All Ameer had to do was sit in a chair. All Ameer could not do was sit quietly and patiently listen to instructions. He fidgeted in his chair, got up, and often wandered around the room. Sometimes he would lie on the ground, right next to the chair with his tiny little hands touching the sharp corner of the dreaded, plastic green chair, gripping its cold surface firmly so that the teachers did not rip him away from his safety net, the ground.
Ameer was a little boy with whom I spent my entire junior year summer in an extended school year program. The program was created to allow for the maintenance of proficient skills developed during the regular school year in mentally disabled children. It was rigorous and consisted of working periods in which students would review the acquired ‘normal’ skills.
That summer the dreaded green chair made an appearance in Ameer’s life. The role of the green chair was to teach Ameer how to sit like other children. This ideal and standardized sitting emphasized quiet qualities: quiet hands, quiet legs, and quiet mouth. It was the three quiet components which created a set standard of normalcy.
Many of the teachers in the program believed in this standard of normalcy. Their goal for the summer was to force Ameer to sit in a chair. It was a skill that at the age of three he was unable to manage. So, they often carried him and placed him in the dreaded green chair.
Ameer never appeared comfortable in his green chair’s form. As a nonverbal child, he could not express his discomfort through words, yet he was always fidgeting, crying, and running away just at the sight of the plastic seat.
In fact, the young boy never sat quietly in the chair. He would often leave the seat and prefer the ground. If held down, he would bend his body into an S shape just to avoid any physical contact with the cool, standardized plastic green chair.
That summer I became known as Ameer’s ‘favorite.’ In me he found sanctuary from the overwhelming pressure placed on the lesson to sit. Every time he was forced into the seat, he managed to escape and wander around the room stumbling into me.
If by accident, he stumbled into any of the other teachers, they would often encourage Ameer back to his dreaded green chair and force his body into a quiet state of immobility. They would thrust him into the predetermined outlines of the seat like pre-molded societal standards are thrust upon all to follow.
In contrast, I allowed Ameer to wander the classroom. I allowed him to experience his world. I allowed him to set his own molds and standards for behaviors. Thus, the teachers often referred to me as his ‘favorite’ out of spite, insinuating that I was letting Ameer live in his own world. And quite frankly, I was.
I, unlike the other teachers, saw no need to force him into the dreaded plastic chair to do something simply because they believed that it was right. So what if he wanted to wander around the classroom or lay on the ground right in front of his chair while the teachers took attendance? It did not make him any less Ameer. It did the opposite. It allowed him to be himself.
Instead of allowing Ameer to be little Ameer, the teachers wanted to mold him into something that they saw as socially acceptable. Instead of seeing him as unique and different, they saw Ameer as something that needed to be changed and stopped. The common plastic chair represented an unachievable societal ideal to people like Ameer.
The teachers wanted Ameer to fit into society just like they wanted him to fit into the chair — quietly.
Of Ameer’s behavior, the teachers often said to new volunteers: “You think he is cute now, but when he grows up to be an adult and continues to act like this, what will you do?”
None of us answered yet their hypothetical question has a simple answer.
When he grows up, I will think of him as Ameer. When he refuses to fit societal molds, I will perceive him as Ameer. When he refuses to sit in the dreaded green chair, I will know it’s Ameer, a little boy that is different from the standardized, plastic normalcy of society.
The views expressed in this paper are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily represent the views of the NLM Family Foundation.