A beautiful woman vying for a state competition is as common in Texas as droughts and Friday night football. We have plenty of all three. Texas can lay claim to two former Ms. America’s in Shirley Cothran (1975) and her predecessor back in 1971, Phyllis George. Both attended school at North Texas State University, my old alma mater, which has had a name change since then to the University of North Texas. But there is a departure in this norm today where one young contestant seeking recognition by the general public is not in it for the looks or talent.
photo by Al Key, Denton Record-Chronicle
University of North Texas student Skylar Conover is competing with other Texas physically handicapped women for the title of Ms. Wheelchair Texas.
The 22-year-old was diagnosed with facioscapulohumeral muscular dystrophy — a disease that causes progressive muscle weakness and loss of muscle tissue — during her freshmen year of high school. Going from being a cheerleader and dancer to having to use a wheelchair was a drastic change for Conover.
“My whole life flipped upside down,” she said.
Conover said her friends disappeared after she was diagnosed because they didn’t know how to deal with it.
That’s why she decided to conduct workshops with youth groups to educate them about the different types of disabilities and teach them to be compassionate. SOURCE
What caught my eye about this story was not the courage Skylar is showing for not allowing her fate to devolve into despair and dependency. It is indeed no doubt admirable that she has mustered the mental strength to figuratively make lemon-aide out of lemons. Though facioscapulohumeral muscular dystrophy (FSHD) is considered a minor disability that affects approximately 5 out of every 100,000 people, it decreases one’s mobility and their ability to care for themselves. Read more about this genetic disorder that tends to strike both male and females equally between the ages of 10 and 26.
Skylar’s path for her life has become centered around her discovery since contracting her disability that she is fading from view, at least with those she once considered close personal friends. This observation is what piqued my interest in her story.
At first, she said, little changed because there was no apparent difference between her and her friends.
“They couldn’t see it, and therefore, it didn’t exist,” she said.
Then, she began using a wheelchair during her junior year [in high school].
“When I started using a wheelchair, all my friends said bye,” … I appeared to be different. All of my friends disappeared.” SOURCE
Rightly or wrongly I think as many of us can identify with Skylar’s victimizers as we can with her. High school adolescents is all about appearance. Looking both “hot” and “cool” are images that seldom reflect someone who is physically handicapped. It’s true that there are those at this age who rise above this inappropriate behavior but it still lurks just below the surface with most high schoolers and exposes itself more often than anyone wants.
Skylar herself may have played this role to some degree as a member of the in-crowd in her freshman cheerleader role. Perhaps she was one of those exceptions though and such esteem-killing behavior never played a part of who she was.
Skylar’s becoming invisible to her friends after contracting FSHD left me thinking how little we seem to realize, especially at early ages, that our treatment of others affects their self-respect. I can recall a couple of situations where I was a part of that crowd that shunned unacceptables because of how they looked and acted. These weren’t physically handicapped people either. They were simply human beings who had the misfortune of being a part of an adolescent social world that seldom looked beyond surface appearances.
I was never the deliberate mean bully who browbeat those who one might consider uncool. I was even empathetic at times when others weren’t. But I do recall two incidences that occurred which I was ashamed of later and wish I had the ability to turn back the clock and do things differently.
One occurred in the eight grade to a new girl named Gloria, who transferred to our elementary catholic school when her parents relocated to that area. Her newness automatically made it a handicap to make friends easily but she had another characteristic that made it difficult for her to meet boys. In its ugliest manifestation by teenagers, she was simply – fat. Borderline obese. As a result, many of the boys in our class weren’t attracted to her. It falls back on what continues to this day about physical appearance among teens. Where I saw it hurt her the most was at a class dance.
As Catholics in the early 60’s we socialized in ways where boys and girls would attend planned and chaperoned events and then pick dance partners. Ideally you were expected to interact with more than one boy and girl but it doesn’t always play out that way. Everyone linked up with who they had a crush on. Gloria was perhaps the only girl at the dance who wasn’t being asked to dance. Only after some of the girls implored the boys to ask Gloria to dance, did she actually get to. Yet I know she understood these were merely gratuitous gestures on our part and I recall seeing that hurt in her face.
I never saw Gloria after that school year because we went on to separate high schools. Perhaps she assimilated into the group later unless her parents relocated again and she had to start over and deal with similar abuses from shallow-minded teenage boys. Perhaps it never changed and her life was never truly fulfilled because of how she grew up seeing herself as others did.
The second incident happened in my sophomore year in high school and was more tragic. To this day it haunts me a bit. Jimmy Ray Lee was a thinnish boy who sat next to me in Home Room class. He had short cropped hair, wore glasses and was a member of the school’s Reserved Officers Training Corps (ROTC) program. Back in those days some looked down on the ROTC as nerdy. I neither liked or disliked Jimmy. My acquaintance with him existed only as a member of my Home Room who happened to sit next to me.
I recall having brief conversations with him but never went much beyond the occasional “this class sucks” or “that teacher blows” comment. Later I would think how he must have been starved for friendship. He was trying to fit in where he often wasn’t wanted, wasn’t accepted. I wasn’t one of the popular crowd in high school but I wasn’t a Jimmy Ray Lee either.
I can’t remember precisely when it occurred but sometime during early 1965 when it was cold enough to require a heater running in your car, Jimmy died from asphyxiation. Mrs. Iris Farmer, our home room teacher, informed the class the day after his death that he had died as a result of carbon dioxide fumes inside his car. Evidently as he was running his heater while driving with the windows up, the exhaust gases leaked inside the auto and he was overcome by the toxic fumes.
Mrs. Farmer was visibly upset while sharing this sad incident, crying some as she conveyed what happened. Unlike the rest us who didn’t truly know Jimmy she apparently had; well enough at least to call him a “gentle, sweet boy” and wondered out loud “why did this have to happen to him”.
To this day I wonder if Mrs. Farmer was sparing us all of what really may have happened to the kid no one seemed to like. Was it an accident or did he intentionally allow the leak he was already aware of to engulf him while he idly ran the car in some secluded spot where no one would see him. He was invisible to most of us already so he could have just have easily done it in plain sight without anyone giving it much thought.
Jimmy, Gloria and Skylar are victims of a shallow mind set that judges people who appeal to our stereo-types of what is attractive. It’s an image that has been created in part and nurtured by a culture that values healthy, beautiful people. Implicit in this perception is that all others are somehow less valuable and to be avoided.
It may not be totally fair to condemn those close friends of Skylars and others their age who shun unacceptables. They are after all products of the generation who preceded them. If it were some innate characteristic, some mutant gene that has evolved with the human species then all kids would act this way. But we know that not all teens are this cruel to their peers. Some have been raised with a set values that sees people more for who they really are, below their skin or broken body appearance.
There’s no shame to realize we have all been culpable of such hurtful behavior some time in our lives. I think the real shame occurs when it continues into adulthood and we become unable to acknowledge this ugly side of ourselves. When confronted by those who know better that infecting others with low self-esteem is wrong, these adults instead make rationalizations for their destructive behavior rather than face any flaw in themselves. It lives with them and gets passed on to their prodigy where future Skylar Conovers and Jimmy Ray Lees suffer. An aspect of humanity has indeed disappeared.
We should all celebrate it when someone like Skylar not only doesn’t allow this sickness to take hold but is motivated to eradicate it before it gets started. But if history is any indication that she will be successful we need only remind ourselves that one of the greatest faith systems that was built on the teachings of love, tolerance and compassion ultimately developed into a springboard for many to persecute those who were different from themselves.