Recently, I posted some thoughts to my High School’s alumni message board. I thought my words were worth sharing again here. Enjoy…
I still remember some foggy details of graduation day, most notably, it was a green-lit, stormy-skied afternoon and evening. Our expected outdoor ceremony got rushed indoors. I remember thinking, as I rushed to get out of the wind and rain – and hoping that my loosely-pinned cap would stay in place – that I had heard once that if it rained on a couple’s wedding day it meant that their future together would be a good and happy one. Maybe rain on high school graduation day would mean that my future would be happy and successful and “bright,” as my parents and grandparents predicted.
It’s been 15 years — that whole, “it feels like just yesterday” thought bubbles up as I type that realization — and, for the most part, I can confidently and proudly share that my suspicions about rain equaling success and happiness are true, give or take a few detours and road bumps along the way. I’m happy to see that, for most of us here, life has been a happy and fulfilling challenge.
Challenge isn’t a bad word. The experiences that test us — so much so that we feel like we might break in half — those are the life moments where we are revealed to ourselves; our innate spirit and strength and courage shows up and we realize we will not break, only bend. If we choose to believe in ourselves and in our capacity for love and belonging, we can face any change, conquer any uphill challenge and come into an adventure of newness.
Since graduating, I have stepped into newness, taking new shape and filling new spaces, time and again. I have accomplished so many things, some that I never thought possible, between career shifts, creative endeavors, relationships and creating a home and a community for myself. My life, for the good and the bad, has unfolded much more interestingly and become more fulfilling than I ever thought possible.
Who I have become — an engaging and outgoing woman who is proud of her career and the impact she makes — is thanks to a choice I made, shortly after graduating high school and moving to Florida for college. I chose to start believing in myself, something I struggled with in high school, and to embed myself into life more. That meant searching out clubs and groups and areas where I am needed — for me, that space was disability advocacy and using my position on the university newspaper to bring light to disparities and inadequacies in inclusion and accessibility, to speak to my peers and school leaders; it meant actively seeking my people, coming away from the wall and giving myself permission to insert myself into the fold, without anyone else telling me I belong — because I already knew that I do.
Honestly, I figured most of you, who graduated around the time that I did, would read this and think, ‘oh, yeah, I remember her, that quiet, nice girl in the wheelchair.’ I say that not to evoke sympathy or pity but as an opportunity to share that I am aware now that my insecurities and my shame around my disability meant that I didn’t give many of my classmates a chance to get to know me very well back then.
I didn’t involve myself in the temporary high school world very much because I didn’t know that I had a place, that I belonged. I remember being quiet and kind of shy — two things I’d never say about myself now — because I wasn’t happy to be one of the only girls in class who had a physical disability (at least from my perspective). I felt too different and like my peers were probably judging me and probably wouldn’t accept me, so why even try to involve myself. High school was a very lonely time for me, but it didn’t have to be. I had every right to be there, I had a place and I did belong — I just never believed it enough to include myself more with you. I’m sorry to you, my peers, for blaming you for my not feeling included or accepted in high school. The truth is, it took me a long time — and let’s be real, from 18 to 33, it is still a daily struggle sometimes — to accept myself and my place in the world.
If you have made it this far, you are a champ. Stay with me a little bit longer.
This long-winded stream of consciousness is to piggyback off of my friend, and disability-warrior sister, Emily Millette‘s post about her sweet boy, Ro, and the wild importance of teaching and encouraging acceptance and inclusion of all differences. I couldn’t agree more with you, strong and courageous momma, now more than ever, we have to lead by example and teach our children and young people to see beyond those characteristics that make us different from each other, embrace them and lead each other into the fold.
I also believe that we cannot put full responsibility on those around us to make us feel welcomed and accepted. When we walk (or roll) into a room, or a new experience, or a new group of people, we must know, down to our bones, that we belong there. So, please, teach acceptance of others, but start with teaching the children you love that they belong in every room they enter. Remind them, every day if you need to, that they have a place already, simply because they showed up. Tell them they will find their people; help them find the courage to step in and speak up. Show them what it means to have wild courage to be seen and heard.
Thank you for reading. I hope that like me, your lives have been full of more sunshine than rain.