-for Mrs. Brightman
Every Sunday morning and Tuesday afternoon, Hebrew school at Congregation Shearith Israel began with the same declaration, “Pasmanick, pick up those feet!” Mrs. Brightman, my Hebrew school principal, bellowed it like clockwork once I was out of the car and on the sidewalk.
She was referred to as Mean Old Mrs. Brightman, although I couldn’t tell you who called her that to her face or otherwise, nor could I tell you who devised that colorful moniker for her. The only person I ever heard refer to Mrs. Brightman as Mean Old Mrs. Brightman was Mrs. Brightman herself. Mean? No. Old? No. Bootcamp Brightman? You bet she was as she gave me my marching orders, and march I did through those doors and down the hall to be enlightened about the other part of me that wasn’t my otherness: my Jewishness.
“Keep picking up those feet, Pasmanick!” she hollered as I hoofed it down the hall on my hot pink-then-blue Canadian forearm lofstrand crutches to the same room I had made my way to every year since I had started Hebrew school in kindergarten. It was on the first floor, so while everyone else changed rooms year after year, I stayed put.
“I am! I am!” I said, assuring the eyes in the front of her head (or back) that I was following orders, while my eyes were fixed to the floor like they always were, constantly scanning for surprises that could throw me off balance. Having cerebral palsy—a congenital neuromuscular defect—meant balance wasn’t something upon which I could rely. My only source of surety was my unsteadiness, and although I understood the irony of this observation, I couldn’t reconcile it with my everyday life. So, even though I carried that understanding with me every day, everywhere I went, I took no solace in it. It mocked me shamelessly, ceaselessly, just like the movements of my body.
Suddenly, I slid to the right without warning, narrowly missing the opportunity to crash into the door of the girl’s bathroom. I grabbed the door handle and pulled on it for leverage, hoping no one was exiting at the same time. Disoriented, I hoisted myself up straight again, surprised I hadn’t fallen after all.
I glanced surreptitiously behind me to see if anyone, especially Mrs. Brightman, had witnessed my near miss. The hall was empty, and like so many times before, I let out a sigh of relief and with it, my chagrin. I was accustomed to performing reconnaissance as damage control for my inevitable blunders, which included me doing a quick sweep around me for anything that could have been the cause of my spontaneous Electric Slide in the middle of Hebrew school. There were no traces of gum or gum wrappers anywhere. There was nothing anywhere, just me and my crutches splayed around me haphazardly. Just like I had done, their cuffs, too, had slid uncomfortably all the way down my arms while I had silently pleaded with gravity to do its job.
I righted my crutches, and stood again, erect, but somehow, my movements were still restricted. I looked down at my feet. Aha! They were the culprits. Caught red-handed, the right foot, sorry-looking as usual, cowered under the left, which also, as usual, was out in full view, having done all of the work. I should have expected this. I lurched with disgust, quickly untangling my feet from one another.
Out of nowhere, a hand was on my shoulder. I jerked under it and turned around to face the owner of the hand: Mrs. Brightman. “Pasmanick,” she said, softly, beaming at me, the look on my face undoubtedly giving me away, “you must pick up those feet.” I peered into her face and then looked down at my feet, determined to regain control of them. Looking up at her again, I answered her with a resolute “I will,” and turned back around toward the classroom. Up and out, I thought, one step in front of the other. I made sure my footwork mimicked the language in my head. In front of, not on top of, I warned them, knowing that either of them could go rogue at any time.
Both feet were doing as my body instructed when I caught a glimpse of my profile in the full-length mirror at the bottom of the stairs that lead to the second floor of the building, where I never went. I watched myself walk, executing each step meticulously, knowing that meticulousness was only achieved through concentration, when I decided to take a few steps backwards to stand directly in front of the mirror. I realized the effects of my concentration were twofold. I was walking tall and giving myself a once over in the mirror, which I never did voluntarily, since I perceived the mirror to be the instrument by which my otherness was revealed. The mirror revealed something else to me then: that I stood even taller. Mrs. Brightman’s, “Pasmanick, pick up those feet!” reverberated in my head, and for the first time, I finally understood why she had chosen those words for me.
Kelley A Pasmanick is a thirty-year-old Jewish woman with cerebral palsy from Atlanta, Georgia. She lives and works in Napa Valley, California as an advocate for individuals with disabilities. Pasmanick’s work has appeared in Wordgathering, Squawk Back, Praxis Magazine, The Mighty, and Bedlam Publishing’s Loud Zoo.