Robbing Banks

By Mark E. Smith

In the San Francisco Bay Area during the mid-1980s, it wasn’t hard to get harassed by the cops if you were a punk teen. Smoking in public, hanging out in front of a convenience store, being on the streets too late, having a house party, and so on would all but guarantee the appearance of cops. I witnessed many such scenes. Among my peers, there was teenage social credibility to it all. If you wanted to be the cool 11th-grader on Monday morning in homeroom, a run in with the cops on the previous Saturday night did the job.

For me, it was hard to be that cool kid Monday mornings. The cops simply didn’t hassle a kid using a wheelchair like me. I was once hanging out with a bunch of smoking, punk friends outside of an ice cream shop, and a cop threatened to haul everyone away, then turned to me and said, “Don’t worry, I don’t take people in wheelchairs to jail.”

I was instantly stung by his remarks. I wanted to be one of the guys, as teens do, but the cop clearly pointed out that I wasn’t, that I was different. In my mind, I was just as much a punk as my punk friends, right down to my black leather jacket. How dare the cop discount my punkness due to my disability. Worse yet, how dare he give me a pass in front of the punk peers I was part of – but suddenly differentiated from because of the cop’s attitude toward my disability.

My immediate emotions aside, I wondered if the cop spoke a universal truth, that people who use wheelchairs aren’t taken to jail? If it was a fact, should I skip college and take up robbing banks?

All of this – the cop’s condescending attitude and the potential of never going to jail – made me more mischievous than ever. One night, as my buddy and I prepared to cruise the avenue in his car, I got the brilliant idea to put a pillowcase over my head in the passenger seat and pretend like I was dead.

The avenue was heavily lit, so everyone saw in everyone’s car. When my buddy stopped at traffic lights, I relaxed my body, pillowcase over my head, and flopped against the dash like a dead body. It seemed like harmless fun and got lots of attention – until the cops pulled us over.

It turned out that I played such a convincing dead body with a pillowcase over my head that multiple people took our license plate number and description, and called the cops.

“What do you think you’re doing?” the cop asked, holding my passenger side door open, the scene illuminated by the cop car’s colored lights.

“Nothing,” I said, the pillowcase still on my head.

He yanked the pillowcase off of me, my grin appearing.

“This isn’t funny,” he said. “You’ve scared a lot of people.”

“It’s a joke,” I replied with no remorse.

He looked in the back seat and saw my manual wheelchair, then looked back at me.

“Let’s get your wheelchair out and get you to Juvenile Hall,” he said. “I bet your parents won’t find that funny.”

Obviously, not arresting people who used wheelchairs wasn’t a universal code among cops. I was in deep trouble, fast, and my disability wasn’t getting me out of it. So, I did what any punk teen would do: I apologized profusely and explained that I never intended to scare anyone, that it was a dumb prank gone wrong, that I’d never do it again.

Fortunately, the cop let me off of the hook – but kept my mom’s pillowcase.

At 16, I learned a lot that night. I learned that what I thought was funny scared a lot of people and that wasn’t right. I learned that there’s nothing cool about getting in trouble with the cops. And, I learned not to rob banks because they do put guys like me, who use wheelchairs, in jail.

It Gets Better

morgan
Morgan Duffy & Crew, Stanford Class of 2013

By Mark E. Smith

Author’s Note: There’s a disturbing undercurrent that, in this modern day, some teens with physical disabilities still feel isolated, depressed, even suicidal. So, let us talk about being a teen with a disability, and how life gets better….

As a teenager struggling with having a disability, you need to know only one truth: Life gets better – remarkably better.

I remember being a teenager with cerebral palsy and, like you, I remember struggling with it all – feeling different, but wanting to fit in; being treated different, but wanting to fit in, or, at times, feeling completely “normal,” but not being accepted as such. No, high school for me wasn’t all terrible – there were some good friends and good times, as I hope there are for you. We should all see good where there’s good. But, it wasn’t easy for me being different. But, it did get better. And, I know it may not be easy for you right now, but it will get better – remarkably better.

