Etta May is one of those people you meet in life you never forget. She taught me life lessons I was glad for long after I met her in high school. She taught me the importance of turning the other cheek.
Who was Etta May? Etta May was in my Foods class in Lenape Regional High School. She was what was known in the 1970s as 'mentally retarded' but would now be described as 'intellectually challenged.' Whatever you want to call it Etta May was one person who taught me important life lessons-the value of independence for everyone no matter what their abilities and of meeting unkindness with kindness.
I admit, in school I was one of those kids in the advanced classes. Foods was a class I took to avoid study hall. I wasn't really expecting to learn a lot, although in the end I learned more important life lessons there than in any advanced English, Science or History class I ever took.
Etta May wasn't a beauty, but she always smiled. She wasn't always able to read the directions for recipes, but she was unfailingly NICE to everyone. She tried her best. She looked for the good in every person and inevitably found something in everyone to admire. And she taught me the value of teamwork and that everyone on the team has something to contribute.
Etta May was on my team in Foods Class. This meant I and the three other girls in the class worked with her on a daily basis. We all reacted differently to Etta May's challenges. One girl was a bully and cruel, we all ran interference because we thought Etta May needed our help.
What we didn't realize was she'd known this girl her entire life and had learned her own ways to deal with her with no help from us. She simply turned the other cheek. I know, it sounds so, goody two shoes. But it worked. The more Etta May met (I'll call her Maureen, not her real name) Maureen's barbs with kindness the more Maureen was frustrated at not being able to bully Etta May.
The other three girls worked with Etta May but tried to do things for her without giving her a chance to try herself. I showed Etta May how to do it and then let her do it herself. Seeing her sense of pride in her attempts (some of which were successful, some not) made it worth it. While her work wasn't always perfect, the teacher and I had an unspoken agreement that it was more important to let Etta May try than to have a perfect result.
Etta May's pride in her accomplishments were something I'll never forget. Be the accomplishment big or small, she was thrilled she'd done it herself. I can't take responsibility for the way I treated her, that would be 'thank you Mom' who was the queen of teaching us things without making it seem like she was even trying and letting us learn how to do it even if it wasn't perfect the first time.
Years later the lessons Etta May taught me came back to me when I was faced with the challenge of having two daughters with similar disabilities. I was also faced with helping them help themselves or taking the easy way of out by doing things for them.
Thanks to Etta May's unwitting but valuable guidance (even though she never knew she taught me anything) I became the mother my children needed. Etta May made me a strong advocate of mainstreaming and independence for the differently able.
There were many times it would have been easier to do things for my daughters. But they're grown up now and both live on their own and hold down jobs. Without the lessons learned from Etta May I might have been a very different kind of mother to them. There lives might be very different than they are today.
I've often wished I could find Etta May and just give her a hug--she helped ME so much. She taught me life lessons I wouldn't have gotten any else in my education. And better yet, as every mother knows, she helped my children, even though she never knew them. (We all know that people who help our children are high on our lists of favorite people). She changed my attitude and outlook so I could help them. So if anyone out there knows where Etta May is today, give her a hug from me and my family.