GUEST BLOGGER: MY “HANDICAPABLE” HERO

This month’s guest blogger, Jacky Carlson, has a very special place in my heart. Jacky and I first got to know each other while she was my 8th grade English teacher, and she later became a great friend in my life. With her vivacious and colorful personality, she always knows how to brighten my day, and I am so honored to feature her as my second guest blogger.

Where do I begin?  Alyssa asked me to write a blog entry about the experience of teaching a disabled student.  I’m not sure I can do that as I have never considered Alyssa disabled!  She is more capable and motivated than most students and adults I have encountered.  In fact, I was more Alyssa’s student than she was mine.  Maybe she should be writing about having to contend with me as a teacher!  I’ll give it a try, only because Alyssa asked, and I rarely refuse her requests!

IMG_0024My first introduction to Alyssa was not face-to-face.  At a back to school staff meeting, our principal addressed us concerning an incoming sixth grader.  We were told a little about her disease and a lot about the fragility of her health. We learned how important it was for us to keep our distance if we had a cold.  What was a normal occurrence to us could be life threatening to her.  That certainly got our attention!  Needless to say, we were all a little edgy. What if one of us caused her to contract a cold or pneumonia or worse? We also worried about making sure that her classmates would take precautions in monitoring their own health.

We shouldn’t have been so concerned as it soon became apparent that her fellow students were better informed and more astute in dealing with Alyssa’s potential health threats than we were!  They had been her friends since Kindergarten, and interacting with Alyssa was second nature to them.

Until she rolled into my classroom two years later, I had had only a few brief encounters with Alyssa when her brother Adam was a student of mine.  She was the first wheelchair-bound student I had ever had. To say I was nervous is an understatement!  I wasn’t sure of the kinds of accommodations or modifications she needed or what I was expected to do differently.  Early on, I remember a conversation with Alyssa to the effect, “do what you can do on this assignment, and we’ll work with that.  Whatever you are able to do will be acceptable.”  I wish I could describe the look I got from her. In no uncertain terms, she informed me that she would be doing all of the work, thank you very much. That was the first and last time I underestimated Alyssa’s capabilities and motivation!

As the months went by, my education in how to interact with Alyssa, came from observing her and her amazing friends.  Nothing daunted them.  Helping Alyssa was part of who they were.  There were no barriers between them, least of all a wheelchair.  That was just how she got around.  I took my cue from them and became more comfortable kidding around with her and holding her to the same standards as the other students. Why not? Except for the way in which she traveled, she wasn’t any different.  Alyssa was a typical teenager, without the usual whining or complaining about schoolwork or the cards life had dealt her. When Alyssa moved up to the high school, we kept in touch.  By then, I was not only friends with Alyssa but also with her amazing Mom, Dori.  They welcomed me into their lives and into their family circle.  For this I am so grateful.

I have often said that I have had two heroes who have had a great impact on my life. Those two heroes are Anne Frank and Alyssa Silva. Interestingly, both of them were teenagers when I became acquainted with them.  And, they shared very similar character traits: limitless tenacity and optimism in the face of adversity.

IMG_0309Alyssa is a truly remarkable young woman who causes everyone who connects with her to become a better person.  She has achieved more in her twenty-four years than most people do in their lifetimes.  Through all of her ups and downs, I’ve never heard her complain about the constant pain or physical limitations that are part of SMA.  I am astounded by her accomplishments and filled with admiration for the student she was and the spectacular woman she has become.  Alyssa is smart, talented, compassionate and mentally stronger than I could ever hope to be!

Having had Alyssa as a student changed my life in many ways.  Obviously she inspired me with her courage and her attitude.  Befriending Alyssa meant becoming acutely aware of the fragility of life and making sure that each day is lived to the fullest.  I often told my students, “There is no rewind button, no replay – this is it, the only chance you get!”  Alyssa is the personification of this philosophy.  She also caused me to be more aware of the accessibility (or lack of it) in all the places I visit. I always wonder how easily Alyssa could enter.  Then again, nothing stops her!

Instead of blogging about the experience of teaching a disabled student, this has turned into a Valentine to my very “handicapable” hero! Alyssa, I remain awed and humbled by the way you have taken on your challenges to complete high school, graduate from Bryant University, and write a wonderful blog.  More than this though, you deserve recognition for being an extraordinary fundraiser for your charity W.O.W, (Working On Walking) and a motivational speaker for Cure SMA.  As a result of your effort and dedication, SMA researchers are approaching a cure.

I LOVE YOU, ALYSSA!!!!!

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