Thursday, August 8, 2013

An apple a day...

I was in the sixth grade when I first realized that my ears weren't identical.  

When I think back to the physical attribute that has defined my outlook on life I remember becoming acutely aware of it's presence while lining up to leave the cafeteria with my sixth grade class.  I had my lunchbox in hand and was lined up by the exit when HE turned around and noticed me.  I had a huge crush on him at the time and didn't think he knew I was alive, but he turned, looked at me, opened his mouth to speak...

...and instead of declaring his eternal devotion (or even a mild attraction) to me, as I'd hoped for, he blurted out, "YOU'VE GOT AN APPLE EAR!"

I was mortified!  How had I failed to notice this major (in my mind's eye) birth defect, an upward peak in the middle of my right earlobe?  Upon close inspection in the bathroom mirror I clearly saw that, yes, in fact, my right earlobe did look like the base of an apple.  Why had no one pointed this out to me before?  Why hadn't my parents insisted that a plastic surgeon repair it?  And why, oh why, did everyone insist on referring to me as "Apple Ear" for the rest of the year?

You'd think I'd adjust, but no, I spent the rest of my adolescence fretting over my Apple Ear.   I tried to wear my long hair down at all times, but this was nearly impossible as I spent my afternoons taking classes at the local dance studio and a ponytail or bun was required.  I did pageants, so of course my mom insisted that I looked best with an up-do ("but MO-OM, what about my APPLE EAR?").  I even remember a college boyfriend nibbling and pecking, as boyfriends often do, only to pause and whisper, "Why is your earlobe shaped like that?"  Needless to say, we broke up shortly thereafter.  I mean, how dare he point out my Apple Ear?

And then I graduated from college and started teaching.  

I loved teaching, but I especially loved that I was the dance specialist at a year-round elementary school.  I had the privilege of teaching creative dance to approximately 1,000 students in kindergarten through fifth grade.  I got to watch them grow over the six years that I had them and cried like a baby when my first group of kindergarteners graduated from fifth grade.  I felt like my students were my personal children, like their families were my family, and I wanted them to feel safe, valued and respected in my classroom.

But there was one sticking point at the beginning of my career.  It's common practice for public school dance teachers to require their students to remove their shoes and socks at the beginning of class and dance barefoot throughout the period.  The helps with technique, it helps the dancer feel connected to the floor and grounded when necessary, and keeps little ones from squished the fingers of their classmates by stepping on them with shoes.  But I had an interesting phenomenon occur during my first two years of teaching - I had four students who each had six toes on one of their feet.

I didn't notice until I realized that they fought me on the shoe policy each time they came to my class.  Finally one of them, a fourth grader, explained it to me - she was terrified that once she took off her shoes everyone would notice and tease her.  And at that moment I showed her my Apple Ear.  I told her the story of my sixth grade year.  And I promised her that if she was willing to risk taking off her shoes, I'd help her deal with anyone who dared to mention her sixth toe.

The funny thing is that no one noticed her toe for three weeks!  It was in that fourth week that one of the boys who was working in her choreography group looked down and whispered, "you've got six toes," as if she didn't already know.  She blushed, and I interjected, "Isn't that cool?  I wonder if she's a better dancer because she has an extra toe?"  The boy nodded and replied with, "Oh yeah, she's a great dancer, that's why I'm glad she's in my group!"  And that was it.  No one ever made a big deal over her six toes while they were in our classroom.

At the end of the following year my brave six-toed dancer pulled me aside after her graduation ceremony.  She shared that spending the past two years barefoot in my classroom had helped her to realize that there was nothing wrong with her extra toe.  In fact, it was one of the things that made her special.  And I stopped to think - I'd spent most of my life being mortified by my Apple Ear, but it was one of the things that made ME special.  No one else has an ear like mine.  And now no one teases me about it, either, because I'm not longer insecure or embarrassed about it.  Clearly I'd needed to come to terms with being different.

I now love my Apple Ear, as does my husband.  I know that it makes me unique and I now value the things that make me different from others.  How boring would the world be if we were all the same?  And my Apple Ear gives me a doorway through which to openly talk with my students about the things that make them unique, too.  Over the past 14 years I've taught students with extra toes, missing toes, missing arms, hearing impairments, visual impairments, sensory issues, wheel chairs, down syndrome, autism, lisps, selective mutism, cerebral palsy, cystic fibrosis, brain tumors and even one born without half of her brain.  And in each one I see a child with an Apple Ear.  We dance together, I help them build relationships with their classmates and become comfortable in their own skin, and then they move on to middle school.  If I'm lucky I run into them once they've grown up (it seems that currently all of the local grocery clerks are former students of my mine).  Sometimes they recognize me.  Sometimes they don't.  And sometimes they let me know that I made a difference.  One stopped me in a department store the other day because "I just wanted you to know that your class was my favorite."

That's the best gift of all.

So in a time when teachers are devalued and demoralized, I figure I have two options.  I can worry about it all - the lack of any kind of a raise or cost of living increase in the past six years, the increased pressure to get students to perform on standardized tests, my fears that we'll see public school arts (and in particular dance) programs brought to an end now that my state's government has voted to end teacher tenure -

OR I can choose to live an Apple Ear life.  I've made my choice, and I'll be blogging about my journey here.  Care to join me?


  1. Rachel,
    I am in awe of you and your blog post....what an inspirational woman you are. There are so many gems in your post that I will return here often to re-read your words over and over. I am so very proud of you! I love you, Aunt Ann

  2. I love this post! What a treasure you are to our students. Thanks for sharing!