Actually, I’ve often wondered if she was fond of me or felt sorry for me and started watching out for me. Sometimes I think she even worried about me. She talked to me a lot—at interesting times: at the end of the lunch line while we were waiting on everyone to go through the line; in the line while we waited to get water after P.E.; and in line at the end of the day for dismissal.

I worried that others were aware of how much she liked me, so often I pretended to ignore her—it didn’t work—she would ask me if something was wrong.

I worried a lot about my mother while I was at school. I wondered if she was getting along OK—worried that she was able to do the chores at home—worried that she would fall while getting in or out of the car at the bank—worried that a robber would break into the house during the day and she would not be able to get away.

My mother was handicapped. I use that word because she was handicapped long before the politically correct word of disabled was used. Having now worked in the field of children with disabilities and understanding the subtle difference that people with disabilities want you to know and understand about those two words, I’ve decided that my mother was handicapped—certainly disabled as well, but really just handicapped.

In fact, our whole family was handicapped. When they took my mother’s leg off, her life, my father’s life, and my life were all changed forever. In fact, my sister—who was not yet born— was changed as well. Can someone be changed even before they are not conceived and born? I now know they can.

My 7th grade year was a particularly difficult one for me. Mrs. Armstrong knew that, and she provided support day in and day out. What she did most was to talk to me—and help me talk about what was going on with my family. During one particularly difficult time in the spring, Mrs. Armstrong decided that if perhaps I talked to some of the students about my mother and her handicap it might help me. You see, the kids at school never knew why I was always worried, upset, confused or just plain out-of-it. Mrs. Armstrong talked to me about what I might say and how students might respond. I told her I wasn’t sure if I could do it.

Days dragged on, and she continued to talk and encourage me.

We had never had a maid at home. I guess that was because we really couldn’t afford it, and also because my mother never trusted anyone in the house. She was afraid of almost everything. However, finally, my father talked her into it.

My father had hired a day-laborer—a man named Ronald—for his construction work and the man had worked for him for several weeks. In fact, the guy was so good that my father kept him busy by bringing him to our house for odd jobs. This was to keep him busy and keep him paid so he wouldn’t go to work for someone else. Ronald told my father that his wife needed to work and that she did domestic work. They had kids and really needed the money. My parents argued over it—mother proclaiming that we needed the money also and why would we keep paying these people we didn’t even know when it might be us who was desperate in the near future.

I hated it when they fought—I always wanted to do something to stop them. I found that the most effective way was to scream and holler at them or sometimes just throw up. My father always said nothing, and my mother would tell me to go to bed, explaining that everything was okay. “However,” I remember thinking, “If everything was okay, why did they fight all the time?”

My father won out—which he did often—by simply not giving up. It may have taken days of arguing and fussing, but he was good at staying the course.

Ronald’s wife showed up at 7:30 AM sharp on a Saturday morning, dressed in a white maid’s uniform that had more starch in it than any shirt my dad or me had ever worn. Mother made her come on Saturday, so I would be there with her, because she was uncomfortable having someone in the house with her when she was there alone.

The woman’s name was Joyce, and she was polite and very business-like. She acted insulted when my mother would tell her how to do things. My mother finally quit telling her how to do things and just sat down. My mother seemed sad. It made no sense to her; here was this professional cleaning lady doing all the chores, leaving her to sit at the kitchen table and drink coffee.

On the other hand, I was thrilled—it meant I wouldn’t have to vacuum for at least a couple of days. Our floors were vacuumed more than any carpet in Decatur, Georgia, and I was the master of vacuuming! “Now,” I silently hoped, “I would be free from it until at least Monday!

Lunch was served at promptly 12:00 noon—our maid fixed lunch! Wow! She not only knew how to clean really well, she fixed us lunch as well! She also told me to quit playing with my food, to sit up straight and to finish eating the soup without picking up the bowl. Soup and a peanut butter sandwich—it was just like a scene out of “Leave it to Beaver.”