See, high school is tough for everyone, typically a confusing time, and everyone just wants to fit in. I have a 16-year-old daughter who “fits the mold,” and it’s even tough for her and her friends at times. Like you and my daughter and her friends, I just wanted to fit in, too – to have the right friends, have the right persona, and get invited to the right parties. And, for me, maybe like you, sometimes it worked, and sometimes it didn’t. Well, a lot of times it didn’t work. And, when it didn’t work – the occasional bully calling me “retard,” or not getting invited to different events and such – it really, really hurt. At points, I, too, just wanted to give up and die. And, before it gets better, sometimes it gets worse.

I remember at among the lowest points in my teen years, I had a girlfriend who I thought truly accepted me, but when it came time to dance at the prom, she wouldn’t dance with me because I used a wheelchair. I remember thinking that my disability was the blame, that if I wasn’t plagued by cerebral palsy, I’d have all of the friends, girlfriends, and coolness in the world. However, I would never be accepted or successful because of my disability.

But, I was wrong. High school and my peers had no impact on my ultimately living a happy, successful life. The day that I graduated, virtually everything got better for me. I went from bullies calling me “retard,” to being a writer, speaker, and academic. I was soon invited to real parties, with amazing people, even getting to meet the President of the United States. And, while no relationship is perfect, I had my ultimate dances with amazing women since – loving, accepting, sincere. It all got better – remarkably better.

My daughter and I were planting Marigolds this spring in a flower bed in front of our home. It was a 70-degree sunny day, where our English bulldog lay on the ultra-green grass. And, although my life, again, isn’t perfect, I was reminded of all I’ve been blessed with – my daughter, a career that helps others, a nice home, the respect of those in my community – and I thought back to my days in high school, wondering where those who treated me poorly are today? Oddly, when I was on Capitol Hill recently, none were there. I don’t see any of them in magazines that I write for, or any with Internet followings. And, I have to wonder with a smile, is their grass as green as mine?

The fact is, while those who hurt you today in school may seem so powerful, they’ll soon enough get lost in the world. But, you. You were born into the extraordinary, with capacities toward life success that they’ll likely never realize. Let’s wish them well, but they don’t have what you have – that is, potential waiting to explode. And, it will, where your life is going to get better – remarkably better. You’re a survivor and a thriver, and that which seems to work against you now, will work for you soon. You’ve been given the gifts of tenacity, perseverance, and empathy – traits that are rocket fuel for life, just waiting to ignite your life in the most rewarding of ways.

My young friend, Morgan Duffy, graduates from Stanford University in a few weeks at this writing. She’s a Dalai Lama Fellow; she’s done an internship on Capitol Hill; and, she’s studied abroad. And, get this, she’s accepted a job with Genentech – without even applying (the recruiters found her based on her accomplishments). But, I’ll let Morgan’s own words explain the rest of her story:

So I’d like to tell you that I am your average 21 year old, living life and learning through mistakes and experiences. Most of my experiences, however, are less than average. Three years ago, I packed up my life and moved from the small city of Scranton, PA to begin my college education at Stanford University. I am a Cross Cultural Health and Intervention major with interests in disability, health policy, social justice, women’s health and choice. Like most, my interests are based in experience. I am a woman with a physical disability, who navigates the world in a wheelchair. And I like to feel the world beneath me in that way, taking each bump and knock consistently and steadily. My mother is a nurse, and through my years listening to her complain of the inefficiencies and inequities of modern US health, I have been motivated to learn how to change this. Social justice was the foundation of my high school career at Scranton Prep, and I have vowed to never forget.

Morgan isn’t an exception, she’s the rule – just as you are. You, too, will leave your town and “feel the world beneath you,” as Morgan puts it, going on to successes that won’t just change you, but will change the world.

It may all seem tough today, but the strength to hold on was born into you – there’s a purpose for who we each are, and yours is extraordinary. Tough out the tough times, as it all gets better, remarkably better. And, yes, the grass will be greener on the other side. I’ll see you there.