Most people think the sixties was the time of the blacks and women fighting for their rights. It was another forgotten minority who was trying to crawl into the light too and I am part of that handicapped population. I was one those who paved the way for others who wanted, no had a right, to go to school. It wasn’t easy in the least. I was included, sometime. I had to push back all the physical and attitudinal barriers to get to go to school and this is what I went through to get there.
I was born into a family with four other siblings. Frank who was 6 years older than me was the sports enthusiast. Karen, who was five years older than me was the brains. Karla, who was was sixteen months younger was our wild child. Kris, who was 6 years younger than me was the orator.
The year before I started to school in 1964, Shands Elementary School held a Buddy Day for the kids getting ready to enter first grade the following year. There was no kindergarten back then. Mom and Mamaw put me in a pretty dress Mamaw made me. Dad shined up the leather on my braces and shoes. Mom brushed my long blonde curls that reached my waist. Finally, the day came, and Mom lifted me into the car and drove me up to Shands where Karen and I would go the next year. Since I had no wheelchair yet and there were steps up to the front door, Mom carried me into the back door. Once we got there we were directed to one of the three rooms in the back of the building where they had first grade classes. It was down the hall from the cafeteria.
Once we entered, Mom carried me to a desk and sat me down. The room grew quiet as she sat me in one of the desk. Other mothers were already seated while their six year olds checked out the desks they choose for themselves.
The teacher came towards us. “Excuse me Mrs….”
“Cumnock. This is my daughter, Kay.”
“Mrs. Cumnock, can you follow me outside for a minute?” The teacher didn’t even acknowledge my presence.
Mother sighed. I had a feeling she knew this was coming even though she had already talked to the administration about me. “Of course,” Mom said to the teacher as she straightened my dress. “Kay, I’ll be right back.”
While Mom and the teacher Mrs. Cook went into the hall, the mothers around the room started whispering. I heard things like:
“This cannot happen.”
“Children like that should not be seen.”
“Will she give whatever she has to the other children?” This line I heard many times in my life.
Some of the kids smiled or waved. As one of the kids waved, I heard, “Cindy, sit up and face forward!” What an introduction to school for the other kids. I didn’t know what to make of it at the time. Later I would ask Mom why they said those things.
I don’t know how long it would be before Mom and Mrs. Cook reappeared. I could tell Mom was mad by the way her mouth was set. Mom sat down on a chair with the other mothers, that surrounded our desks. She smiled at some of the other mothers, but they all looked at her as if she was crazy for trying to bring me in with the other kids.
“Welcome, mothers and children to Buddy Day. My name is Mrs. Cook, and I will be your next fall. I hope we can all get along and learn as much as some of you are capable of. In the meantime, let’s look at the boards and see what we will be working on next year.
“If you look on the right board, you will see our numbers for counting and a small bit of addition and subtraction. On the front board the alphabet is posted. All of you will learn how to read and write. Then on the board to the left, you will see that we have art and music classes as well.” I already could read, and I knew my numbers by then. I could even do a little addition even if it was counting on my fingers. It was still exciting mp know what was coming when I started school.
After Mrs. Cook finished her presentation some of her current students went around the room talking to the new kids. Several of them came close to stopping by my desk, but then they would take one look at my braces and turn for someone else. Finally, Mother went over to Mrs. Cook and complained.
“I cannot force them to talk to your daughter.”
Instead of taking me up and leaving, which would show defeat, Mom let the afternoon play out the way everyone around us wanted it to. When we finally got home, I heard Mom telling Mamaw and Grandad all about it, then when Dad got home, he heard it all.
“I cannot believe those children ignored her,” Mom said at the dinner table that night.
“Once they get to know little Kay, they won’t ignore her for long,” Grandad winked at me using the nickname he had given me.
“This will be an uphill fight, you know. Especially after what the principal told you today,” Dad said.
“They don’t want Kay in Shands?” Frank asked.
“No,” Mom told him. “But she will go in the fall. I will see to it. Tomorrow, I will call Mr. Poteet and talk to him about the way Kay was treated.”
“You better forget today and speak to him about nest fall,” Mamaw said.
“Why does she have to go to the same school I will go to next fall?” Karen asked. Karen never thought I should have been born or kept.
