The Chloe Effect: Whence the Awesomeness?

September 30, 2010

the sun shining on a sunflower

image courtesty of Lυвαιв via Flickr

On Tuesday, I went to Chloe’s school to help her aide with her new swing.  The swing, which was generously donated by her grandparents and took about 7 months of public-school-style red tape cutting to get, appeared on the playground last weekend, and on Monday, all the kids were talking about “Chloe’s swing.”  Apparently, there had been a school-wide announcement about the swing, because one kid informed me that “the principal says no one except Chloe can get in the swing because it costs $600.”

As an adult, I can imagine that an insanely expensive and very attractive piece of playground equipment that is designated for the use of one student only could lead to envy and resentment, but what has happened is the opposite:  Chloe’s swing is exciting precisely because it is Chloe’s.  The fact that the other kids can’t use it just makes them all the more excited to see her in it.  On Monday and Tuesday, kids I had never even seen before came up to me to ask “When is Chloe going to get in her swing?”

And when Chloe did use her swing, she had an audience.  Thirty kids crowded around the swingset to see the launch of the Chloe Swing.  Of course, after a few minutes, they realized that it was just a swing, and it’s not very exciting to watch someone else swing, and they wandered off.   A few of them, I’m sure, were keeping an eye on her, though, because as soon as she got back into her wheelchair, they wanted to be there.

The thing is, Chloe is insanely popular at her school, and although I think my daughter is pretty cool, I can’t exactly understand the awe and adoration she inspires in her classmates.  Before she started school, other kids were usually a little uncomfortable around her, not sure of how to interact.  But at school, she is always the center of a pile of kids, like a cupcake left too close to a beehive.

Maybe it’s the novelty of her wheelchair and her communication device, I thought at first.  And, when these things are around, they are pretty popular.  Everyone wants to push her wheelchair and play with her device, but they also want to stroke her hair, hold her hands, and ask her questions (her close friends all know how to use hand signals to talk to her).

When adults meet someone with a significant disability, their first reaction usually seems to be some mixture of pity and admiration, superficial emotions that dissolve once they get to know the individual as a person.  But these kids don’t seem to have either reaction toward Chloe.  They just accept her and love her.   But the degree to which they do these things is, frankly, a little strange.

When Chloe answers a question in class, the whole class applauds.  I don’t think this is because they are surprised that she’s gotten the answer right.  Instead, they’re just impressed by everything she does.  They know that reaching out to pick a card with the right spelling word is hard for her, a real feat of strength a determination.

But also, I think they can be so openly approving of her because they don’t see her as competition, the way they might see each other.  Chloe is kind of in a class by herself; she does what they do, but in a completely different way.  She can’t argue with them, or steal toys from them.  Nothing she does could make them look bad by comparison, because she’s not like them.  Their relationship with her is refreshingly uncomplicated.

That’s not the whole story, though, because I guess I have to admit that Chloe has some kind of effect on people.  I’ve resisted this idea for years, because it sounds dubious coming from me.  After all, what mother doesn’t think her kid is the most lovable creature in the world?  But the evidence is building: the nurse who took care of her in preschool and cried when Chloe moved to another school.  One of her former teachers who says she still dreams about her and forgets that she’s not still in her class.  The adults at her school who regularly stop me in the hall to talk about her.  They are just as smitten as the kids.

I don’t know how the Chloe effect works.  She has a nice smile, I guess.  And when she laughs she bounces up and down in her chair and that’s cute.  Strangers often comment on her eyes, but don’t a lot of kids get accused of having nice eyes?  As her mother, I guess I’m somewhat immune to the effect.  After all, she can and does argue with me.  When I show up at her school, I get a “mom, you are cramping my style” glare.  Because I understand her the best, I get to see more of the less saintly, “regular kid” side of Chloe, which is an incredible privilege.

Last year, I worried that her star status at school might spoil Chloe, but now I have to admit that’s just the way things are for her.  It’s wonderful that her classmates treat her so well, but it’s a little disturbing to see her set apart from them, even if it is because she’s up on a pedestal.  Hopefully, as she gets older and more able to communicate, more and more people will see her as a “regular kid,” with all the complications that go along with that.


7 Responses to “The Chloe Effect: Whence the Awesomeness?”

  1. Grandma Says:

    Camilla, I wish I could put into words how the Chloe Effect works on her grandparents. Magical is as close as I can come to describing it, and you know what, it’s just like the effect her cousins have on us!

  2. yanna Says:

    As another unbiased grandmother, I can tell you another side of Chloe that I think contributes to this popularity. She has an amazing confident and calm energy that is loving and undemanding. Words are not the only way people, and especially children, communicate. Chloe for me is like this big invitation that accepts without question the love I pour into her. And I attribute this to her “regular kid” response to the love and care and attention she has received from her parents and other family members. Her mother has not let her get away with bad behavior, and has never made Chloe feel that she is anything but a regular kid, only loved that much more attentively. Her condition requires that she get a whole lot of touch and genuine attention. All kids can benefit from this example. There, now I am just one more mother bragging on my daughter…..

  3. Heather Says:

    Such a beautiful story! It reminds me of boy I went to high school with. I think he had cerebral palsy but he was not in a wheel chair. He was truly respected and loved. He was an assistant for the football team (which by the way was a state champ team in Louisiana). It was so sweet to see all these big, black, guys who were so protective of him and did not pity him.

  4. Vivien Says:

    Thank you so much for the insight Chloe’s life and success at school. We so enjoy updates of her progress and would truly love to meet her.

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