In seventh grade I spent two days and two nights in Upham Woods. On a Wednesday morning in April, my middle school class piled into a yellow school bus for the one hour drive. Every student at my middle school made the retreat to Upham Woods at least once during their three years of middle school. It was as much a part of the curriculum as math and science class. In the Woods, we bonded for two days. Working in groups, we climbed over tall walls, navigated through the forest with a compass, and built shelters out of branches and leaves. We slept in bunk beds spread out in four large log cabins — two for the boys and two for the girls. After each day of activities, we’d gather at the central meeting hall, a big building in the middle of the cabins, for a general assembly where we’d talks about the day’s events, then play games and do activities.
Before going to Upham Woods, our teachers had told us that if we didn’t like anything else about Upham Woods, we’d always remember the skit performed during the general assembly on the second night. They just referred to the performance as “The Skit.” They shared nothing more about it, except that it was probably the most hilarious routine ever performed before a group of middle schoolers.
By the time we sat down on the floor of the meeting hall on the second night, we were ready for George Carlin or Eddie Murphy to appear from behind the curtain. When the curtains drew, it was two of our teachers who stood up on stage. They were dwarfs — well, not really dwarfs. They just looked like dwarfs. They stood behind a white bed sheet. Five large holes had been cut out for the two characters. Each teacher stuck a head through one of the holes and stuck their arms through the holes that were meant to be the characters’ legs. Then, two other people who hid behind the curtain put their arms through the four remaining holes. To the audience, these characters, created by a head and four arms, had the appearance of an achondroplastic dwarf, the type of dwarfism I have.
It was as if they held up a picture of me.
Before that day, I had managed to attend over a year and a half of middle school without truly acknowledging my dwarfism. Every once in a while my height or my physical difference would come up, but I would move the subject along as quickly as possible. Since I felt I was no different than anybody else, there was no point of bringing it up. When the teachers appeared on stage for the skit, it was as if they held up a picture of me, and everyone was laughing at what they saw.
For ten minutes, the teachers puttered around, pretending to be students at Upham Woods. They got out of bed, brushed their teeth and went running through the forest. They even shaved at one point. With every move the characters made, the audience screamed with delight. Always trying to fit in, I screamed right along with them.
Finally, as the characters boarded a cardboard yellow school bus to return to the school, the skit came to an end. The students roared their approval, and when the teachers appeared from behind the curtain, we delivered a standing ovation. One of the teachers from the skit, who was my teacher, laughed also, so hard she began to cry. She hugged the other teacher on stage and waved to her students. As my classmates continued to cheer, I began looking around. I studied the faces of my peers, trying to figure out what was happening, trying to figure out if we were laughing at the skit, or laughing at me.
Matt, a seventh grader from my class, sat on the floor just behind me. While I gazed past Matt, looking out at the audience, Matt muttered, in a kind of joking way, “That’s discrimination.”
“What do you mean?” I asked. He didn’t answer. I looked at him and asked again and again, “What do you mean?” Matt kept quiet. Finally, he turned away from me and shook his head. I pleaded with him for about a minute. Eventually, the student next to Matt, Byron, spoke. He had been watching us, and now he stared at me through these long bangs that curled around his eyes.
“They were making fun of midgets,” he said.
I should have done something. If not that night, I should have done something after we returned to school, or maybe even a few years later. Just something so that if another person of short stature ever made the trip to Upham Woods, the teachers might think twice before subjecting him or her to the skit which had become such a part of Upham Woods lore. I never did.
Gary Arnold serves as the Public Affairs Manager for Access Living, where he has worked since 1999. He also served as the President of the Board for Little People of America, a national membership organization that offers support and resources for people with dwarfism. He represented LPA as a Steering Committee Member for the National Disability Leadership Alliance, a coalition of 13 disability led membership organizations. He sits on the Board for Public Narrative; serves as a Board member for the Crossroads Fund; and is a 2013 graduate of Leadership Greater Chicago. In 2012, the American Association of People with Disabilities presented Gary with the Justice For All Disability Rights Award. Gary is a contributor to Streetwise and the Huffington Post. Married in 2009, Gary lives in the south loop of Chicago with his wife Katie.