In the Meantime – Back to College – 2003
Now that I understood how control changes everything I put my energy into treating each day as a good day. I swept away the resistance keeping me from understanding I am stronger than the beast. I found my way through challenges that concealed my need to move on, to leave trauma behind and re-introduce myself to a better life, disability and all. No extra weight on my shoulders, just a lovely wobbly way of life.
I returned to MATC looking forward to a better life. Somehow, my re-introduction to control pissed off the beast which I now realized was in fact resistance. The damn thing fought to raise its ugly head and squeeze me down the drain with it. Still not wanting to give up, the rotten beast tried to crawl out, but I won, I kicked its ass. In trickery I let it come out. I grabbed and pushed it in the path of a Mack truck, mess for it and a clean escape for me.
With a second round of independence and appreciation under my belt came an intensified sense of control. I reconnected with society mingling with all kinds of people. Those who knew me enthusiastically supported my revived creativity and long term vision to share a reflection of experience. Except SFB, that was a given.
MATC opened a meaningful concentration where for the first time in a long time I envisioned a future filled with amazing possibility. Back was my optimism, gratitude for life and happiness as I inhaled the sweet breeze of appreciation. I was riding on the wings of independence.
Don’t get me wrong, college wasn’t easy by any means and often tested my optimism. Lack of balance, the crazy way my eyes interpreted my surroundings, navigating the campus and concentrating on lectures in real time was exhausting! But I did it.
I did it with help from Todd Jones and Beth Bremer. Their support proved I had the strength to cope with exhaustion. When I first met Todd, in the Disability Resource Center, I saw him sitting in a wheel chair. Todd had a serious car accident leaving him paralyzed from the chest down. During our first introduction I thought, what the hell gives me the right to complain about anything! I learned that Todd endured years of physical therapy to regain limited use of his arms and hands. Todd has a real understanding of what disability is and shared with me the hope I needed. Todd is a force of his own. He is amazing. When I connected with him we worked together to establish accommodations that helped support my strengths.
Beth, who worked in the Learning Center, was always there to guide me through assignments that shifted my brain into an explosive overload. Her consistent advice and brilliant way of teaching positioned me reach a new level of determination. Beth is also incredibly funny which made learning fun. So, by combining the assistance and encouragement from Todd and Beth, I discovered that the all my experiences and strengths pre-disability were still intact and transferrable to the new experiences I was creating. What an advantage!
I became great fiends with Todd and Beth where even to this day they are an immense presence in my life. They mean so much to me, they changed my life. I love them.
I always sat in the dreaded front row to minimize distractions. Todd connected me to a student who took notes adding an extra element of information I missed during lectures. I was allowed to use a tape recorder to capture lectures so later I could listen to them in an effort to grasp more. I was even provided extra time on exams in a quiet room. With the use of a note taker I was able to put as much extra concentration I could on lectures as they happened. I took my own notes in a way only I could decipher. My learning had become quite a combination of hearing, writing, reading, and doing.
Noise, paper shuffling, coughs, sniffling, and movement in classes messed with my concentration, especially during exams, hence, using the accommodation to take them in the quiet room, sounds like a place for naughty people… I really hated going there – I felt being absent from the classroom during exams made it known to everyone I had a disability, let alone how it eclipsed my liberation. Then I discovered a way to take exams with everyone else. My strategy: I used earplugs; they put me in a zone of complete silence, except for the ringing in my ears, another side effect of ototoxicity of which I had become accustomed to, well mostly. The earplugs worked, my liberation stayed intact.
Something else I discovered was that I developed an amazing photographic memory, in spite of the way I saw things. I’m convinced this was because of the extra effort I placed into reading and re-reading assignments. The information clicked into my memory where it developed into images I could pull out when needed. For example, during an exam I could “see” the answers. When I closed my eyes I could see the page in the text book, see the paragraph, and then the sentence that held the answer to the question. To this day I can still do that.
The most difficult task was navigating the halls. Students were everywhere, walking to their futures and unknowingly stepping in the way of mine. All around me was a sea of bouncing blurry people, a spectacle of confusion yet; I was determined to make it work.
