Sonn: A pleasant shock

BY BARRETT SONN | JUNE 17, 2013 5:00 AM

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Not too long ago, I was at the Robert A. Lee Community Recreation Center with a friend. We were messing around at the Ping-Pong tables, hitting balls around and leaving them haphazardly scattered on the floor. Our behavior prompted an older gentleman, who looked like a cross between Santa and Jeff Bridges, to turn to us from the pool tables and say, “Why don’t you boys pick up those balls before somebody like me steps on one and falls.”

He then lifted the cuff of his scruffy jeans, revealing a metal prosthetic leg. I wanted to have a physical reaction, like a double take. I kept my cool, however, and dutifully picked up the handful of Ping-Pong balls scattered around the room. Did I move faster than I might have moved if the average Joe had asked? Yeah, no question. And I did it without an attitude.

What do Santa Jeff Bridges and 2013’s Miss Iowa have in common? Not much, other than being human beings. But 23-year-old Miss Iowa, Nicole Kelly, was born without a left forearm. She used to joke it was bitten off by a shark when people asked her what happened, according to her Miss Iowa biography page. When I saw her picture, I had the same reaction I had in the recreation center: whoa.

It was a reaction without malicious intent, of course, meaning that it was simply a reaction of shock. Not an unpleasant shock, like getting blindsided by a Taser, but a shock nonetheless. In fact, “shock” is the wrong word. I was surprised. Yeah, that’s more like it. Personally, I thought it was very cool not only for her to win but for her to have competed in the first place. Unfortunately, because she is an atypical winner, people have started to ask questions as to what it would have meant had she not been chosen. It’s a shame such questions have to be asked, but they are valid at the same time.

From her bio page, she certainly seems to have won fair and square. She seems smart, ambitious, funny, and she’s very pretty as well. She knows she earned that crown. Others may beg to differ, although they won’t necessarily say so (unless masked by the anonymity the Internet provides).
The question I want to ask is this: How long will it take before it’s no longer shocking that Miss Iowa has no left forearm, or, for that matter, that Danica Patrick is a woman or the president is black?

Today, regardless of how much progress or tolerance has taken place in the country, these things still surprise us. We have a collective idea about what a pageant winner should look like; we have similar ideas about what NASCAR drivers and presidents should look like as well. Naturally, when reality deviates from our preconceived ideas, we’re left a little flabbergasted.

For now, these little surprises should and do matter, precisely because they are the products of breaking down our preconceptions, whether they are race-, gender-, or disability-based. (Kelly’s platform, for what it’s worth, was “Overcoming Disabilities”). Kelly and other glass-ceiling breakers should be acknowledged for doing things nobody before them has done. Her victory takes us a step closer to a society in which there are no glass ceilings left.

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