Sunday, March 14, 2004

Is that funny, or troubling?

Alive and well

Debra Kendrick

This weekend, a bunch of kids from around Ohio are wearing togas, dressing up like mythological creatures, feasting at a banquet, and generally laughing and learning in the collective pursuit of Latin and Greek languages and culture. Kids from my family will be there, and I'm proud of them. But I'll also be bothered by a nagging little voice that asks, "Did you do everything you should?"

I'm not talking about seeing that everyone had clean underwear or lunch money. I'm talking about the real-life application of advocacy, and when, if ever, is it OK to sit back and keep your mouth shut.

"One part of our skit really bugs me," my daughter introduced the problem at dinner early in the week. "There's a blind character in it and, well, it's stupid. They've got it all wrong."

Stuff of mythology

The blind character in the skit the kids will perform this weekend is, of course, Tiresias. He, as you may remember, is the guy whom the goddess Athena made blind, because she was mad that he happened upon her while bathing. She felt a little guilty then, too, so she gave him the gift of prophecy and the ability to understand the birds.

In the skit the students wrote for the statewide gathering, Tiresias is, apparently, a buffoon. "He buttons his clothes all wrong and stumbles all over and doesn't know where anybody is," my daughter explained. "I told them that blind people aren't like that, but, well, it's supposed to be funny."

I praised her for raising any objections and urged her to try again.

But teenagers aren't known for attracting attention to themselves with unpopular views, so I don't expect her to do much more.

Still, I can't stop thinking about it.

Sure, it's just a high school skit. And, sure, Tiresias stumbling around with cockeyed clothes and cluelessness will get some laughs. But in that innocent laughter, one more layer of misinformation will be laid on the foundation of prejudice borne of stereotypes in the minds of the those watching.

Negative stereotypes of any group are founded and nourished on just such innocent occurrences. There's some grain of truth in the negative portrayal and enough to get a laugh.

Sometimes blind people do button their clothing wrong, I suppose, and sometimes people who see do, too. Sometimes people with developmental disabilities get confused about money or where the bus is going, and sometimes people with Ph.D.s do, too. Sometimes people from Puerto Rico or Holland might make embarrassing mistakes because they don't understand English, and sometimes Americans do, too. Sometimes African-Americans have rhythm, and some don't. Sometimes men can't cook. You see where I'm going.

I didn't want to spoil a little fun by imposing my personal convictions on a group of kids who will forget that skit by the end of the month. It's not a big deal, I told myself, and no one wants to be perceived as a raving zealot. So I kept quiet.

Misinformation can hurt

But will those same kids be surprised on some subconscious level the next time they see a real live blind person behaving in incredibly ordinary ways? And what about the educational component here? Tiresias was a seer, a teller of the future and voice of wisdom. And, it is said, he was given a staff of cornel-wood, so that he was able to walk about just like those who could see. Have the kids learned those parts, too?

Contact Deborah Kendrick by phone: 673-4474; fax: 321-6430; e-mail:

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