“That is where they are going to have first through sixth grade next year,” Frank informed her. “I get to stay where I am, and they are making it into a junior high.” Karen rolled her eyes and continued eating
“In any case Karen you will have to help her in the bathroom next year,” Mom said.
“That is the way it is going to have to be.”
Karen started to complain about it but she and I looked at all the adults and knew that Karen had better not say another word.
It would be a fight to stay in school and I guess I knew my future even before I was born. When I finally arrived a month late into this world it was December of 1958 in Dallas, Texas. Mom says that I knew what my life was going to be like and decided to stay where I was for a few extra weeks. I came with eyelashes and tears and a fuzzy head of blonde hair. Out of Mom’s five kids I was her longest baby at birth. I just didn’t grow too much after that. I weighed 5 pounds when I was born but lost under 5 so they put me in an incubator.
Mom, because she had someone to take care of twenty-four hours a day, had to be a stay at home Mom. She sold first Amway and Avon on the side out of our house. Dad, worked as an accountant most of his career. Mom and Dad knew something was wrong with me almost immediately since I came late and I could not move around like most babies. They took me to five neurologists. I had had a battery of test at different doctor’s offices. We were in one doctor’s office where the doctor had Mom lay me on a table. The man took a wet cotton swab and rubbed it over my eyes. Then he sat down at his desk while Mom stopped my tears.
“I’m sorry to have to tell you but I believe your daughter is retarded.”
“Retarded! Kay is alert. She was potty trained at nine months. What makes you think that?” Mom demanded.
“She cried when I did the swab test.”
Dad almost went over the doctor’s desk to strangle him. “Ben! He doesn’t matter. Doctor Richards can take his diagnosis!”
“Mrs. Cumnock, you and your husband might as well take your daughter to Denton and put her in the state school. I doubt if she will ever be able to talk much less walk. It will be better for you than watch her be a vegetable.”
“Kay is not nor will she ever be a vegetable. Good day sir,” Dad told him and they walked out one of the last doctors in Dallas they would take me to see. None of them could tell my parents exactly what was wrong with me, not even my pediatrician. He thought he knew what I had but he wasn’t confidant enough to be certain.
Finally, when Dad was transferred to Memphis a year later, they took me to St. Jude Children’s Hospital. It had only been opened a few years. Once more I had a lot of test. Finally, Dr. Peters sat my parents down in his office.
“I believe Kay has Cerebral Palsy.”
“What is that?” Mom asked holding me.
“She was born with brain damage.” He leaned over and there was a picture in a book he had opened on his desk. He turned the book around and raised it so they could both see the picture. It was a picture of the brain, he pointed to the back of the brain. “This is the Cerebrum, where the motor functions are controlled. That part of Kay’s brain was damaged. How I am not sure. Was there any trauma that occurred before she was born?”
“Yes. Someone hit us from behind at a stoplight.” I pointed to my water cup and made the noise I usually did when I wanted something. Mom immediately bent down and got it for me. “But our pediatrician thought maybe it happened during birth.”
“Either could have caused it. We will never know. Her motor functions are slow, but they are there, so there is a chance that with much therapy she could train another part of the Cerebrum to move her arms and legs.”
“Why isn’t she talking?” Dad asked.
The doctor laughed. “I’ve been watching her. Maybe she knows she doesn’t need to right now. Or it may take time for her motor skills to that area to catch up. Give her some time and work with her arms, legs and hands.”
“What about her feet? They turn out so bad.”
“Let’s address that a little later once you have processed all this.” He stood up and shook Dad’s hand and followed Mom and Dad to the door. He took one of my little tight fists and held it for a minute. “Just work with her for a while then we will look at her feet soon.”
I didn’t talk until I was 2 years old. Of course I really didn’t have to, when all I had to do was make a noise and point and either Mom or Dad or Frank and Karen, would rush to get what I wanted. I was a little bit spoilt. Mom, Dad, Frank, Karen, Mamaw and Granddad were in our dining room in Memphis one night and they were telling them of my diagnosis. They started talking about taking me back soon to see about my turned out feet. I guess I was tired of doctors because before anyone knew it I suddenly said. “May I have a drink of water please?” It might not have been plain, but it startled everyone to say the least.
The hospital in Memphis recommended that I be put in braces with a cross bar on the bottom to hold my legs straight at night. Mom had to make that decision alone because Dad was traveling most of the time and wasn’t around. Mom said she hated having to put me in them at night because it made me cry.