While we were eating, Joyce went back to work in the back of the house—in my parents’ bedroom. We heard the vacuum cleaner going—yes, I would not have to vacuum until Monday!

Without any warning, we suddenly heard Joyce screaming. Screaming really, really loudly! My mother and I froze. The screaming was getting louder—she was coming toward us. Still screaming—she ran into the den, grabbed her purse and shopping bag and ran out the door.My mother and I just sat looking at each other—perplexed—we could still hear the vacuum cleaner. My mother got up and went to the door where Joyce had left leaving the door open. Joyce was running up the street toward the bus stop. My mother stepped outside and tried to call her, but she was gone and not to be slowed in her rapid exit.

My mother told me to go into the bedroom and see what was in there. I said no—I was afraid to go into the room with the vacuum cleaner still running.

Mother insisted, giving me no choice but to go into the back of the house by myself. The vacuum cleaner was still running where Joyce had left it as she departed, screaming at the top of her lungs.

I slowly walked down the long hallway toward their bedroom. The vacuum cleaner was getting louder—my heart was pounding and I felt like it would soon jump out of my throat. I slowly peeked into their bedroom. Nothing. The vacuum cleaner was lying on the floor on the other side of the bed, out of sight. Nothing looked unusual. However, the door to the closet was open.

As I got closer, I could tell that the vacuum cleaner was on the floor half in the closet and half out, but still running. I slowly walked around the bed. When I got to the end of the bed and had an unobstructed view into the closet, I saw it. There it lay on the floor—the vacuum cleaner pushed up against it. It was the shin of a leg; the leg was on the floor, foot out toward the door of the closet and the knee and thigh slanted back toward the back of the closet. The upper part of the leg was covered in fallen clothes.

Joyce had found my mother’s old artificial leg—stored neatly in the closet. My mother had been going through the fitting for a new leg. When cleaning the floor of the closet, Joyce pushed the vacuum up against the foot of the prosthesis, causing it to fall. It was obviously more than she could handle.

I turned the vacuum cleaner off, picked up the leg and walked toward the den. By the time I got to the den, I was laughing hysterically. When my mother saw me, she knew immediately what had happened. I could say nothing—I was about to wet my pants in hysteria! I just stood in front of my mother holding her artificial leg.

But she didn’t fact, she didn’t even smile. To her it was not funny. In fact, she told me it was not funny. She told me I should be ashamed of myself and to go put the leg up immediately.

When I returned to the den, having put the leg up and stopping by the bathroom for relief, mother told me not to mention this to my father. To make matters, worse, she then told me to go finish the chore. So much for my break from vacuuming.

That night I heard my mother telling my father about the incident after they had gone to bed. I eased into the hall to listen, as I did so often. She was fussing at him for having suggested that we have a maid in the first place. It was horrible, she told him, and she was so embarrassed.

On Monday, Mother picked me up from school and didn’t drive straight home. In fact, we were going toward downtown Decatur. I asked where we were going, but she offered no explanation. Soon we were driving into a downtown housing project. I was uneasy—I had been told many times NEVER to ride my bike into projects as it was not safe. I had only been in the projects one other time, and that was when I had ridden with my father to pick up a day-laborer who lived there.

I was somewhat surprised by what I saw. Most of the houses were nice—small, but nice. They seemed to be well kept, and the yards were well groomed. I watched small children playing on the sidewalks—riding bikes, playing baseball and chasing each other.

Hm-m-m-m...just the same games we played after school. But we might as well have been thousands of miles away instead of the two miles that separated our house from the projects.

We soon stopped in front of a duplex. Mother did not pull into the driveway—she seemed very nervous. The yard was incredible. It had rows of flowers along the walkway that made it look like something out of a magazine, especially if you didn’t look too far up the sidewalk to realize that it was a duplex in a housing project. The house was freshly painted with neat trim around the windows and doors.

