Note from Jen Pastiloff, founder of The Manifest-Station. This is part of our Young Voices Series for Girl Power: You Are Enough. We are always looking for more writing from YOU! Make sure you follow us on instagram at @GirlPowerYouAreEnough and on Facebook here.
By Julia Betancourt
I wasn’t going to talk about my residual limb when I visited my kindergarten teacher in her classroom. At least, not until a small blonde girl came and tugged on my skirt while I was greeting my former teacher, Ms. Restrepo.
“What happened to your hand?” she asked.
“Oh,” I replied. I stared at my left arm, which extended to just below the elbow—the “hand” she was referring to, nicknamed “Army,” meaning little arm. “I was born like this,” I said, lying to her because I didn’t want to go into the extraneous story about the accident. I turned to face a boy and his three friends.
“Does it hurt?” he wondered. I shook my head.
“How can you write?” another child yelled.
By this point in time, I noticed that most of the class had gathered, and they were all asking me questions I didn’t want to answer. However, I couldn’t just tell the children to leave me alone, because they were six. Furthermore, if I told them to leave me alone, they might be afraid of other people with amputations. Based on their curiosity, most of them probably hadn’t even seen anyone with a limb difference. Whatever I did now could potentially affect the way they thought about amputees for the rest of their lives.
I didn’t want to talk about the amputation, not without having prepared my thoughts ahead of time, because it was both the most normal and the most abnormal thing in my life. I was amputated due to a medical accident that occurred when I was nine days old, so I only know what life is like with one hand. Yet the bullying I received—over being “disabled” even though I can do anything everyone else can, such as getting dressed, pouring a gallon of milk, and tying a bow—was the hardest thing for me to grow up with. I was told I was different, inferior even. I was called “Stumpy” by children who didn’t know anything about my Army. I wasn’t thrilled about having to talk about my amputation, but maybe, if these students learned about limb differences now, they wouldn’t call somebody else “Stumpy.”
“You know what?” I said, wading through the sea of students to get to the chair that Ms. Restrepo used for circle time, “Let me tell you a story.”
“Yay!” a child shouted. The students all ran to the blue rug and sat down and smiled, many with their eyes trying to meet mine.
“Well,” I began, “I only have one hand. But it doesn’t make me any different than any of you. I can still do everything, like tying bows and driving, I just do it a little differently. If you have any questions, I’ll be happy to answer them.”
“How do you drive?” a boy in the back asked.
“I can just hold my hand on the wheel, for the most part,” I answered.
“Does it hurt?” another child asked.
“Sometimes,” I replied, the first time I’ve ever honestly answered the question. “There’s this thing called phantom pain, where it feels like the hand is still there. It doesn’t happen much, but it’s really uncomfortable.” They asked me questions not just about Army, but about my personal life, about my school and tests and family, until I admitted that I only recently learned to tie a bow.
“Really?” Ms. Restrepo asked.
“Yeah,” I said, turning to face her, “Don’t you remember how I always wore Velcro in your class so I didn’t have to tie laces?”
“No,” she responded, “I just remember that you were a good student who did almost everything on her own. And you tie the bows with one hand?”
She continued, “I’d like to see.”
“I can show you now,” I offered. “I just need a shoelace.”
At that moment, seven different shoes were shoved in my face. Some of them still had feet inside. I laughed, and took the closest one. I held it between my thighs and showed them how I twisted the laces, gave them bunny ears, then tied a knot to hold the bunny ears together. The kids clapped.
Ms. Restrepo called the kids back for class. While they got ready, I let a few kids touch Army. Later that day, Ms. Restrepo said that she was glad I spoke to them about Army, because it was such a “teachable moment.” She invited me to do it again with future classes. I agreed. But as excited I was to tell more students that it was normal to have a physical difference, I wasn’t prepared for what happened two weeks later, when I attended a school concert and ran into one of her girls. She was glad that I came and saw her, and asked me about the final exams I had mentioned I would be taking. She didn’t see me as “Stumpy.” She didn’t even look at my arm.
Julia Betancourt is a high school senior who has been interested in the written word from an early age. Her short play “The Thief on the 11 Bus” and monologues “He Could…” and “Picture It” have appeared onstage at the Franciscan Community Center. Several more scenes are scheduled to appear this November. Her essays “Checkmate Mate” and “American Dream” have been published in Conversatio, the Notre Dame School Literary Magazine. Her piece in the 2012 Barnes and Noble Favorite Teacher Essay Contest came in first place regionally. She hopes to major in creative writing in college.
Thank you, Julia, for this beautiful piece of writing. And thank you for the work you’re doing in the world as evidenced in the story. I’m so grateful.