Oberlin Blogs

A Blog Post About Toenails

February 8, 2016

El Wilson ’18

"When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, 'Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping."'
~Fred Rogers

It was only when Ben was holding me by the armpits with my feet dangling a few inches above my sneakers that I realized that being independent is highly overrated.

For Winter Term, my friend Ben and I traveled to Santa Fe to stay with my mother's brother. We were supposed to be volunteering at the Children's Museum, but by the time we got there the museum had become financially defunct and (temporarily?) shut down. Luckily, my uncle's neighbor worked for the local Animal Shelter and the public library was looking for volunteers. We ended up spending most of our mornings playing with cute fuzzy creatures and our afternoons shelving picture books at the library.

Our main job at the animal shelter was "socializing" with the animals. In other words, it was our duty to let the dogs lick our faces, to let the cats rub against us, and to hold kittens and puppies as they fell asleep in our laps. I came home every day with grains of cat litter stuck to my pants and smelling of dog pee. It was one of the most rewarding experiences of my life. I was having a blast and so were the animals. The reason the shelter wants people to socialize with the animals is simple: It increases those animals' chances of being adopted. The more positive experiences they associate with people, the more likely they are to respond positively when potential adopters approach them. Yes, I was having the time of my life, but I was also helping animals find homes.

I believe that I am worth nothing unless I am doing something to help others. At Oberlin, we are constantly reiterating the importance of self-care and sometimes putting oneself before others. I'm incapable of doing this. 99% of the time, I prioritize everyone else's needs and desires before my own. If my roommate asked me to sleep under her bed so that we could keep a man-eating cockroach on top of mine, I would. (I'm barely exaggerating.) For me, the alternative to giving my all to others isn't self-care; it's self-destruction. If I'm not fulfilling others' wants, I won't even meet my own basic needs.

Ironically, as a disabled person, I constantly need help from everyone else. When my Uncle took us to Taos Pueblo (part of a Native American reservation), the mud was as deep as Oberlin snow. I certainly don't mind getting dirty, so I was eager to explore. I very quickly realized there was a problem when my feet had sunk into the mud and I couldn't take another step. Ben immediately offered to pull me out only to find that the moment he lifted me, my feet slipped right out of my shoes. I looked down at my socks, looked up at Ben, and began to laugh hysterically. The two of us giggled as Ben carried me to (relatively) dry land and helped me put my shoes back on. For the next hour, he held both my hands slowly guiding me through the mud and carrying me over the thickest parts as we explored the adobe town.

Ben was constantly pulling me out of mud in one way or another. One day, I mentioned to him that I don't have the fine motor skills to cut my own toenails so I just rip them when they get too long and hope for the best. He immediately grabbed a pair of scissors. When I told this to my mother, she said, "That was a lot to ask from a friend." Sorry, Mom, but you're wrong. It took all of five minutes, and it's not as if I have some weird toenail fungus that makes my nails glow in the dark. Besides, it's no different from the times my friends drive me to Walmart or give me dating advice or snuggle with me when I feel poopy. Yes, by cutting my toenails, Ben was fulfilling one of my "special" needs, but special needs aren't all that special. Please understand, Ben is one of my favorite human beings. He and I have an intense bromance going on. I'm immensely grateful that he didn't get mad at me when I threw a corndog at his face (don't ask), for making me laugh every two seconds, and for going on this crazy adventure with me. The toenails were just a nice bonus.

Despite the fact that I spent my entire childhood being told the importance of physical independence, this Winter Term made me realize that needing other people isn't necessarily a bad thing. Sure, my independence gives me many opportunities and makes my life much easier. Yet, I have disabled friends who are physically much less independent than I am and they are just as happy as I am. Everyone is totally dependent on everyone else anyway. My relationships are made stronger because of my dependence. In what other circumstance could Ben and I have an inside joke about me having bear claws?

Even though I spent the whole month receiving help from Ben, I also came home every day knowing that I had helped dozens of people and animals. That's what made the month matter. How much I can do for myself is irrelevant. My life will be defined by what I do for others.

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