themighty logo

Why Performing Stage Combat With Cerebral Palsy Was a Real Battle

There’s an older boy in front of me, at a carefully measured distance of about 3 inches. He’s going to punch me. A fake punch, but I wouldn’t be any more nervous if he was going to hit me for real.

He eyes me. I eye him. His eyes dart downward for just a second.

“I’m going to come from the left, OK?” he says. I nod. This sweater was a mistake. It’s baking me. I look down too. My wheelchair has never been more visible.

He and I are in the BlackBox theater at my new high school. Just mine, because he’s taking this class as a senior. But of course, not just mine, because it’s not just us. There are six or seven other pairs of teenagers spaced around the stage, all focusing on one another, trying to practice stage combat. I’m willing to bet they’re all somewhat uncomfortable, because they aren’t actually focusing on one another. They’re looking at each other, but then they look down at the black tile floor, or up at the lopsided red sheeting one of my classmates threw out of whack earlier. The teacher, looking around, checking people’s distances as they begin staging their first “punches,” is the only one who’s really at ease.

I don’t come close to that. “At ease” and I said goodbye long before the word “punches” came out of the teacher’s mouth. I’m now shaking hands with “mildly terrified.”

But he isn’t. He’s telling me calmly, “I’m gonna come from the left, OK?” And I’m nodding. And as the punch is coming my mind is racing, and I’m thinking so many different things: That’s nice of him but he’s going too slowly he’s going too slowly and I can’t duck until his fist is level with my nose that’s what the teacher said and he does this so easily he’s teaching me the technique and should I be doing this ANDOHMYGODTHEREISAFISTCOMINGATMYFACE!

I twist. Too soon. I have a flinch reflex. In a minute, the teacher will tell me that it’s just a matter of practice and I won’t turn so soon eventually, that I did well on the last punch. The praise is sincere, but I want to tell him that no, it’s not a matter of practice. I understand this boy won’t hurt me. It doesn’t matter. He could be a fluffy bunny and if he moved toward me suddenly, I would flinch.

Now the boy’s “punch” has climaxed and I haven’t made the noise. The knap to show I got punched. Which means I did it wrong, like I knew I would. I didn’t even bother really paying attention. I knew. I’m the kid in the chair, and I did it wrong. In front of this boy who’s doing everything to make this go right. Heat races up my miserable sweater.

“Sorry,” I mumble.

“It’s fine,” He’s so incredibly patient, it’s too much. He really is going too slowly. He’s sympathetic.

“I’m going to come from the left again.” Another numb nod.

He puts his hand on my shoulder. It’s part of the technique.

I move too early again, but this time it’s worse. A tiny movement. I don’t look like I got punched at all.

A barrage of punches. Without my having to ask or him having to say anything, he’s dishing out the majority. But now I have to punch him.

“Um, which shoulder do I use?”

“Whichever one you’re more comfortable with.”

So I try to place my hand on his right shoulder; it’s closer. But it’s no good. I can’t put my hand firmly on the blade. I try to adjust, but my hand will not work in the way his did, and it never will.

I’m a writer. I see stories. Right now the one I see is: There’s a girl three inches from a boy, he’s wearing a light-material shirt, and she is feeling the weight of his hand on her shoulder. He has blond hair and blue eyes. In a book, this is where the girl would say something foolish, and the music would crescendo and they would lean in towards each other while the colors got swirly, and, assuming the boy was learned, he would say, “Give me my sin again,” and kiss her. The story wouldn’t mention that nothing like that happens when the girl has cerebral palsy and her arms are so spastic she can’t aim for the face if she’s looking at it. This isn’t a book.

What really happens is, I keep trying to punch him, but my hand never quite reaches his nose straight, and that’s his cue to make the noise. I keep trying to pass the turn back to him, and he always takes it if I ask, and always goes much longer than me by implicit agreement, but I feel weird asking. It calls attention. I keep trying to control the flinch reflex, but it keeps going off like a gun.

I keep trying to figure out how I feel. Am I grateful? Angry? Amused? It’s so good of him to take this in stride, to figure out how I can practice. We’re making this work, as I’ve learned to do. But before we started stage combat, I had not been aware of my wheelchair in a long time.

It’s not often been important that I can’t duck, because no one ever threw things at me. But we did ducking for a slapping drill. Who cares if my hands are imprecise and weak — I can move them, can’t I? But I can’t simulate socking someone. Is it really a problem for my daily life that I can’t walk, if I’ve got a wheelchair? Well, it becomes considerably more of one when the other kids are trying to “kick someone in the stomach” (stamp their foot while the other person lies down) or “trip” (touch their foot and wave their arms a bit). Simple for them. Impossible for me.

Sometimes you can’t make things happen. So you adapt. Many people with disabilities know this. What some of them don’t acknowledge is how impossible some things really are. I look ridiculous trying to “punch” him, and I know it, and he’s an older boy who’s slowing his life for me, indulging in my broken parts. As nice as he’s being — never explicitly showing frustration or fatigue — it just isn’t the same. Why do so many adults insist it is?

So I’m sympathetic and grateful and angry. But more than anything, I’m embarrassed that my body won’t — can’t — match his. It’s still my turn to punch. As I let the next one fly, I look at the boy, and despite knowing he doesn’t deserve it, I think, “Patronizing, conceited jerk.” Maybe that will put some force behind the punch. But I can’t be really angry at him. He tries. A lot of people don’t.

I was helped that day, because someone figured out how to adapt with me. It was the same a few days later when I told my teacher I wanted to write this instead of participating in the stage combat. I was a mess at the time, anything but clear about my reason. It was this: For a rare moment, my disability mattered, and I wanted to capture that moment until it rang with truth, not just for other people in wheelchairs, but for the able-bodied who have realized that not everything will go according to plan.

Getty image by EvgeniyShkolenko.