Dear Friend

It’s so lovely to hear from you. I’ve been watching you for a while, and I must say, I’m very proud of the person you are becoming. I hear you’ve been having some trouble at school, and want my advice on what to do. Well, I’m glad you came to me. I’ll do my best to tell you what I needed to hear when I was in your same position, without sugar coating my advice, since I’m sure you can get the rainbow version from others in your life, but sometimes you need to hear the real version, which I think I’m uniquely equipped to give you, since we share the identity of being disabled and some, though not all of the same experiences.

So, you’re struggling with having to return to school, whether it’s from a Zoom environment back to in-person school, or returning after a stress free summer break. I first want to tell you that you aren’t alone, I’ve been through the same things you are experiencing, and am familiar with the feelings of mourning and despair at the eventual return to the places you detest. 

Next, I want to tell you to feel what you need to regarding events that are out of your control. Far too often as disabled people, we are told to bottle up our emotions, particularly the negative ones, because well meaning people in our lives don’t want us to be seen as the “angry” disabled people, or worse, the “sad” disabled person. By trying to numb your feelings, in an attempt to protect yourselves from people who may use them against you, the only thing the numbing will accomplish is making those feelings intensify, to a space where you can’t control them anymore. Yes, it’s horrible that most schools won’t be allowing remote learning to continue into the next academic year, even though I and maybe even you, laud the benefits it allowed for our education as disabled students. Feel that anger, feel that pain for as long as you need to, until the pain doesn’t go away, but simmers to a low roaring fire inside your chest and drives you to advocate for what you need- if that’s what you decide, because remember, it’s also OK to just be a kid once and a while too. You are a person, first and foremost, and every person has feelings. You don’t exist to defy or break the negative stereotypes that are put on you, you exist to be yourself and find yourself in an environment that you can live in, that pushes you to grow, but not to snap.

While for many non-disabled people, school is the place where they can learn, feel and grow, for disabled people like me (and you, friend whom I’m writing to) school doesn’t afford for any of those benefits, because the ostracization and exclusion that stems from hatred of our disabled existences make school a place we want to escape from, rather than thrive in.

Growing up, I kept a running calendar in my head, and each day I left the school doors, I rejoiced as I crossed off one day I soldiered through, one day that I was closer to summer break. Summer was my time to grow and discover myself, without the insults and pain of being in a space where I wasn’t welcome. 

“OK, Anja, I like that you are sharing your experiences here, it makes me feel less alone, but didn’t you say you were going to give me some advice on how to actually, y’know, deal with being picked on?” 

Before I tell you my advice, I’d like to drop one more dose of reality upon you, because at least for me, it’s easier to get caught up in the fantasy of what could be, rather than what will be. You will have to go back to school after summer ends. Honestly, there’s no way to get around that, and trust me, I’ve tried pretty much anything; from faking sick to begging to be homeschooled. Don’t despair though, I’ve picked up some pretty great tricks to make the summer blues not have as big of an impact on me, and I’m going to share them with you.

When the end of summer rolls around, it’s easy to start getting upset prematurely, because your mind and body knows what may be in store for you, and it wants to warn you from that pain, sometimes even by inflicting the pain on you itself. So, think about one thing that you are looking forward to when school starts, whether that’s using a new planner (I love office supplies, I’m such a nerd) or meeting a lot of new people. In this small way, you are taking the power back from the people who tried to make you hate this time of year, and that’s something any bully will be afraid of, since they want to continue to hold the power over you.

To that end, if in a new school year, the bullying continues, you just have to remember that you have one weapon that they don’t- you have the ability to claim the insults they hurl at you. For example, if a bully excludes you from a game on the grounds of your disability being freaky, try to tell all the other kids playing the game that your disability is a part of you, and you can still play games with all of them while accommodating your disability. 

In my experience, the bullies won’t always listen (in fact they very rarely do, that’s what makes them so frustrating!) but one of the kids may understand you and want to include you- maybe you’ll even make a friend, and don’t friends always make the essence of summer fun stretch through the dreary school year?

All my best,

Anja 

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