I have been in education for thirty-six years, first as a student and now a teacher entering her seventeenth year in the classroom. Over the years, there have been hundreds of lessons that I’ve either learned or taught about living with spinal muscular atrophy and using a wheelchair. But there are four in particular that stick out among the rest.
1. Never be afraid to ask for help.
I think the greatest gift my parents ever gave me was my independence. I remember waiters at restaurants asking my mom what I wanted to eat and she would politely reply, “You’ll have to ask her.” They let me spend the night at friends’ houses and play outside, not worrying about what activities I could participate in. I was a kid and they knew that I was very capable of solving those problems on my own. Because of that, I had to learn to ask others for help. My daily life activities weren’t always going to be completed with the assistance of my parents, and the first place that was made evident was at school. I had to ask for help for almost everything, from going to the bathroom to picking crayons up off the floor. I wasn’t afraid and it’s been the secret to my success.
2. Kids are curious.
On the first day of school, I sit my students down on the floor around me and tell them, “Now is the time to ask me questions about how fast my wheelchair goes, not when we’re in the middle of a multiplication lesson.” And believe me, they have a million questions, and I try to answer them as honestly and completely as I possibly can. They’re curious by nature. Once their questions are answered, they accept your response as a new normal. Everything eventually becomes normal to all of us, but kids have an exponentially faster timeline to normalcy, so let them ask.
3. Sometimes solutions to big problems are actually quite small.
My range of motion has become incredibly limited and typing on a regular-sized computer keyboard can wear me out. This big problem was solved with a very simple trick. I keep a chopstick in one hand while I’m typing to reach the numbers and letters that are just out of my immediate reach. It’s perfect! All it took was a little creativity and some trial and error. There are going to be issues and problems at school that seem insurmountable, but often times, the solutions can be very simple.
4. There is no greater gift than education.
I truly can’t imagine what my life would be like had education not been made a priority. I pushed myself to do well in my classes, to be highly involved in clubs and organizations, and, later, to make myself a valuable member of my school’s faculty. If I dig deep into the vaults of my grade school memory, I am brought to the time in third grade when I went to school in a full body cast after a hip surgery — I literally went on a stretcher! That’s how important school was and is to me. There was no clearer lesson for me to learn than to value my education. My brain is the strongest muscle that I have and going to school made me a champion at this thing called life.
Angela Wrigglesworth is a third grade teacher in Klein Independent School District outside of Houston, TX. She is a former Ms. Wheelchair Texas winner and a passionate MDA advocate, supporter and role model.