I was ten years old with my reddish-blond hair tied neatly in pigtails with matching bows. Straight bangs were cut evenly across my forehead, and a freckled-face grin that could make even the grumpiest grouch smile. I looked like any other ten-year-old, except that peeking out from under my skirt were two long-leg metal braces. They were unattractively covered with brown leather straps, and attached to orthopedic shoes that would never be in style.
While my friends skipped along the sidewalks holding their jump ropes, I faithfully clutched my forearm crutches for support and mobility. These also allowed me to keep up with other kids in most situations. It was just a matter of working out the details. For example, in playing tag, I couldn't run as fast as they could, so I was allowed to use my crutch as an extension of my arm, and tag others with it. Believe me, it was very handy!
When it came to playing Giant Steps, I could swing through on those crutches and take steps as big as most giants could. Stoop ball? Well, the gang stood standing up to throw the ball against the steps, while I sat on the sidewalk to do it. To this day, I can still say I was one of the best players because I could catch so well. Yes, it was very important for me to be like everyone else. Polio makes you different. And at age ten, being different is not the "in" thing to be.
Though I was bussed to a "special" school for handicapped children, ironically there I was really quite "normal," for everyone else brought their "specialness" with them. Amid the wheelchairs, hearing aids, artificial limbs, canes, crutches, braces, and walkers, I was in no way different. We played and learned the same things most children did in school, with the appropriate adaptations. In baseball, children in wheelchairs rode from base to base wheeling themselves or moving with "pushers." Those with crutches had "built-in" bats. Everyone participated in all activities in some capacity.
I was different, but the difference didn't alienate me from my friends -- until that fateful summer.
However, the normalcy of attending a special school ended when I returned home to my friends in the neighborhood, where I then became "special." My able-bodied friends were more significant to me, because even in the mind of a ten-year-old this neighborhood was a microcosm of the real world. Here, one had to face the challenges and unexpected events of life, without the protection of unconditional acceptance. For the most part, I met the challenge head-on. I was an integral part of "the gang," socially well-adjusted and a loyal friend. Yes, I was different, but the difference didn't alienate me from my friends -- until that fateful summer.
School was over and the long-awaited three-month vacation had begun. Daylight saving time allowed for plenty of time to do more of everything, and ten-year-olds are very busy people! No more indoor activities designed for rain days, or endless hours of Monopoly, Scrabble, or Go Fish. Summer was the time when every kid on the block got new sneakers for running, jumping, climbing, or swinging. Except for the new sneakers, I was no different. I loved being outdoors.
Kids often go through periods of doing a favorite activity on a regular basis. Whether it be hopscotch, bike riding, or jumping rope, they do it like clockwork, every day. This can go on for days, even weeks. That summer it happened to the gang, too.
I had just finished lunch and scrambled down the stairs of the back porch, slamming the screen door behind me as usual. Upon reaching the front yard I saw them. They were all there, Barbara, Arlene, Nancy, Helen, and Janie, and they were all roller skating! They each had a pair-- you know the kind -- the silver metal ones that attached to your shoes and could be adjusted and tightened with a turn of the special "skate key." That key was proudly worn around one's neck hanging from a handmade braid of colored lanyard. The only thing I wanted to do more than run barefoot through the grass, ice skate, ride a two-wheeler, and canter on a horse, was to roller-skate!
I watched the gang with mixed emotions: vicarious joy -- they were having so much fun -- and stabbing pangs of envy: if only I could roller-skate too. It looked so easy: right, left, together, slide. I hardly noticed the crashing noise of five pairs of metal skates clanging on the pavement; it was all rhythm to me. Right, left, together, slide, one, two, three, hold.... I watched them every day after lunch. Every day after lunch you could tell that the gang was outside: that familiar rhythm of the clanging skates was audible to all. I watched them for a week, two, maybe more. Of course we did other things together, but they were "into" roller-skating, at least once a day. Right foot slide, left foot up. Now switch ... left, right, together, slide. Right, left, together slide. Faster, faster together, slide.
That freedom of movement and speed was all that I wanted.
That freedom of movement and speed was all that I wanted. I never told them how left out I felt. After all, I was always there with them, watching, cheering, and applauding their tricks and antics. They never noticed my pain at being different. I wouldn't let them. But the hurt never went away.
