Lessons From Clara
By Madonna Dries Christensen
My sister Clara has been my teacher since before I can remember. She's eight years older, and Mom says I mimicked Clara's actions and mannerisms from the time I was able to move around. If I didn't like a new food, Clara took away my bowl and started eating the food. Sure enough, I'd want some, too. Clara taught me to crawl by getting down on the floor with me. When I learned to stand, we danced to television commercials and Daddy's country western music and Mom's show tunes. While Clara used Mom's computer for games and writing e-mail, I banged on an old keyboard. When Clara gabbed on the phone, I babbled on my Fisher-Price toy phone.
Clara and our older brother Mitch were born to Mom when she was married to John Grant. After he died, she later married Hal Foster, my daddy. She tells people I was a surprise, her late-in-life child.
I wanted to go to the girl's school Clara attended, but Mom said she and Daddy couldn't afford to send two of us there. Clara's daddy had arranged for her to go Hunter Academy, so they were honoring his wish. Mom said, "It doesn't matter where you go to school, Laurie. You can do anything Clara does if you're patient. You're much younger, and you were a preemie. You have some catching up to do."
My sister consoles me when things don't go my way, and I sympathized with her when she wasn't chosen for the cheerleading squad. She shrugged. "Win some, lose some. At least I tried, and now I know the cheers. C'mon, I'll teach you." We do our Rah-Rahs, as she calls them, when Daddy watches sports on television. He laughs and says, "You two are pathetic; the clumsiest cheerleaders in the world."
We do other stuff together: riding horses at our uncle's farm, swimming, arts and crafts, sports, and dancing class. I chose ballet; Clara took tap. "You're a better dancer than I am," she said. "I'm not graceful enough for ballet." I don't care about graceful; I just like being better at something than Clara.
When Clara's friend, Elena, spends the night at our house, they let me hang out with them. They sleep in Clara's double bed and I bunk on the floor in a sleeping bag. We play music and laugh and whisper all night. One time we went to the kitchen and ate leftover spaghetti using chopsticks. We got more sauce on our faces than in our mouths.
I think Clara and Elena look more like sisters than Clara and I do. We have different dads so I guess that's the reason, but Clara and Elena have totally different parents and still look alike. They both have dark curly hair; Elena has brown eyes and Clara has blue, but their eyes are the same shape. One day Elena's mom took them to the mall to get their ears pierced and they came home wearing identical black studs. Their little lobes were like cookie dough with a raisin in it. When they polish their nails, with their chubby fingers splayed out on the table, it seemed to me they could have exchanged hands and no one would know. They both pop their tongue out when they concentrate on something, and they both wear glasses. Once I said I wished I wore glasses, but they yelled together, "No you don't. They're a pain in the neck." Clara added, "And, boys never make passes at girls who wear glasses."
"What's that mean?" I asked, but they only giggled. They talk about boys a lot but they don't have boyfriends; only some guys they know at the teen center they go on Saturdays for movies and dancing and field trips
When Clara helps me with homework she wags her finger at me and says, "You have to try to do it alone. School's not easy for me either. I have to work, and you have to work."
At the end of Clara's senior year, her school had a prom and invited seniors from a boy's school. No one had dates; they all danced with each other. Clara looked like a movie star in her lavender dress, her favorite color, and Daddy bought her a wrist corsage. I got to stay up until after midnight to go with Daddy to pick her up at the dance. Then she let me sleep with her and she told me everything, even that one boy kissed her hand after they danced. She giggled when she told me that. I don't know why talking about boys makes her giggle, but it does.
On Clara's graduation day, after the diplomas were handed out, the principal, Doctor Malone, announced awards. A tall red-haired girl was valedictorian. Mom said that meant she got the highest grades of anyone in the class. There were other awards, for music and sports, and then Doctor Malone said, "Our final honor is The Renaissance Award, which goes to the graduate whose achievement in the arts has been extraordinary."
Mom wiped her eyes and Daddy reached for her hand, so I wondered what was up.
"I'm pleased to announce that this year's award goes to Clara Marie Grant."
While the audience applauded, Clara's face crinkled with surprise and I could almost hear her saying: No way. She gets embarrassed by too much praise.
"Did you know she was getting an award?" I asked Mom, and she nodded.
Doctor Malone continued, "I recall Clara as a five-year-old, coming to my office with her father. He told me the public school wanted to put his daughter in special education, but he felt she should be mainstreamed. We tested her and agreed. Clara became our first student with Down syndrome, and we probably learned as much from her as she did from us. She has been a big sister to our current two students who have Down syndrome and one who has dyslexia. Through Clara, we teachers learned to focus on what students can do, and not worry about what they can't do. Between you and me, I haven't seen much that Clara can't do. This year alone she wrote more book reports than any of our fourteen graduates; she had a showing of watercolor paintings, and two of her poems have been published in a local magazine. And she plans to continue her education at our Community College."
The principal held out her hand. "Clara, please come forward."
Smiling, Clara walked to the microphone, shook Doctor Malone's hand and accepted a plaque. "Do I have to give a speech?" she asked, and a few people laughed.
"If you don't mind. Just a few words."
Pushing her glasses up the bridge of her nose with her finger, Clara said, "Thank you for the award. I'm really surprised. I thought Diane would get it. She's a really good artist. I love her unicorn drawings. Anyway, I want to thank my teachers for all their help. And Mommy and my two daddies; one in Heaven and one right over there."
Clara waved to us. "That's my brother Mitch. He just graduated from college. Hi Mitch. And my little sister Laurie is here. My grandparents are here and my uncle and aunt, and my cousins, and friends from other schools. Hi Elena. She's my best friend. And...well, I guess that's about all I have to say."
She stepped back, and I thought she might do her soft-shoe shuffle and then bow, like she sometimes does at home. It always makes us laugh. But she moved toward the mike again. "Doctor Malone forgot to say that I was stage manager for the class play."
While the audience cheered, Clara turned to the principal. "One more thing. I saw a movie where graduates tossed their caps in the air. Are we allowed to do that?"
"That's a fine idea. Why don't you lead the class."
Clara unpinned her cap and turned to her classmates. "On the count of three. One, two, three, toss."
While a flutter of white soared skyward, my sister's cap sailed toward me. I jumped up and caught it, feeling like a bridesmaid catching the bouquet. "Can I keep it?" I asked when she joined our family on the lawn.
Handing her diploma and award to Mom, she gave me one of her goofy grins that covers her whole face. Then she took the cap from me and plopped it on my head with the tassel dangling over my nose. "You can keep it, but only until you get one of your own." She wiggled her finger at me. "You gotta work hard and earn graduation."