Some, by Marilyn J. Rowland
“Mistakes are the portals of discovery.”
James Joyce (1882-1941)
When I was 14, I was diagnosed with scoliosis (curvature of the spine), and told that I would need surgery, following by six months immobilized in bed in a full plaster body cast (chin to right knee), followed by another six months in a “walking cast,” a hinged and removable (for showers) plaster body cast that covered only my torso.
Excruciatingly shy, I looked at the ordeal as an opportunity to avoid going to school for a year. I loved school work; I just hated “participating in class discussion.” I remember sitting in class keeping track of who else had contributed and how many minute remained before the class bell would ring. It is not that I didn’t have anything to say. I always did my homework and knew the right answers. I just didn’t want to talk. Maybe I didn’t think that what I had to say was strikingly original enough. I didn’t want to just state the obvious. And I was far too nervous to raise my hand, let alone open my mouth.
My mother said she was paralyzed by shyness until she was 27. It probably took me that long to overcome my fear of speaking in class. By then, I was in graduate school, classes were smaller, and there was simply no way of avoiding class discussion. I mentioned the 27 thing to my mother, but she said she didn’t remember telling me that. She probably made it up to give me some hope. I wish she had said 15.
So, when I was 14, I took most of a year off from school. My father transformed his downstairs office into a bedroom for me. My mother brought me the bedpan, washed my body and hair, took care of my every need. I was able to lie on my stomach or side, but was unable to sit or stand.
I developed a strong interest in crossword puzzle books, and was soon doing the diagramless puzzles, only mentally filling in the black spaces. This was long before the era of electronic games and movies on demand, so crossword puzzles were pretty much it for solitary amusement. I still like crossword puzzles, though I am not as good at them as I used to be. I bought a book of puzzles (Dell Variety) the other day, out of nostalgia, but haven’t had time for much yet.
I didn’t have very many friends, but a couple of them visited a couple of times. One, a girl named Karen, came even though we did not actually know each other. We were in the same home room, and apparently the teacher had told the class my sad story. She had been out of school for a time due to a knee injury, so she understood my plight and came to visit. It was the beginning of a great friendship which lasted well into adulthood.
And I met a friend named Laura at the Hospital for Special Surgery in New York, where we both spent Christmas 1961/New Year’s 1962. We had some interesting conversations, one of which was whether a black man or a woman would become president first. This was over 50 years ago. We never thought it would take this long for one or the other to gain that top post. The 2008 Democratic primaries were so interesting to me because it recalled this conversation. I felt a black man had a better chance because, I felt, there was more prejudice against women than against black men in terms of wages, job opportunities, etc. Not in any way to diminish racial prejudice, but gender biases remain strong today and still considered by some to be defensible.
My cousin Ronnie and his wife Beverly lived in New York City and came to visit on occasion. An artist, Beverly brought me a set of watercolors in tubes one time. I had no idea what to do with watercolors. I used them like poster paints. Years later, I learned how to use watercolors, and I still have some of those original tubes. Three of Beverly’s paintings (and one of mine) hang in my living room.
So, back when I was 14 . . . . Teachers came to my house once a week to tutor me privately. It must ha ve been only about an hour a week per teacher, but it was enough, and I probably got straight A’s. My English teacher, Miss Costantino, used to chat with my mother and me before and after our session. She was proud of her youthful appearance. One day she asked us how old we thought she was. I thought “40,” but said nothing. My mother must have said something like 22. Miss Costantino gushed and told us she was 24, as if that were some ancient age. (My daughter will be 24 next month, and I can’t imagine her worrying about her looks quite yet.)
I don’t remember my social studies teacher’s name, but I do remember that she insisted we study Pennsylvania history the whole year because that was what the Pennsylvania curriculum called for. Over at the high school, my classmates spent the first 2 weeks of the semester on Pennsylvania history and then moved on to study Latin America and the emerging countries of Africa for the rest of the year.
I was stuck with William Penn and the Walking Purchase of 1737 for weeks on end. I don’t remember ever moving out of the colonial period.
A couple of years later, the school offered a scholarship competition test on Pennsylvania history. Yes, I won the scholarship. Together with a scholarship offered by my college, it paid for my college education. I majored in international relations and got caught up on Latin America and Africa.
Scoliosis is treated differently these days. I don’t think anyone winds up immobilized in a body cast for six months anymore, but I have no regrets about how I spent that year.