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Debbie’s Shoes

Growing up with Debbie around has been like one long learning curve


"Because Debbie is different,” people used to say to me when I was younger, whenever Debbie — three years my senior — would just have done something awkward, weird, or downright embarrassing, and I, like any kid, would ask why. Why did she have to be like this? Why couldn’t she just be normal? Why did I have to deal with the stares, the laughter, the discomfort? And this was while Debbie was oblivious to it all.

Debbie has special needs. She also looks completely normal (when she isn’t having one of her “moments”), and that’s what sometimes makes it so much more challenging. People make allowances for those who look obviously disabled. Debbie never gets that treatment, and as her family, neither do we.

Growing up with Debbie around has been like one long learning curve. Going to school with Debbie, who is two grades above me, is like sitting on a bicycle speeding out of control. On a hairpin bend. On a mountain. In a blizzard. That is, often knowing that something is going to happen, while being completely helpless to stop it.

Okay, enough with the metaphors, true story coming up.

Debbie was in tenth grade, I was in eighth, and unluckily for me, our schools shared a building. Hanging out with my friends during lunch that day, Debbie was the last thing on my mind. Sara, Chava Leah, and I were in the middle of a heated argument about just how calorific store-bought salads are, when Tova, a tenth grader, popped her head around the door. We stopped talking. We weren’t usually paid visits by the cool-tenth-grader demographic, which is what made my stomach sink. What made it plummet even further was how her gaze scanned our too-small classroom and settled on me. She wanted me. That meant something had happened.

I still don’t know what actually had happened, since there seemed to be a multitude of versions of the story flying around the hallways. As I puffed my way up two flights of stairs to the tenth-grade classroom, I couldn’t help wondering why Debbie’s classmates still hadn’t been taught to handle her. Then again, she’d always had a classroom shadow at recess until that year. The sound of shouting amplified as I got nearer the classroom, and my cheeks flushed when I heard the clear indication of a full-blown Debbie-meltdown. I took a deep breath and pushed the door open. Debbie, her hair in a dishevelled pony, her shirt completely askew, stood furiously, shouting at a group of her classmates, who were huddled together in a tittering cluster.

“My house is closer than yours, it is, it is!” she was shouting agitatedly. The girls were looking at each other with a cross between fear and amusement in their eyes.

“How long has this been going on for?” I whispered to Tova, from my position at the doorway.

“Ages,” Tova replied. “Can you do something?”

I sighed. I hated this. It made me angry. I didn’t choose to have a sister this way, and all I wanted was to eat my lunch in peace. But when Debbie is agitated, she goes. And goes. And goes. Unless we stopped the record in its tracks, like my family has learned to do, Debbie was capable of repeating this until her shadow turned up for the afternoon classes.

I walked over to Debbie. She didn’t register my presence. I moved so that I was in her field of vision, like Sonya, Debbie’s social worker had taught me. Not intrusively — that could make her angrier — but just gently. Debbie blinked. Then she started shouting again. When she stopped for a breath, I concentrated, and then did what Sonya taught me to do, what Ma does, too, when this happens at home.

“Debbie, it sounds like you’re very upset,” I said. “Maybe sit down and we can do some breathing?” I held my breath. This would either work or backfire terribly. Unfortunately, it was the latter. In anger, Debbie gave me a shove. Caught off guard, I stumbled a few feet backward, almost landing on the floor, caught my leg on a chair, teetered, then stood straight again.

What next? I thought, as Debbie’s shouting raised in decibel. My face burned, as the tenth graders stared at me, helplessly waiting. I thought through all the things we do at home; the sensory corner Debbie has; the calming words my mother uses. The walks Abba takes Debbie on when she’s getting restless. Maybe that was it. I slowly closed in on Debbie again, and spoke softly at her this time.

“Debbie, we’re going on a walk. Come.” I held out my hand, steadying my breathing and silently praying. It worked. Still shouting, Debbie followed me, as if she wasn’t quite aware of what we were doing. We walked briskly out the building, and started a circuit around it. Debbie was still repeating herself, but as the cool air brushed against her cheeks and our pace quickened, she became breathless, and eventually, she stopped. Phew. Another situation saved. By the time we’d walked for 20 minutes and Miss Geller arrived to help her, Debbie was as cool as a cucumber.

But I wasn’t.

I doodled my way through that afternoon’s classes. Debbie’s name, mainly, but also endless swirls — ones you can’t find the beginning or end of. My muscles felt taut, and I had no energy for my class. Something has to change, I scribbled furiously on my math book. I was sick of being called to rescue Debbie from herself, of saving her classmates from the discomfort Debbie was causing. And while I doodled, an idea began to percolate.

That night, I spoke to my parents. I informed them of the sagas of the day, surprising myself with a lot of tears. Ma and Abba felt terrible for what had been happening — they hadn’t realized how bad it got. Still, I had an idea.

“What we need to do, is help Debbie’s classmates understand Debbie,” I suggested. “If they knew what it was like to be in Debbie’s shoes, they would know more about how to help calm her down and wouldn’t have to call me each time. Why can’t we teach them?”

At first, my parents were hesitant. After all, it wasn’t Debbie’s classmates’ job to help regulate her, and it was horrible for all of us to think that our problems would be aired so openly. Still, I reasoned, Debbie having regular meltdowns wasn’t making things better for anyone, so what was the harm in trying? We agreed on that point, and the next day, Abba spoke to my menaheles. My parents are both naturally quite reserved. Yet, despite that, to help Debbie and me, they went far beyond their comfort zone.

Two weeks later, Abba took Debbie out of school one day while Ma came to watch me give a presentation. To the tenth grade.

The tenth graders, expecting to see their history teacher, looked askance when I came to the front of their classroom, as my mother and Mrs. Friedman, the tenth-grade mechaneches, slipped into their seats at the back. I smiled at my audience, withdrew a pair of old sneakers from my bag, and began:

“These are my sneakers. They might look a bit worn out to you, but if you had my feet, and had worn them for countless occasions, you’d find them pretty comfortable. You can’t tell me what’s comfortable for me, and I can’t tell you what’s good for you, either.” I paused for breath and glanced around the room. All eyes were on me. This was scary, but also, kind of invigorating, once I got started.

“We all have many things that make us comfortable, and many things that make us uncomfortable. And we don’t necessarily always understand how other people feel. But we can try…” I looked at Ma, she smiled encouragingly. Without warning to my audience, I withdrew other props; a saucepan and a metal spoon, and started banging them together completely randomly. Some girls snickered while raising their hands to their ears. Others looked thoughtful, as if trying to get what I was doing and why.

“You hear this noise?” I shouted over the din, “For people like my sister Debbie, that’s what talking can sometimes sound like. She walks around all day with so much interfering noise, which means even having a conversation can be hard.” I paused my tuneless music. The class became still, realization flickering on faces. I lowered my voice to a dramatic depth:

“So perhaps we can work together to understand Debbie, and help her when she feels overwhelmed by the noise of a very loud and busy world.” I looked around. “What do you think? Would you like to learn?” For a moment, no one stirred, and my stomach churned. Then, as if in slow motion, hands began to rise. First the front row, then the middle. Some movement from the back. And finally, every single hand was up, straight and tall, rising to the challenge. I opened my mouth, no sound came out at first. When my voice emerged, it was shaky; it didn’t sound like me at all. It said:

“Thank you. We’ll learn to walk in Debbie’s shoes. Together.”

(Originally featured in Teen Pages, Issue 850)

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