When I was sixteen months old my sister Karla was born. Mom couldn’t understand why she had another baby so close to one that she needed to take care of so much. But Karla was born for a reason. She would keep me active. I was finally able to hold my head up about the time that Karla was able to go into a walker so Mom put me in one too. Karla started talking early in her development and we don’t think she ever stopped. She rolled over in her crib at 3 days old. We had the sweetest black maid back then. She cleaned so Mom could do the laundry and cook and take care of the four of us kids. Carothers refused to touch me, she was afraid she would hurt me. But she would handle Karla. When she saw Karla roll over so early she said, “Lawd Ms. Barbara I ain’t never seen a child like that!” Karla would never stop going after that.
We lived in Memphis for 3 years. Our house was in a subdivision called Whitehurst. Dad would have to go by Graceland every day to get to and from work. I don’t remember too much of being in Memphis, except two things. The first was a big orange leather chair in the den that Dad would sit in at night and put me on his lap with my feet up around his chin and he would sit and rub my little hands that were in fist and my pore little turned out legs. If he and Mom had not worked with my hands and legs I would not have the ability to do certain things today.
When it thundered I would jump. All loud noises made me jump. “Now that’s just Mr. Tatar man dropping his tatars in the sky,” Dad would tell me. For some reason that explanation he used on all of us would soothe me.
I would remember that chair for another reason. Since I couldn’t go outside like the other kids my brother Frank, who is 6 years older than me, would catch butterflies and bring them inside. He would stop, pick me up from the floor and sit me in that big chair by the big window. “Come see what I got for you today.” He pulled out the shadow box were we had the other butterflies mounted. Frank carefully took the butterfly out of the net he had captured it in and laid it in the box and secured its delicate wings to the board with sewing pins.
There was a favorite book of mine, no one seems to remember the name of the book but it was about a duck named Jay Jay. In the afternoon, when Frank got in from first grade, he’d put me in that chair and then he would get my book and he would read it to me once again.
Later on one of the many trips Dad made to New Orleans on business, he brought me back a bear. He had a brown fur body and a tan face. The bear’s face looked like he was ready to cry with one tear rolling down his face. Dad put it in my crib with me but I just cried. “What’s wrong?”
Mom pulled it out and I stopped. “She’s afraid of it right now. Let’s just put it here in the rocker and she’ll get used to it.” Seeing it every day helped me learn to like it and when I did I named it Jay Jay.
My other memory of that house was the long hall that went the length of the back of the house. It had off white walls and a shiny wooden floor. That hallway touched all the bedrooms. I remember it because when I was able Mom would put Karla and me in our walkers and away we would go. Me not so fast. “Come on Kay!” Karla would yell and I would try to walk after her. Mom and Dad would come to hate those walkers though. Because every time we would roll by the television, which we would do more frequently after we found out that the sound our walkers would make changed the channels. Boy did we have fun doing that. Mom said we would giggle.
The year we moved to Memphis my brother Frank started to school. They had poison ivy on the playground. So in order to get rid of it they burned it while the kids were in school. My brother inhaled the fumes which made him break out in poison ivy so bad inside and out that my Mom had to stand him on a sheet and put salve all over him. It was really bad. You wonder about some people’s thought processes. I guess in 1959 they didn’t have many choices.
Mom hated Memphis, it was so far away from her parents and the weather was atrocious summer and winter. She didn’t have a dryer at first so practically every afternoon it would rain. If she forgot and didn’t pull the laundry off the line in time they would get soaked. She cried the day we moved back to Dallas.
Once we moved back to the Dallas area we moved in with Mom’s parents. Mamaw and Granddaddy had been in the Mesquite house for a short time. Granddaddy had been a Dallas Police Officer for twenty-six years before he retired and went to work as the head security guard for First National Bank of Dallas. Mamaw worked out of the home very little, but she sewed for people when Mother was growing up. She taught Karen and me how to sew on her old sewing machine. She couldn’t keep Mom and Karla still long enough to learn how to sew. When they knew we were coming back from Memphis they added a big room and covered porch on the back of the house. They used the big room as their bedroom combination den. That house and room I remember the best. Because I would learn to crawl around in it on my own.