Carrying my backpack was a big challenge. I tried carrying it with my free hand but that only made things worse. I tried wearing it on my back but that made the way I had to lean forward much worse. My strategy: I built a contraption using a luggage carrier on wheels and attached my backpack to it with a bungee cord. I could wheel it using the hand I had free. The backpack invention was a success. Quite the sight I’m sure but I didn’t care. Having the backpack on wheels in one hand, my cane in the other, the big test was putting it to work at school. I continued my walks with my head down watching the floor, body bent forward, with occasional tiny glances up, I found a reduction in my wobbling this way and that. So, I pulled my wheels and like a salmon, pushed my way up a stream of students: In a nice way.
What I found fascinating was how fasted I walked. The faster I walked the better I could navigate. Moving slow my body fumbled and bumbled not unlike when learning how to a ride a bike, one wobbles all over the place before mastering the ride.
Sometimes I bumped into students and damn near took dives, but gratefully was caught by those I bumped into. I became known as the one to catch when needed. The more I worked on making it to class, the more I thought about strategies on how to better navigate the collection of obstacles.
My strategy: Having discovered that moving at lightning speed helped, I wondered if I combined it with a stop about every 10 feet or so I might be able to get a better bearing on where I was and how far I had to go. Let the experiment begin. The stop was a task in itself, it set off a series of wobbles and that lovely sensation I was falling. A natural kind of compensation to a lack of balance is walking with the feet spread apart forming a wide stance a bit more than shoulder width. Somehow that helps shift the center of gravity we all need to stand up.
My strategy: When stopping I let go of my wheels, using both hands placed on my cane in front of me between my wide stance I became a human tripod. With three legs came an improved ability to stop, stay still, raise my head and body and settle down the bouncy vision. This strategy was the best of all! The more strategies I came up with, the more confident I became. Perhaps I should have become an engineer!
But wait, there’s more. My strategy: When class schedules worked in my favor, I would set out for class early, often being early enough to relax, chat with the instructor, or review the days work. An early departure meant fewer students in the hallways and less stress for me.
However, one troubling experience remains in locked my memory. One of my stress free departures arrived and preparations began. The classroom was quite a distance away, like getting to a connecting flight where boarding was on the other side of the terminal. Don’t you hate it when that happens?
Becoming accustomed to my ritual, I packed determination in my wheels, grabbed my cane, wound up my fast walk, scheduled stops and took off. Stopping to assess the situation, I found the hall empty with the exception of students sitting on the floor at the very end. I felt nervously intimidated; I was the only person walking towards them. My strategies certainly made me stick out and a nervous one on one strategic interaction made me wobble even more. During my stops I could see the students taking turns looking at me or they were all looking together. I felt like I was under a spotlight. I tried to minimize the situation thinking, should I start dancing or something? In my eyes the hall appeared extended far beyond its real end. Like in a scary movie, I couldn’t get anywhere; it just kept getting longer and longer. Of course, that really wasn’t true.
Passing by the students it was like I were a zoo animal on display. With the students looking at me through a barrier of disregard, they were sharing comments; how strange I was, how weird it was to watch me, how I made them feel creepy. I turned the corner with a punch in my gut ashamed of what I had become. Then I got angry. I was not going to let them get away with their lack of respect.
I turned back around the corner and in full disability glory, like a seasoned professor, I began a lecture. I explained to them that not only was it difficult to be taking on the challenges of life with a disability I found their hurtful comments nothing short of bullying. I explained that just as they were, I was there to learn. I explained to them their actions made me feel ashamed of myself. I explained that making fun of a person disability, or not, is hurtful, confidence busting, and seriously childlike. They all stared at me and with big sorry eyes, apologized. Before I turned the corner I looked at them and from the heart I shared that I hope none of them ever have to endure disability, that it in an instant it could happen to them. With heartfelt compassion, I wanted to them to think about how they would feel if ever they experienced disability disrespect or disrespect in any other manner. Then I left, and even by confronting those students, I made my way to class, found it as empty as I felt, and sobbed.