Thursday, December 27, 2018

Stared into Funkville

Photo Credit: Kara Jackman

By Jenna Ottow
My day started out like it normally does.  I take a 25-40 minute train ride, depending on the day, from my apartment in Malden into downtown Boston where I work.  I get on at the second stop on the line so the train is usually fairly empty. As the train choo-choos along people pile in.  By the time it gets to North Station, a connecting hub, it’s jam packed. I usually enjoy the commute. I have a playlist I listen to, sometimes a podcast, but mostly I let my brain wake from the slumber of sleep to the bustle of the busy day ahead.  It’s a process.

On this particular morning, I was able to find a seat where I sat listening to whatever humdrum was playing in my ear as the other passengers milled around me.  I surveyed, like I’ve seen other riders do, not really looking at anything in particular, but changing the scenery with the tilt of my head. It was then that I could feel the stare.  A hard stare. Most of the time I don’t even notice it, especially when I am on foot. However, sitting still on the train it was hard to avoid and impossible to ignore. I was born with a rare, craniofacial birth defect called Apert syndrome that causes

onlookers to look.  They not only look, but they stare, point, sometimes name call, which happened lots when I was younger. Now, as an adult, I just avoid eye contact all together. This was not the case this morning on this train.  I was uncomfortable. I glanced over at my ‘admirer’ like a reflex. It was a younger woman, mid-20’s, headphone chords coming out of her ears and sunglasses resting upon her head, chomping on gum between her pearly whites, which I fantasized punching out. There she was...staring.  I smiled, politely, not really in the mood to exchange much more than a nod, then I looked away. I fumbled with my phone for the next song on the playlist. I’d like to tell you it was something inspirational like ‘Born This Way’, by Lady Gaga or ‘The Way You Are’ by Bruno Mars because that would have been terribly ironic and a bit sappy, but it wasn’t.  When the next song started I felt her stare again, look, and then look away. I was losing patience and suddenly felt so small. Thankfully, my stop arrived moments later. I was able to shuffle off of the train, wishing I could be another anonymous face in the crowd, but instead I knew I stuck out like a sore thumb.

Normally the “stares” don’t bother me.  Today it did. Like I said, when I’m on the move I don’t even notice them.  There is quite literally nothing I can do to change the way I look. Sadly, we live in a society where if you look slightly uncharacteristic than the rest of the population you are an anomaly that deserves every gawk, gape, stare, and judgment that’s sent your way.

I found myself in a funk for most of that day.  This state was a personal struggle. I don’t like to live in “Funkville.”  I am overall a fairly happy person, approachable, laid back, and friendly. But that day, I was in a funk.  I didn’t really want to talk to anybody. I was moody. Annoyances found me at every task, and well, I was just sad.  A lump lived at the back of my throat, taunting me to start weeping at any given moment throughout the work day. I couldn’t. I needed to be professional, I needed to stay composed and focused.  Bursting into tears in front of co-workers would ironically make me look…weird! I reached out to my partner towards the middle of the day. He’s literally one of the only people on the planet I know who knows how I feel. He too has Apert syndrome.  He’s been on the receiving end of the stares, the gawks, and the whispers. He’s felt the hurt. It’s literally the foundation of our relationship. He, of course, was comforting. Finding himself in similar or identical situations, he was able to empathize and agreed that this was indeed “Funkville” and it was okay for me to stay there. He validated my feelings. Sometimes that is all we really need to make it through tough emotions.  

The next day came, and so did the stares, as expected.  For some reason I didn’t find myself as effected, but there they were, and there they will continue to be.  Knowing that I can let those beady stares roll off my back is a comfort, but knowing that I can travel to "Funkville" for solace is almost as redeeming.  


  1. I just don’t get it. Why are people so ignorant? We’re all different in some way, let’s just accept one another for who we are. PS. You’re a cute couple!

  2. A select special group on this planet have their own unique superpowers; which I find true mental sanctuary in knowing. A person may have one superpower or perhaps a whole host of them; like say, seventeen. But; it not a numbers game. A superpower is a SUPERPOWER!

    Superpowers may be simple but vast in power, or they can be complex too. Superpowers may work on everyone, or just a select few. Sometimes they work uniquely, like a superpower that only works for "strangers" (strangers being a positive phrase ~ just simply someone you have never met).

    As a child I took shelter from any meanness or cruelty of the world cozying up under a blanket at night with my comic books. Spiderman and Batman being my favorites.

    You have your very own superpowers Ms. Ottow. Your writing is very moving! I was literally compelled to respond. Keep writing about how you feel and what it is like to contend with your condition. I can feel your strength and metal "toughness" through your writing; which is balanced by a very gentle and caring soul. A rare & most excellent superpower set you have!

    Another superpower I can sense is that you give your all to the people who are truly blessed if they are in your world. In the one picture, your partner is literally beaming he is so happy to be with you!

    You are one of the special superheroes with multiple superpowers; my own Spiderman Spidey-Sense tells me that.

    Superheroes are different, mere mortals are blessed to have Superheroes amongst them and you are indeed a Superhero! Never; ever forget that. Best wishes to you and yours for a happy, healthy, peaceful and prosperous New Year, Ms. Ottow!

  3. Have I been guilty of staring?
    As I read your post, I ask myself if I have ever stared at anyone because they look different. Maybe. I’m sure I’ve stolen a glance or two...but not out of judgment or condemnation. When I take a second glance, I think, “Wow, I’m sure they have been through a lot.” There is compassion and prayers. I start a conversation if appropriate... or share a smile if not. There is an innate curiosity in people to take notice of that which is not plain. I always catch myself trying to sneak a peak at a baby or a child. I wonder how God will use that little person when they grow up. Sometimes a person with “out of the ordinary” clothes catches my attention. I wonder if I would ever be brave enough to wear something like that (probably never). Sometimes, seeing someone who isn’t plain, takes me to some level of introspection of my own life. Would I be strong enough to get on a public train and go to work every day? Would I be brave enough to face people knowing that some will judge me? I hope that I have never stared at someone and made them uncomfortable or put them into Funkville. I have never looked or glanced out of maliciousness or condemnation. Maybe God was putting you on my heart, engraining your precious face in my memory, to think of you and pray for you throughout the day.


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