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Gingerly Impaired

As a child, did you think you were mentally handicapped and no one was telling you? I did.

In fourth grade, I received a scholarship to a fancy/expensive sleep away camp for my achievements in Hebrew class. In general I wasn’t a top student, and quit every extracurricular activity attempted. It seemed that I was much better suited for making Barbies and Norfin Trolls have sex behind the shed. Sure, I could grumble my Israeli Rs with the best of them, but didn’t believe I deserved an award for anything besides number of boogers collected on the wall beside my bed.

That night, the night I won the award, I slept beneath the watchful eyes of Jonathan Taylor Thomas and Devin Sawa like always, but was eventually shaken to consciousness by an alarming realization. I am mentally challenged and no one is telling me. Or I’m too mentally challenged to understand that I’m mentally challenged. It explained why I’d swallowed pennies as a toddler, couldn’t retain the rules of kickball and was convinced a giraffe had entered the house anytime my mom said “do you feel a draft?” This scholarship didn’t recognize my academic excellence, it rewarded me for being average against the odds.

I stayed up for hours, hugging my knees to my chest, recounting all the clues to my abnormality. For one, I was the only redhead in my class, and I sprouted my first pubic hairs (also red) in kindergarten. I showed them to my bumper bowling team in the back of my mom’s Pacifica on the way to a game. A loud “ewwwww” resounded through the family wagon, and I tucked them away with red (typical) cheeks and haste. At my 5th birthday party I commanded my friends to gather in the backyard and scream “surprise!” upon my entrance. Though the beginning of my plan rolled out with perfection, I scurried back into the house and wailed into the couch. It was more terrifying than anticipated. Around the same time, I decided that I loved my dogs so much, that I’d try to be one of them. So I proudly dropped to my hands and knees and shared a bowl of kibble with my beloved Australian Shepherd/Lab mix. It was salty and crunchy and annihilated my innards. I thought, what would Daisy do? So I swallowed a few handfuls of grass then soaked a hibiscus bush with vomit. It’s these types of poor decisions that proved I had a problem.

I purposely concealed any knowledge of my mental malady, mainly because I enjoyed the attention and also because I’d been taught that special needs kids are cool too. All the “I love yous” and the “I’m so proud of yous” that so often departed from my parents’ mouths were out of sympathy, and I didn’t want it to end. My mother would embrace me and sing “the most beautiful girl in the world, Rebecca Pardess, yes,” and everyone’s unconditional kindness began to make sense. I was special, different and could now sit out of P.E. with ease. I attended private school and went to a different synagogue than my friends. At the age of nine, I had found my true self.

Summer approached and my anxiety built around the reality of leaving for three weeks, knowing absolutely no one, in the “wilderness” of Ojai, California. Would the camp staff know of my disability? Or did all the campers share this same challenge? I knew I wouldn’t find out until I arrived, but the anticipation was torturous.

The day came — My first time at sleep away camp! My mom drove me to a parking lot where parents pushed their children onto yellow school buses. In my cut off shorts, white t-shirt, camel work boots, one blue scrunchy sock and one purple scrunchy sock, I embarked and sat next to a tiny boy with translucent skin and hair redder than mine. “He’s just like me,” I thought, then felt my chin quiver as my parents waved goodbye, smiling larger than I’d ever seen before.

After two hours of sobbing surrounded by raucous throughout what seemed to be the vessel of nightmares, we arrived at a large, hilly expanse of grass and a flag pole. I disembarked and before I could get my bearings, a brunette lady who I could have sworn was at least 48, but was actually 19, charged me, grabbed my hand and said “Hi Rebecca! Welcome to Camp Ramah!” and somehow, everyone started singing the same song.  How did she know my name? Why didn’t I know the song? Just how many sunflowers were in her hair? Oh, right.

Entering the cabin full of strange girls, I had no idea what to do or say, par for the course for a person like me. With my head towards the floor, I sauntered to my lower bunk, near the cabin’s side door. I knew it was mine because it said so on a 3 foot long, orange strip of construction paper.

Being a conservative Jewish camp, we’d wake up and thank God for it. Then we’d eat, but first we’d pray about it. Then we’d pray after eating because we ate, and how wonderful that we could do such a thing. Before free time, we’d pray for the grass and having legs for running or something, then talk to God a little more before going for a swim because “he” made it possible for a rich Jew to buy acres of farm land, hire some other minority to dig a hole in it, fill it up with water and dunk a few chlorine tablets in it every few days.

And of course, we prayed before bed, which involved terrible hand holding and singing. At two weeks in, I still hadn’t found a clique. I was alone and felt like an outsider. I reasoned that life had dealt me this card, and I had to play it. Later that summer I’d be taking my first trip to Hawaii, and while discussing it with my bunkmate before lights out I asked, “Do they use American dollars there?”

“Are you stupid?!” she snapped. “What are you, a retard?” I was taken aback at first, but glad that someone had brought my impairment to light. That blonde, stocky girl with pit stains the size of pancakes may have been a bitch, but at least she acknowledged the giant giraffe in the cabin, and I wasn’t afraid anymore. Or so I thought.

That night, all 15 girls finally fell asleep, the cabin was quiet, the counselors snoozing in their nook off to the side. At 3 in the morning, suddenly roused by a scratch at the door, my eyes burst open as I was confronted by the treachery of the woods.  It was a bear, no, a mountain lion! Wait, a buffalo! The creature scratched again, and with every frightened fiber in my 10-year-old being, I shot up, ran to a counselor’s bedside and screamed bloody murder directly in her rat face. She responded by shrieking ax-swinging hell back at me, and we promptly woke the entire camp from its summer slumber.

It was a cat.

In my three weeks at Camp Ramah, I managed to avoid making any lifelong friendships, get a bee sting by trying to feel the texture of an interesting rock and learn the trials and tribulations of life with a cognitive deficiency.

About a year after faking my ignorance of my “shortcoming”, I realized that extreme awkwardness and apathy did not mean I had a handicap. I then figured that many people with actual inborn challenges didn’t use them as an excuse to get out of kickball or be frightened by a nocturnal house pet, and that I was actually quite the ass hole.

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