Defined by my bucket list, not barriers

Demystifying Disability

Ariel Hayat /Staff

Last Wednesday, I sat in the back of a darkened room in Hearst Gym. I was with my swim class, and we were reviewing videos that our coach had filmed of our practice. As a group, we would critique the strokes of other swimmers to identify technique. When my clip came up, I laughed.

The video showed me drifting slightly to the left and doing an awkward freestyle. The timing between my arm strokes was a little off. My right arm lagged as my left arm reached over my head and into the water to grab another handful of water. Frame by frame, I moved slowly through the water. My classmates watched and fidgeted. I broke the uncomfortable silence, joking, “Whelp. There’s only one orange swim cap in the class, kids!”

My coach turned to me and stage-whispered that I didn’t have to identify myself, which they had talked about at the beginning of class. But I was tardy to class. I missed that part.

I felt embarrassment and then indignation.

I think my coach was trying to help me save face. But why would I want to deny my body and disown my efforts?

I can’t be afraid of embarrassing myself. I make mistakes all the time when learning — especially when learning how to adapt my differently abled body to my ability-centric environment.

Last year, in the name of learning, I hit my mother in the face with a kayak paddle and knocked out her front tooth.

It’s a widely acknowledged fact that balance isn’t exactly my strong suit. My center of gravity resembles that of a drunk panda. A drunk, well-meaning panda with a chronic lack of foresight. Picture an inebriated panda attempting to mount a floating, orange toothpick.

I lifted my left foot into the orange kayak and put my right hand on the rim. Kayak paddles in my fist, I thrusted my entire body upward and immediately toppled, ass over teakettle, arms flailing.

The paddles made contact with my mother’s face. The smacking sound of plastic on her nose harmonized with the confused grunts I made as I fell face-first into the water. I inhaled a healthy amount of silt, and in the brief moment before I surfaced, my primordial brain told me I was in deep shit.

I cautiously stood up, tensed my body and prepared for the worst. The first thing I heard was the kayak-rental guy laughing hysterically. Over my shoulder, I saw him literally rolling on the beach in stitches. Never before had I seen someone collapse from laughter.

My blubbering mother, faithful kayaking counterpart, held her nose with one hand and gestured to me with the other. I could see the purplish bags of two black eyes already beginning to form. The inebriated panda had created another panda. I exhaled, and a rapid word vomit of apologies came out as her front tooth fell into her hand.

I made a complete fool of myself and took my mother down in the process. For the price of two black eyes, one capped front tooth and most of my dignity, I have a new experience. I, Jasmine Leiser, can kayak. I also apologized to my mom for about a year.

I’m not great at kayaking, but I will never deny my body or disown my efforts. I now know how to properly mount a kayak. I look forward to taking on Berkeley Marina. And I may just wear an orange swim cap, just so people know it’s me.

I want to be an adventurer defined by my bucket list, not my barriers. I refuse to let fear of poor performance get in the way, but I will make mistakes. People try to detach my disability from my body, especially when I’m doing physical activity, and this makes us all a little uncomfortable. It’s as if they are afraid of offending me by naming ability status. They will either overcompensate with political correctness and confusing terminology or apologize for noticing.

Last week in swim class, the film clip highlighted my unconventional body movements and wayward kick pattern. I did not look graceful or archetypal, and the movement I was making was definitely not “freestyle.” It was my very own jerky and disjointed style.

My coach felt embarrassed for me. No need — I crack myself up all the time. I see that I’m physically awkward, and you see that I’m physically awkward. You will laugh at me, and I will laugh at myself, and that’s the way it should be.

Revel in your mistakes. Perfection is pretentious. Life is embarrassing.

Jasmine Leiser writes the Monday blog on ability and its intersection with the student experience. You can contact her at [email protected].