disability be the sad person in the story? Over and over. The one who needs fixing. The one Jesus singles out, so obviously needing help.

Moments before this story was read aloud to the congregation, I’d slipped out of the service to check on my four year old, out in the playground with the rest of the Sunday school kids. I’d peeked out the window and spied her swinging from the rings, kicking out her legs to make herself swing farther. Just like I’d taught her. I was a proud mama.

But slipping back into the service, listening to the reading, it occurs to me that in the Gospel my daughter has not mastered the rings. She’s not swinging. She’s not strong. She’s not even happy. In the Gospel, because she has a disability, my four year old and her penchant for Darth Vader and Carla Bruni, are transformed. In the Gospel, my daughter is an outcast. She can no longer swim three quarters of the width of the pool. She can no longer ride her trike down the sidewalk. She has forgotten the one-half she knows of the Lord’s Prayer. I don’t want to go to church and have the Bible tell me to pity her. But it does seem, that just as in the writing workshop, the people with disabilities are some of the Bible’s saddest characters.

The workshop leader is fat. I didn’t want to say that before. But I do have to wonder if she has ever sat in the movie theatre, getting swept away by a great story, when halfway through the show the stereotypical fat character comes out, loud and jolly, or loud and bawdy, the very limited range in the movies for characters who are obese. I wonder if she has ever seen a character like that and felt a little pit in her stomach. I wonder if she stopped laughing, while everyone around her continued. I wonder if she heard the audience laughing freely and wished she could be part of that freeness that everyone else felt.

I wonder if I was there too. And if I sat in the row behind her. Laughing.

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