When I told my mother I wanted to roller-skate, she understood. I mean, who wouldn't? But what could she do? I was different. When I asked her buy me a pair of roller-skates, she got concerned; this was getting a bit out of hand. You have to know my mother. She was always the first one to encourage me in whatever I wanted to do. Independence was the goal. When it came to doing those awful exercises that I hated, she persevered with me. There was no such word as "can't" in our house. It was always, "It's hard, but keep trying." So why wouldn't she buy me a pair of roller-skates? Was she afraid I'd fall and really hurt myself? Was she afraid I'd fail and become depressed? Was she reluctant to spend money for something that would never get used? I couldn't figure it out. I kept nagging her; it just wasn't fair. I held back the tears of anger, I was more determined than ever to try to skate like everyone else. I mean, it was bad enough that I was already ten years old. Those kids had all been skating since age five or six. Why couldn't Mom understand I just had to do this?
She never said "no" outright -- it must have been too hard for her to give a definite refusal; after all, independence fostered self-esteem. Still, it was a conflict; she'd just give me this look, appear to be thinking about it, and then do her best to avoid the issue. I know she told Dad about it. The roller-skates had become the major topic in our home. I really don't know how it happened, but one day, she finally agreed. I had pushed through her resistance. I was ecstatic.
We walked into Jack's Hardware Store together, and Mom told Jack we wanted to buy me a pair of ball-bearing roller-skates. You should have seen the look on Jack's face! He had been a family friend for years, so I guess nothing surprised him too much. But this time he looked at me with raised eyebrows, and then gave my mother one of those looks that said, "Okay, Mrs. Willner, if that's what you want. Where there's a Will-ner there's a way!" He pulled out a red, white, and blue box of "Speed-King" skates, hoisted me onto the counter, and put on my braced feet the shiniest silver metal ball-bearing skates I'd ever seen. As Jack took out the key to adjust them, I already envisioned the pink and white lanyard braid chain I would make to carry the prestigious key.
The skates were tightened to a perfect fit. "Okay, Jack, we'll take them." I could hardly wait to get home. I had the plan all figured out. Down to the cellar I went -- to practice! Now, our cellar was not a renovated basement playroom like most people had, with wood paneling and linoleum floors. Ours was a real cellar with a rough cement floor, cracks, and natural inclines. It was the closest thing to an outdoor sidewalk that you could imagine. I decided this was the perfect place to learn to roller-skate. I wouldn't dare go outside and be seen by others until I was able to skate like everyone else. It would be too embarrassing -- a ten-year-old who couldn't skate. Besides, if I really couldn't learn (and I had to admit there was a slight chance I wouldn't succeed, God forbid!) then no one would ever know I failed. They would just think I couldn't skate; after all, I was different.
I started to practice with one skate, just to get the feel of it. Boy, was it slippery! Ball bearings really do make you go fast. Right foot forward, crutches together, push, slide. Not bad, I could sense the rhythm. After a few laps around the cellar with one skate, it was time to try two. Every once in a while, Mom would call downstairs and ask how it was going. She knew not to come down until I was ready.
Two skates, now this was tricky. Slowly ... slowly, right foot forward, crutches together, push, slide. Left food forward, crash! Not so simple! Many crashes later I began to worry, and the pain from my scraped elbows kept reminding me I was different. Getting up from a fall with my stiff leg braces attached to rolling wheels was an amazing feat in itself, not to mention exhausting. I couldn't maintain my balance on either leg alone, even with the crutch support. Sliding on two legs together was better, but still something was wrong. Even my back was tired and my arms were getting sore. And then it hit me. When you wear skates, you're at least four inches taller. My crutches were too short!
In a minute I had both crutches adjusted to the new height. Wow! What a difference! Not having to bend over, my back was now straight and not strained. The longer crutch leg gave me better leverage for balance and push-off. Right foot forward, crutches together, push, slide. Left foot forward, crutches together, push, slide. Both feet together, crutches, push slide. Crutches, push, slide.
"I've got it!"
It was a week later. The crashes decreased, and I called Mom down for a sneak preview. She agreed, smiling with tears in her eyes, that I was ready for my outdoor debut.
I knew the gang would be surprised and delighted -- and they were! I'll never forget that summer: the kid on crutches was roller-skating. Boy, was I different!
This article appeared in the book More of Our Lives, edited by Sarah Shapiro, Targum Press Publishers.