The story of how Erin Kelly, a successful writer with Cerebral Palsy, absorbed her biology teacher’s wisdom
It was a breezy end-of-summer day in 2001, forty-eight hours before the start of my sophomore year at Altoona Area High School. I was running through my schedule and meeting my teachers for the first time, with my mom by my side. The bleach-blonde sun brightened and faded through a high window, spilling its light down a corridor of classrooms.
The clickity-click of my motor echoed through empty walls as I passed at least two-dozen rooms, doors shut with lights on inside, before stopping at the last room at the end of the hall – room 329, biology.
The door was open. My eyes immediately traced the circular pattern in the wood, and I prayed it wouldn’t trace back to the days when I was just “a girl in a wheelchair,” as many silently labeled me.
I drove a few feet further to see a lumberjack-like silhouette of gentle quietness hunched over at the desk in the front of the room with a pen in hand.
“Hi there. Are you Erin?” the tall, burly man with a clean cut goatee asked, as he calmly put the pen down and stood up. His shadow filled the door frame when he walked into the hallway. I waited for it to lag behind, but it spilled onto the marbled linoleum floor outside his classroom. I felt like I was looking up at The Eiffel Tower.
He extended a handshake right away. My fingers were sprawled like limbs on a naked body.
I nodded a decisive “yes” to his question, but my brain was fishing for proof that my chair didn’t define who I was.
“I’m Mr. DeAntonio,” he said without a glance at my mom. “I heard you coming down the hall. You a good student?”
“Yeah, I try.” My bobble head flew off its hinges again. I couldn’t put my finger on it but there was something welcoming about the diplomatic tone of his voice. It didn’t lend itself to the “Awww, you poor baby!” treatment or the “What am I supposed to do with her?” look I’d been so used to getting from almost every adult–or teacher–I crossed paths with up until this point in my life.
“It takes her longer to finish her assignments, and she’ll need somebody to take her notes,” my mom chimed in. She didn’t say much during the hour-and-a-half we spent in that hallway, taking in the scene that was unfolding in front of her.
“We can work with that,” Mr. D. calmly replied. “No worries. If we run into any problems in class, I expect Erin to help me out. I can already tell she’s a smart cookie!”
The next ten minutes felt like an episode of “Who Wants To Be A Millionaire,” each answer I gave earning a point of respect. Then I heard the words that instantly erased any doubts I had about whether or not Mr. D. “taught by the books”:
Every student in my class has a disability; some you can see, others you can’t.
That sparked something inside me. It made me feel like I was on the same level as everyone else, not only as a student, but as a person. By the same token, I came to understand and respect the fact that Mr. D. never questioned my abilities. He let me do, or at least try to do, everything in class on my own–whether it was personally taking assignments I’d finished up to his desk or adjusting the lens on my microscope when the class examined our own cheek cells.
I kept that mentality for the three years that followed and didn’t let my chair overshadow my schoolwork or my abilities. It did, however, become difficult not to wonder what kind of attitudes were beyond those double doors as I prepared to graduate in 2004. I knew I’d have to work twice as hard to garner the same level of respect in the “real world” as I did in high school–and I was ready for that challenge.
I also knew earning that respect would be a two-way street. If people were willing to stop and look past my wheels, I made a promise to myself to give them all I had. Even if they weren’t willing to look at things in that light, I was still going to put my blood, sweat and tears into everything I did. That’s who I was. That’s what I needed to do to live the life I wanted to live.
So I did. If there were teachers like Mr. D. in the classroom, there was bound to be others out there who shared his point of view, even if they weren’t “teachers” by traditional standards. I brought all that with me when I started college at Penn State Altoona in Fall ’04.
When I started writing for their student newspaper a year later, strangers suddenly wanted to be my friends. My professors and peers started telling me I had magic in my fingers. I smiled and thanked them as they would walk by, but one day, I heard another voice that has yet to fade away.
“Hey, you’re Erin, right?”
I was sitting in a hallway listening to music while I waited to go to my “Integrative Arts: Evolution of The Beatles” class. Away from the sea of students rushing to get to class and with headphones on full blast, I looked up to see a fairly tall guy standing in front of me, ready to hug me. He had jet-black hair, glasses and a natural tan. I immediately noticed his elegant Middle Eastern accent and how fluently he spoke. His tone oddly reminded me of Mr. D.’s.
Before I could squeak out a “yeah” he had me in a bear hug.
“My name is Tarun. I read your articles in The Altoona Collegiate Review. They’re awesome!”
The next day he told me that he was originally from India and that one of his favorite things was food. I laughed and told him food was one of my favorite things, too.
From then on Tarun made it a point to walk by the same hallway everyday to say hello. He always came ready with a hug, taking a couple minutes to get to know me. So much so that we now have a tradition of meeting for lunch every time we hang out.
We’ve been friends for almost seven years, and Tarun has never looked at my chair as a crutch, nor does he make me feel like I have anything to prove because of it. If I had to pick one similarity between meeting him and Mr. D., that would be it–behind the fact that they’ve shown the true meaning of equality by just being themselves.
I never thought that an incident from my past would mirror meeting one of my best friends in the world. I guess it just goes to show that you don’t have to be a “teacher” to be a teacher.
Project Possible: Get Erin Kelly on the Ellen Degeneres Show
Photo courtesy of author