Alvin Law – Change the Label
Speaker and musician Alvin Law challenges you to live your life undefined by labels.
“What Happened to you?” Can you imagine how long ago I got tired of answering that question? But the fact of the matter is, my physical form, my story is indeed part of the very powerful message that I believe surrounds attitude. I was on a plane going to Vegas a couple of weeks ago, and a lady was sitting beside me on the plane. The plane took off, she seemed to be uncomfortable. That’s not uncommon. All she did was look at me and go, one word, “Thalidomide?”
Thalidomide was never meant to be given to pregnant women. In fact, it was a sedative, and it was supposed to be so safe, they thought that anybody could take it. Now, the drug was banned in 1963, thank God, because it by then had only deformed over 20,000 babies. It could have been hundreds of thousands, had the drug continued to live on. Now, it’s interesting, because this is what she went on to say, “I didn’t take those pills. Something told me to throw them in the garbage, and I am so glad I did, because I was blessed with healthy, normal, babies.”
The point is, Thalidomide was a terrible, terrible thing, but that’s not how I see it in my own personal life. My life started in a very unorthodox fashion. There is no question that being born without arms is not something people would wish for, right? They called us the victims. I disagree. August 23rd, 1985, was the first time in my life I ever considered how my own mother and father must have felt the first time they held me. And then it occurred to me in even more powerful thought, my mom was 55 years old the first time she held me, and my dad was 53. And I was an orphan in Yorkton, Saskatchewan, because my birth family were consulted, and counseled, and advised to simply sign papers, and give me up.
Because in 1960, babies born with severe handicaps had no life. So on the fourth day of my life, I was homeless. Enter my life the changers, Hilda Law, Jack Law. Hilda was my primary caregiver. Hilda had an attitude that is very difficult for me to describe. She saw something that nobody else saw. And that was, “Yes, indeed, a positive potential.” They loved me, they took me home, they were charitable, they were very, very powerful in their faith. But not one time did I view them as nice, okay? I had to make my bed every morning before school. I had to pick up my toys every night before bed. I had to vacuum the carpet three times a week, because mother expected neatness.
Wondering every day, “Do you really love me?” I knew that I would not easily climb Mount Everest. I knew there were certain things that were impossible for me, and then one day I found a piano, and that … was huge. I’m looking at my feet, I’m watching the piano, I’m thinking, “I’m going to suck at this too.” That’s how I felt. But mom heard me play, and she came racing down to the basement. And She’s, “Was that you?” I gave the standard 10-year-old answer, “Do you see anybody else down here?”
And then she made me play it again, and then she stood behind the piano crying. I would ask my mother, in fact, quite frankly, it was the week she met my son, “Why did you cry behind the piano that day?” She said, “You don’t really understand, do you?” “What?” “How hard it was to be with you every day, to see the looks, to see the stares, to hear the insults. But more than anything, the hardest part, Alvin, was to push you beyond belief. It was within every illogical thought in my brain to not do that to you, to not force you, to not challenge you, to not take you to extremes. That people thought I was cruel with you. Do have any idea what that felt like? That’s why I cried.”
“Hello Mrs. Law, My name is Blaine McClary, I’m the band director for the Yorkton City band program. Do you have a son named Alvin?” “We do.” “Does Alvin have a talent for music that you’re aware of? Do you think he’d like to be in the band?” “Well, Mr. McClary, probably a good time to tell you that Alvin sort of has no arms … Hello?” But when I walked in the house and saw my mom smiling in 1971, I’ll never forget that smile. I’ll never forget that day. She had a great smile. Ugly teeth, great smile.
She goes, “Honey, I got news for you. You’re going to be in the band.” “What band?” “School band.” “How did that happen?” “I don’t know, we’re going to go to the school and find out right now. Get in the car, we’re going to the school.” On the way to the school, she told me about the first phone call that happened six weeks earlier. She didn’t tell me about it, because the guy hung up, and didn’t want to hurt my feelings. And then she said, “But he called back this morning. He says he’s got an instrument for you to play, a trombone. A trombone for God’s sake, and like game show host he went, “What do you think?”
I was 11, what do you think I thought? It was the stupidest looking thing I’d ever seen in my entire life. “We’ll, can you move the slide with your foot?” “Yes, I can do that. Wow, I can do that, that’s cool.” “Can you make this noise? Okay, good. Can you do it in the mouth piece and move the slide?” “Yes …” Well, this noise came out. 11-year-olds love noise, don’t they? But I particularly was affected. I loved that sound. Just the feeling. That day changed the pathway of my life. What really changed my world? Was it the trombone? Not exactly.
The girls didn’t want to date me, because they couldn’t quite grasp holding on to this. That’s what makes my wife, Darlene, that much more special. She doesn’t see the outside. She sees the human, and there is a difference. My life in music is what changed it all. Music taught me that life does not change in one day, in one week, in one year. It takes steps, after step, after step, after step, after step. All right, you can clap for that if you’d like.
Why did I just do that? To show off? Yes. To impress you? Yes. I want to impress you. Because of my ego? No. No, see, that was the most important thing that I learned in my professional life. In my opinion, and it is my opinion, you earn joy. It is not a human right. You attain success. I got a label, it’s fixed right no my forehead, and it used to bug me, until it occurred to me, I just have to change what the label says. That’s all I got to do. It’s not going to be easy, because I’m asking society an awful lot to see the human inside the disability.
But the fact is, it took me a long time to come to that conclusion. We’ve all got labels. Let’s just change the label. Let’s change the label from victim to victor. Let’s change the label to one that says, “I am. I am who I am.”