Janet Buck: Another Lecture Bites the Dust

School resumes on the tail of a parching summer, walls have fresh paint, and doorknobs of Central Hall turn with the familiar glitch of first-day jitters. My students are thirsty and afraid and wonder why I don't walk straight. I limp my limp with great care on fresh-waxed floors; when the bell sounds, the silence starts.

`I am Janet Buck, your composition instructor. If you're here for Math 101, we're all in trouble. I have a M.A. and Ph.D. in English, but I promise not to throw it in your face if you don't throw numbers in mine. I know a great deal about commas and semi-colons and pronoun case errors, but when it comes to life, art, and expression, we are all in the same bunker, the same war, and uniforms of degrees don't carry much weight. We don't talk about right and wrong, good and bad; we discuss what works on the page and what doesn't and we defend our positions. I would prefer to ponder the `level of your success' in lieu of your grade, but A-F is part of the world, so we must live with its presence. Avoid asking me about your grade in terms of a number like 80 or 94, unless you are prepared to wait until fin de siecle America hits the year 3000 for a response. We are here to improve our writing skills and create essays that leave a mark. Now, please read the following pages for tomorrow's class and write a paragraph that explains to both of us why you registered for this class (required course doesn't count) because I love the warm bath of denial when it comes to the raison d'être of the writing process. Since you are probably wondering who I am, let me explain a little...'

My intention was, as I have for twenty years, to casually mention the fact that I am an amputee and pole vault quickly to issues that really define my life and vision. My intention was to waltz awkwardly around my difference and let my demons sleep. But, as gestures go, that was today an impossible reach.

`A missing limb and assorted physical deformities are a large part of who I am. I learned this from a fountain pen. I write to process and release issues of my disability, my love life, my family, my human threads. I could tell you that I have had stacks of major surgeries, limp a little, and am otherwise unaffected by the trappings of fate, but that would be like stuffing a whole box of Kleenex down the toilet and expecting to have no use whatsoever for the plunger stashed in the back of a dusty garage.

I grew up in the shadow of Barbie dolls and perfection, the velvet velocity of easy motion, and the curves of my sister's flawless thighs. My life has been stained by the plaque of pain, and the older I get, the more rotted the teeth or so it seems. I despise people for gazing at me with the dragon fire of pity in their stares and I wish I'd been born with great legs, but I wasn't. If I had a choice, I would burn my crutches like an unwanted cross; the thought of landing in a wheelchair sends me into convulsions. Writing and lap swimming are the balance beams of sane; when I fall, what picks me up so quickly is the presence of leeching eyes. Every flight of stairs I climb feels like scaling the Eiffel Tower and the view from `different' has rattlesnakes. Each step I take is a conference call: arms say what to legs and then consult with will. The beat is determined by thirst for motion. I spend it wisely, take nothing, not even an eyelash for granted; like joints, they could come loose, drop off.

While I can write this degree of candor, I cannot live its elastic ways because eyes snap back and retaliate unknowingly for the glimpse of limits that shine in my uneven gait. The empty page is a surgical mask that sustains the emotive distance I require to speak honestly of myself and, perhaps more importantly, to myself. The dragons of self-scrutiny are focused on paper -- much the same as lining up the nuzzle of a loaded rifle. It is here that I have hated away the plastic limbs of Barbie Dolls, the useless right shoes on my closet floor; it is here that I have taken my sister's pantyhose and tied them like rubber bands around a bag of trash; it is here that I have admitted to courage, frailty, and defeat. If you wonder why I smile and laugh incessantly, I'll tell you the truth as I see it: humor is a valve we push on a pressure-cooker to let the steam escape. Disabled is an artichoke: it has sharp, sharp leaves, turns brown if it's left too long in wallowing mud, and has a rich, rich heart that is hard to reach. In its own foul way, amputation has its own rewards.

The page has taught me that coming to the center of self can be the same as cooking a feast for dinner guests; it is something to be shared. I have often wondered why fate saddled my horse with the straps and stirrups of disabled, what the `purpose' of this struggle is. Writing about disabled -- indeed living it -- is a naked experience and there are no bullet-proof vests or toupees to protect one's flesh from judgment guns, unless you count platitudes and politically correct armbands, which seem to me to be convenient evasions of emotion's hot potatoes. Keeping the lid on our burdens will almost always back-fire. Withdrawal, no matter how flannel its sheets, is a time-bomb ticking in the background, a pair of falsies that will eventually drop. It is the slug of silence that destroys the garden.

Obviously writing is only a training bra for living your life in the landscape of self-acceptance, but it is a start. Under the microscope of syllables, I have panned a pile of grateful marbles for blessings in my life. I have learned that writing is a shake-down of sorts in terms of aligning matters of the world, a prioritizing tool that comes from within; I have earned through pain that motion is mistletoe, and moments are meant to be kissed all year long. Think of the cathartic process as a mouth full of chipped molars. The human tongue is perennially drawn to rough edges of decay. It is a signal that spells out the fact that something is amiss and must be attended to. A writer takes pain and makes use of it. The means of naked to the end of complete.'