My mother gave me an envelope with cash in it. She told me to go to the door and give the money to Joyce. I simply stared at my mother in disbelief. We were sitting in front of Joyce’s house. How did she know where Joyce lived? I had heard my father argue that they needed the money­—this place looked better than ours.

Again, I did not want to go, but she gave me no choice. I don’t know why I was nervous, but again, my heart was in my throat. There was no doorbell, but instead a nice, new brass knocker on the door with The Porters etched in it.

I slowly raised the knocker and let it fall. It was sooooo loud. I thought I had broken it. No answer—good, I could leave. I looked back out toward the car. My mother motioned for me to knock again. I reluctantly complied. This time I heard footsteps coming toward the door.

I saw the curtain beside the door move, but I was still not able to see anyone. Then, I heard a voice—it was Joyce. Without opening the door, she asked what I wanted. I spoke loudly into the door that my mother wanted to pay her for her work. To my surprise, she shouted back to go away. She did not want our money. I quickly ran to the car and jumped in.

Mother seemed puzzled and sad. The envelope of money lay on the seat between us as she slowly drove back toward our house. We said nothing.

The leg incident was not lost on me. I had developed my plan. I would take Mrs. Armstrong up on her offer to talk to kids about my mother’s leg. The leg falling out of the closet and scaring Joyce had strangely inspired me to want to talk. I wasn’t sure what I would talk about. I wasn’t sure I was prepared to tell them about Joyce; about my mother’s leg and how she lost it; about how I had had to learn how to give her physical therapy; about how I had learned to rub my mother’s stump with lotion to help increase blood circulation; about how I had to put my mother’s leg on every morning before I left for school; about how I couldn’t go on scout camping trips on Friday nights because my father went fishing on Saturdays and I had to put my mother’s leg on; or about how I had to vacuum the house every other day because my mother couldn’t. I wasn’t sure what I would tell them but it didn’t seem to matter as I sneaked the leg out of the house and headed toward the bus stop. I was taking my mother’s old leg to school to show, and I didn’t have a clue what I would tell them.

I had not completely thought through the process of getting the leg to school. I had taken a black plastic garbage bag from the kitchen to put the leg in. No didn’t completely fit. Which end should be in the bag and which end should hang out? Walking to the bus stop I decided to put the heavier thigh part of the leg in the bag leaving the foot out in full view.

The kids at the bus stop stood in disbelief. I had a really hard time explaining it to them. I was surprised that most did not know that my mother wore an artificial leg. Had they not been paying attention? Had they not seen her limp? Had they not seen all the things I had to do for her?

I had about decided to abandon the whole idea of my presentation when the bus pulled up. I waited to board last. Juggling my book bag, the garbage bag and the leg, I climbed the steep steps of the bus. The bus driver ignored me as I walked by. He quickly jolted forward before I had a chance to sit down. We were the next to the last stop, so the bus was almost full. I fell forward as the bus jerked away quickly. I managed to keep my balance almost to the back of the bus when everything I had been carrying became too heavy and too off-balance, and it all tumbled to the floor of the bus. Silence filled the bus as my mother’s leg went sliding under seat after seat.

It came to rest at the seat of Wilson Ridley—our class bully. He screeched in disbelief and picked the leg up. I tried to wrestle it from him, but I was no match. He pulled it from my hands and placed it high above his head shouting and announcing to the bus that he had found a leg on the floor.

Before we could get to the next stop, he had the foot part of the leg hanging out of the window. Just as we approached the last stop, we greeted the waiting students with half a leg—out the window.

General chaos filled the bus as we rode the remaining short distance to the school. We arrived at school with the bus rocking and rolling as Wilson led the crowd with my mother’s leg!

We entered the school en mass with loud shouts and screams. The teacher on bus duty at the front hallway, Mrs. Smith, snapped into action. She halted the mob by raising her arms in the air as if she was calling on strength from heaven. Everyone fell silent, even Wilson who was leading the crowd with my mother’s leg.

