No, I’m Not Your Mascot
Walking is a vital part of my life. It’s a source of exercise, hope, mental rejuvenation, and the act itself is inextricably entwined with my identity as a person and a writer. I was born with mild Cerebral Palsy and my parents were told by doctors that I would never walk. They were wrong, but I didn’t begin to walk until I was four years old. I was eventually sponsored by a Shriner, and received free operations and treatment at Shriner’s Hospital for Children until I was 21.
The subject of walking appeared in the first piece of writing for which I was paid at age 11. It was for a contest held by the local newspaper on Mother’s Day, titled I Love My Mom Because. I won first place and my letter was a giant print centered among the other entries. I don’t think I won necessarily because of my skill in writing, rather, like a savvy little skid mark, I exploited my problems with CP in the letter, and how my Mother persisted in finding me help until I could walk.
However, I wasn’t being manipulative, but honest. And it was an early lesson on the power of honesty in writing. Still, I think I had an edge that the other children did not, and to the editors who magnified my letter on that full page, I was probably an INSPIRATION. And this type of response to my presence, especially while walking, has occurred in my childhood and adult life often and often (not countless, I’m not a vampire). In the case of the contest, I’m glad I won, and I think it was fair because the letter to my Mother was unusual.
But comments from strangers that sound like Hallmark memes copied so many times the letters are wasting away like frogs in the Sahara have become an annoyance that stirs in me some quiet anger. I understand that most people are just being nice, but it gets old being a repository for banal observations which seem new and fresh within their incandescent bubble. Many people do not have sluice gates between their questionable brains and the yawning expanse of their mouths.
For instance: a few years ago I joined the Cooper River Bridge Run/Walk where I live in Charleston, SC. As I crested the slope of the bridge, a man in his sixties broke away from his wife and walked beside me for a few moments. He said, “You know, you’re an inspiration to all of us.” I think I grunted. I wanted to sound like the lower-level troll he imagined was straining against nature to join the normals in their normal pursuits. He smiled and went back to his wife; they both walked faster than I. Maybe I have a bad attitude, but I don’t want to be his inspiration. If he wants to fly higher than an eagle, then get on an airplane, or ask Bette Midler to switch places.
For instance: one day I was walking along the side road that leads to my apartment. A man in a truck called out to me as he was leaving the driveway of an office building. I went over and spoke with him for a few minutes. It was an odd exchange; I felt like I was being interviewed by a nervous fan. What’s your name? What do you do? Do you walk every day? He told me that everyone in his office sees me walking each day. He said that his eyes were bad and at night when he was leaving work, his colleagues told him, “Watch out and don’t hit the dude with the bad leg.” He said that everyone who worked at his software company thought of me as their mascot.
This guy was friendly and sincere, and I didn’t grunt. He drove away and I continued walking, musing on the encounter. In middle school, since I had always been a hopeless athlete where every sports-related instance of my life was another strata in the compounded mountain of humiliation, I tried to belong by becoming a manager for the football team and later the basketball team. Part of it was pressure from my parents to join a school-related activity. Everyone was nice to me, but I quickly felt a tool. I didn’t do anything, really, but hand out water and watch from the sidelines two sports that cultivated no interest or passion within me. When I “managed” the football team, at home games the announcer would blare my name and position with extra gusto, and I recall feeling embarrassed by this, knowing that it was really just empty horseshit. Perhaps well-meaning to boost my esteem, but I wasn’t a dumbass. I knew I was on the sidelines; I knew that, in that position, I was a marginal who didn’t care about the game and didn’t matter to the process other than to be there to make most everyone feel comfortable that I was not left out. I was a mascot. But I didn’t stay a manager long.
Because despite how my persistent walking within this body that lopes in a limp to the left fills you with an inspiration to do your best and rise and shine with King Kong thumps to the chest and a Willy Wonka twinkle in your eye . . .
I’m not your fucking mascot.