As I arrive at 5:45 pm, the Ray-Cam Centre on the Downtown East Side of Vancouver is full of life. I’m committed to leading a storytelling workshop for the One Community Festival at 6:00 pm. I don’t know who will be there. I don’t know if I will be telling stories or teaching. All I know is that Lance Lim has been working hard organizing the festival and Realwheels is eager to make our contribution to building inclusion for youth with disabilities.
At five minutes to six, Ray-Cam’s amazing Carin pulls it together and I am told that I will be working with the girls club. Katherine and Bea, volunteers from Building Caring Communities, will join me.
The workshop is in an arts and crafts room. The girls are girling about, chatting and hugging. Some are outgoing, others hang back shyly. There are about 25 of them, mostly seven to ten years old, with three or four slightly older. Most look Caucasian, many first nations, two or three East Asian, one south Asian.
The women who work with the girls are also diverse: an African Muslim in a head scarf, Cheryl a slim Asian, Patrice the eldest, Candace looks to be in charge; she has her arm around trembly, chubby, blonde Taylor, who is leaning into her. All seem very capable and helpful, constantly gently shushing the girls, wrangling them into the circle of little plastic chairs. As latecomers arrive, the circle gets widened so that all fit in.
I am the only male with 35 females, most of them prepubescent. They do not pay much attention to me.
Mila, one of the tiniest ones, asks in a curious and friendly way, not at all wary or judging, what happened to my face. I tell her I will soon talk about that. They settle down.
I introduce myself as a performer but say that because I am shy I need their help. I count 1,2,3 and they ask in unison:
“What happened to your face?” I explain, then tell about being loved in my family. I stand up, go to Meena and tell her, just as my mother told me: “Honey, you are so smart, you could be whatever you want to be. Really, you are.” I repeat that with two more girls. With each one I approach, my heart opens more as I see in her eyes that she believes me. Then comes the story of how my Nana told me to hold my chin up. And that then I knew I was loved and beautiful even though I was born with a facial difference. When I become Nana yelling at me to be proud of who I am, Taylor clutches Candace. “Oh, was I too loud?” I ask, and Candace gives a nod of reassurance.
“Now!”, I say. “Those women on TV, they just look weird with that strange makeup. They don’t look like real people. I don’t think they are beautiful. I want to know who in your life is beautiful and what makes them that way.”
First is Janna, a little older than the others, looking close to the earth in her small chair. In response to being urged to join the circle, she has placed herself sitting half in, half out. “I haven’t seen my sister in a while.” Her voice trails off. She wipes her eyes. Conscious only of her, I cross the room, fishing in my pocket for a clean tissue. She wipes her eyes again. “Your sister…what is beautiful about her?” “She loves me, she cares for me.”
Meena waves her hand toward me, “He wants us to feel good about ourselves the way we are,” and others nod.
Janna then turns her chair into the circle. She doesn’t raise her hand, she just starts speaking again. Her tone changes. She points out her cousin Alicia and her sister Talia across the room and tells how wonderful and beautiful they are. They hide their faces, giggle and squirm. Alicia dips out of sight behind Talia’s chair.
Janna has set the tone for the workshop, first by her vulnerability, then her leadership for the younger girls, and in both cases it is all about family.
Sarita can’t weigh more than 40 pounds. She has clear reasons why Caitlin is beautiful. She is always friendly. She does not tease, ever. Caitlin’s eyes glow. Her face lights up as she soaks in the acknowledgement. “And she looks like Katy Perry.” Which brings general laughter.
They cling to the beauty in others. They exult in each others’ beauty and it bounces back to the person seeing the beauty of another and then it radiates out to the whole group. There is some kind of sacred ritual happening. It is redemptive.
The mood blossoms. Shyer girls begin to speak. Amy turns to tell Patrice that she is beautiful because she takes care of so many kids and doesn’t forget anyone. Also she looks good in her black and white striped top. And, after a beat, “The shoes look good, too.”
The signs of beauty in others are mostly kindness, playing together, saying hello, being in each others company. All have to do with relational skills and actions, connecting to others. She is kind. She takes care of me. She is nice to me when I am sad. She likes to play with me. She walks me to school every day. She is nice. I like it when I go to her house. She is cuddly. She likes to hug. She signs for her mother (to Sophia, who is sitting next to her deaf mother). Her hair is messy but she doesn’t care, she still is beautiful.
Often they jump up and race across to one another with enthusiastic hugs. Pop up love!
I look at Katherine and Bea and we shake our heads in amazement. A beautiful community is happening right in front of us. I don’t know what is happening exactly, but I do know it is wonderful. The whole evening is the story. I can’t explain this but I can feel it in my bones. It’s family, family, family.
I hold up my hand and announce that kind and nice are the words they are using to identify beauty. Actually, I am receding into the background as they feast on one another’s friendship. I concentrate on watching girls who are being outed as beautiful and how they bask in what the others say.
Candace starts to take charge, making sure that all of them get heard. She knows how to bring out the quiet ones; they respond to her encouragement.
Alicia wants to speak. I do not know this is the case, even when I look right at her, because she seems so reserved. But the girls around her know and call on her for me. I cannot hear her, even from four feet away. It seems like she is inhaling her words. Of course her friends understand. I ask one of them, and she repeats Alicia’s words after her, acting as her amplification system.
This runs on and on for almost an hour. The older girls are showing leadership; they encourage the younger ones, especially the shy girls.
Once in a while I say something but by the end I have nothing much to do with the flow of the group. By then they are clamoring to identify as beautiful two, three, half a dozen other girls at a time.
The acknowledgements are all about kindness or other primary qualities. There is some scant mention of hair, shoes, and physical beauty.
At the end they all agree (more or less) to tell someone new that they are beautiful. Candace tells them to “clap it in” and they all do. Candace says “Let’s dance,” and we all jump up for a minute. Then “Group hug!” I join in (a little tentatively) and we all hold each other and the whole group turns in a circle.
And then it’s over and in a few minutes I walk out the door filled with hope for the human spirit.
From Realwheels, we offer many thanks to Lance Lim and to the great workers at Ray-Cam and to the glowing members of the girls club. Hope to see you again soon. Stay beautiful. Hold your chin up.
written by David Roche