She walked slowly toward Wilson and the leg with great authority. She looked over her glasses—first at the leg, now totally out of the bag—and then at Wilson. She asked him where he got it. He nonchalantly explained that it had come sliding under the seats and stopped in front of him. He had merely picked it up to keep it from becoming a problem on the bus. He explained that he tried to keep everyone calm on the bus, but they would not stop screaming. As if she had handled legs every day, Mrs. Smith reached out and took the leg from Wilson. Reluctantly, he volunteered his find. She then looked up at the crowd, still silent, and asked to whom the leg belonged. I froze.

As if moving away from a terrible smell, the students slowly but deliberately moved away from me. The parting mass left me standing directly in front of Mrs. Smith—all alone. Again looking over her glasses, she asked if the leg belonged to me. The best I could muster was—sort of! Without saying anything, her face demanded additional information. I told her it was my mother’s and that Mrs. Armstrong had told me it would be good if I could explain my mother’s handicap to the other students.

Still holding the leg, she stood upright and seemed 8 feet tall. She instructed everyone to walk quietly to their classrooms to begin their day of learning. In what seemed like hours, everyone slowly departed down either the upper grade hall or the lower grade hall leaving Mrs. Smith, the leg, and me standing there alone.

Without saying anything, she marched toward the school office with me in tow. She stood at the entrance to the office and told the secretary that she would return shortly. Without turning toward me, she told me we were going to Mrs. Armstrong’s room. As we walked down the long, upper-grade hallway, we passed the library, the music room, the 4th grade classrooms, then the 5th and 6th grade classrooms, the exit to the playground, and finally, the 7th grade rooms. As we passed the exit, I thought of bolting—running until I could run no more. However, I didn’t, if for no other reason than because I couldn’t leave my mother’s leg.

The halls were almost empty as school was about to begin. Mrs. Smith opened the door of Mrs. Armstrong’s room and out stepped Mrs. Armstrong; her usual smile greeting all three of us. She smiled at Mrs. Smith and said “Good morning” as she took the leg from Mrs. Smith. She told me to go on inside and have a seat. I walked into a room that was all silence and eyes. I found my seat, put my books away and started immediately on the morning assignment from the board.

Shortly, Mrs. Armstrong came into the room carrying my mother’s leg. She placed it on the table in front of the classroom as everyone watched in disbelief. In her usual upbeat voice, she told the class that we would have a special treat at the end of the day. She proceeded to her desk at the back of the room. As she walked by my desk, she smiled, winked, and started calling the attendance roll from memory. Even though I didn’t know what would happen that day, I took a deep breath and knew that everything would be okay.

The last 20 minutes of every afternoon in 7th grade was reserved for homeroom. We did all kinds of things—usually catching up on anything that had been left undone during the day. Looking back now, I know what that last 20 minutes was really for. It was a kind of family time when Mrs. Armstrong taught us lessons that were not in textbooks. She gave us insights into life that were always related to something going on with students. The lesson taught that day in less than 20 minutes was designed entirely for me. Through her kind questioning of me as I stood beside my mother’s leg, I became an expert on prosthetic devices explaining how a “suction” leg worked, how the knee joint was balanced to bend just right as the user walked, how to climb stairs always leading with the “good” leg, how maintaining a healthy stump was very important and most of all just how normal it was to have an artificial leg.

I’ve often thought back to that period of time in my life, and I now understand how pivotal that particular moment was in defining the person I would become. I also realize how symbolic and quintessential all of the characters were that were cast in my own little dramedy...the fearful, the bully, the status quo, and the leader who offered encouragement and grace. Throughout my life, I’ve met the same characters time and time again, all with different faces and different stories. Mrs. Armstrong, however, will always take the lead as the encourager and tower over all the others in my mind...all five feet of her.

Randy Dobbs went on and followed the passion of Mrs. Armstrong and became a 7th grade teacher as well. He used many of those lessons he had learned in his own 7th grade to guide him in working with his adolescents. After serving in both regular and special education, Randy became a principal and found an even broader way to use the lessons he had learned. He currently is a professor at Georgia State University.

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