On the first day of class each quarter, I have my students write an informal introductory letter. In it, they can tell me about their fears and hopes for the class, their kids, their pet pythons, or anything else they think they’d like to share. Some of the letters are stilted and dull (the ones who try to impress me the first day often bore me to tears), some over share, and some are just fun to read. But I can’t say I’ve ever before or since read a sentence like this one:
“I’m Franny, and I’m 27 inches tall…”
It’s not as though I hadn’t noticed this tiny woman in class, but when I was reading the letters the next afternoon, seeing the number was sort of jarring. “…in case you’re wondering,” she went on as if she were reading my mind. I would guess she’d been asked “exactly how tall are you?” by enough boors to just preemptively get it out there.
“I’m also 27 years old, an inch for each year. I live with my boyfriend. He is six feet tall. And yes, people stare.”
Once in a while, Franny would arrive at the classroom in an umbrella stroller pushed by a classmate. Sometimes she put her backpack in it and pushed it herself; her book bag was, after all, almost as big as she was.
“I can’t walk very far,” she told me once when I announced that we’d be meeting in the library (a pretty good hike across campus) next session. “…it’s my arthritis. But if I know ahead of time, I can get someone to help me.”
I was sort of awed by Franny’s frankness. She wasn’t the slightest bit shy about asking someone to give her a push to her next class or boost her up to her chair or get a book from a shelf. And why should she have been? Her stature was not an infirmity, it was a physical fact that she dealt with matter-of-factly.
Until the research project, that is.
For their term papers, I encourage students to research something that has some sort of personal relevance. If you have a kid with autism, learn more about it. If you lie awake at night worrying about global warming, read up on it. If you want to legalize marijuana, shut up already, I’ve heard it all. Franny, not surprisingly, decided to write about dwarfism. It was a little shocking to me that she had never done any research about it, but in retrospect, I suppose it makes sense. She did not think of her stature as a medical condition any more than I think of my eye color as being one.
About two weeks into the research project, she approached me after class.
“I’m not sure I can do this topic,” she said quietly.
“What do you mean, Franny? There has to be plenty of information out there. Maybe you’re not looking in the right places.”
“Oh, it’s not that. I’m finding plenty of articles. I’m just having a hard time reading them.”
“Oh, right. Those scholarly journal articles can be pretty dense. Have you tried some other sources?”
She was quiet for a second. Then she explained to me than that it wasn’t the jargon she was struggling with; it was that most of what she was finding in the medical literature regarding dwarfism was about how to fix it. How to correct deformities. How to conduct gene therapies that would eliminate the “risk” of this “defect.” How to ensure that people like her would never be born.
I didn’t quite know what to say to that.
Franny wound up writing a very different paper than she had planned. She used what she had found to show the biases of the medical community. She researched technologies that little people could use to adapt to their challenges. She wrote about intolerance and acceptance.
In the end, her paper was about the beautiful variety and infinite adaptability of human beings. I’m not sure she would have summed it up that way, but it seemed crystal clear to me.