Stilts: a story

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There was a world where everyone was expected to be the same height at the same age. People who were shorter than that height were considered behind in assorted different ways (their body proportions determined which way), and people taller than that height were considered gifted but also weird and possibly shunned as well.

In that world was born a boy who tended to be about a foot shorter than he was expected to be. The boy learned early on to walk on tall stilts so that he would be the same height as everyone else, sometimes taller. He learned to walk on those stilts without touching them with his hands. When he fell, it confused people, but he was always able to get back up on the stilts. When he was on the stilts, he was treated as just the same as everyone else, or as advanced, depending on how high the stilts were on any given day.

As he got older, he contracted a balance problem. It was not a particularly severe balance problem. In a person who could walk without stilts it would make little difference at all. But to this boy, it made all the difference in the world: He could no longer walk on stilts. The best he could manage were fairly short platform shoes.

Everyone was scrambling to figure out what had happened to him. After all, he had been “normal” or “ahead” (if walking a little funny and doing things that people couldn’t understand when he had to get off his stilts), and suddenly he was walking on the ground, his normal height.

Meanwhile he became adept at a whole lot of things he had never been adept at before: Running, climbing, jumping, all kinds of things that could be done without stilts. His minor balance problem did not get in the way of these things, but it did get in the way of everything he’d been able to do because of the stilts.

People assumed he had shrunk and tested him for all kinds of conditions that can cause shrinkage, even though he hadn’t shrunk at all, he had merely lost the ability to use his stilts. People questioned his ability to be described as the person of the height he actually was, because he had for so long worn stilts to make himself taller. Some believed that he was too lazy to use stilts, even though every time he used stilts he fell on his head. Others assumed he had never used stilts in the first place and were astonished at all the things he had learned to do while able to stand at the same height or taller as everyone else (this society was inaccessible to people shorter than the designated height, so shorter people did not have certain advantages), thinking he must have benefited from recent techniques for teaching shorter people (when he really hadn’t, although he now made use of some of them since he couldn’t use his stilts anymore).

But all he was was a boy who was shorter than average and had made himself stilts to walk on, and eventually become unable to use the stilts anymore. He had not shrunk, he had not in essence changed, he had just lost a particular rather minor ability, and for that matter gained several others in the process. The only reason it seemed like a major change was because his society valued apparent height over nearly all else, and it overshadowed their ability to perceive what had really happened to him.

About Mel Baggs

Hufflepuff. Came from the redwoods. Crochet or otherwise create constantly and compulsively. Write poetry and paint when I can. Physically and cognitively disabled. Anything you hear in the media or gossip is likely to be oversimplified at best and wildly inaccurate at worst, the only way to get to know me is to actually know me. I'm not really part of any online faction or another, even ones that claim me as a member. The thing in the world most important to me is having love and compassion for other people, although I don't always measure up to my own standards there by a longshot. And individual specific actions and situations and contexts matter a lot more to me than broadly-spoken abstract words and ideas about a topic. My father died a couple years ago and that has changed my life a lot in ways that are still evolving, but I wear a lot of his clothes and hats every day since he died and have shown no sign of stopping soon.

10 responses »

  1. I love this story!
    I want to see it fleshed out, but mainly so I can spend longer reading it. I want to see more about him learning to run, climb… I want to see him choosing which stilts to wear. I want to hear the conversations as people are perplexed…
    GREAT story!

  2. You know… I really ought to write it out into a longer story. I know pretty much how I could do it, and yeah you’re right there’s so much more that can be fleshed out. I wrote this one in less than five minutes. (And as can possibly be guessed, it vaguely resembles my own life. Not entirely — the analogy is not perfect, and does not account for certain things — but certainly in some respects. Which makes it relatively easy to come up with conversation fodder.)

  3. I think the brevity is a strength, actually. It’d be interesting to see where it could go if you lengthen it, but having a short version makes it easier to get people to read it. (So, definitely keep the short version around even if you do write v2.0!)

  4. As far as analogies go, it is a near-perfect representation of my life so far, though what happened to me was more akin to being pushed off the stilts by someone who discovered I was using them and, as a result, acquiring a profound fear of getting back up on the stilts again.

    Leading to me learning a good deal more about myself without and how I -actually- work since I’m no longer expending so much energy on the effort of not being me.

    Thank you.

  5. I agree, it would be great if you can eventually come back to this and flesh it out some more. I understood it just fine — but I suspect that might be partly because I’ve read so much of your blog at this point that I was able to extrapolate from certain elements of the story to other things you have written here and thereby understand what you were geting at. Plus, I also was able to draw on my own experiences with certain disabilities. But this is a story that ought to be read by a wider audience, including people who maybe haven’t read anything else by you. Fleshing it out and clarifying some of the premises might help. (For example, I caught on to the idea that others didn’t notice that the boy was using stilts the whole time — they just thought he was always that tall, and that’s why they were confused when he fell down. But someone without awareness of disabilities and all the ways that disabled people sometimes have to “fake it” to get by and sometimes really CAN “pass,” or people who are unfamiliar with certain elements of your own story, might be a little slower on the uptake. At least, that’s my guess.)

    Love the story. And what’s great is that I think there are probably people with a wide range of disabilities who can relate to at least certain elements of this story. As a person with ADD who passes well enough that most people either don’t know or refuse to believe my diagnosis, I kind of have my own pair of invisible stilts.

  6. A great analogy, with many relevant interpretations. It would be a really good children’s book, I think. The lesson is obvious, and the stilt-walking could be fleshed out and colorfully illustrated. But I also think you could write a short version with a ‘translation’ for internet circulation.

  7. It’s an excellent metaphor/story. Is it related to your loss of verbal speech? Or, if you prefer, your mind’s decision to use a communication that made more sense to you?

  8. One of my first jobs when I settled in VT 25 years ago was to work in construction. I was facinated watching the drywall tapers who would gracefully stride through the “new rooms” to tape up the sheetrock while on their stilts. They spent their whole day on different sized stilts depending on how high the ceiling was that they needed to reach. But they were easily thwarted if there was any kind of debris or obsticle on the floor. They could only be so graceful and so perfect in their vocation if the floor was hard, smooth and free of even the smallest debris. When they tripped, they would fall hard, really hard. Mud would fly from their trowels and they would cuss themselves blue. I felt horrible when they fell; I was responsible for preparing the rooms for them to come in and tape. I felt sometimes that it was my fault they fell, that they “failed”. I have the same feeling when my son regresses from his jags of progress; somehow I failed him. But maybe its just the best he can do that day – that moment and I need to cut myself and him some slack.
    Once again, you have illuminated another perspective for me.
    I visit your blog when I can.. thanks for sharing… be well

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