Imagine a small group of 10th graders sitting around a computer in my bedroom. There’s laughter, discussion, sharing ideas, and lots of cookies. I had my section about Civil Rights and sports in the 1960s ready to be added to the lengthy PowerPoint. Another student was creating the jeopardy game. A young woman was writing up the plan for our class presentation. Another two guys were figuring out what we would wear. Remember the American History decades project? For me, this was an experience I will always remember because we all contributed to the project in meaningful ways to get that “A.” In addition to learning about the 60s, I believe we all learned a lot more about teamwork, respecting differences, helping others, and knowing that each of us has so much to offer when working together towards a goal. This was inclusion at its best.
John Green writes in the book Paper Towns, “It is easy to forget how full the world is of people, full to bursting, and each of them imaginable and consistently misimagined.” All of us are unique and face difficulties. It can feel lonely in the rest of the world when you have any kind of perceived or real difference. There are many times when I feel like an outsider because I do not think people imagine me complexly or know what to say to me. I imagine that there are many of you who have felt the same. We all need to take the time to truly get to know people around us. As we go out into the bigger world, remember to make the time to listen to and include those who may be isolated or alone. Go beyond the simple “Hello, How are you? What’s up?” Because of my experiences with fellow students for the decades project and other friendships in my life, I know you can make such a huge difference in just one person’s life.
As we go through life beyond high school, each of us will face our own challenges. Why do we have struggles and why do some have more than others? It’s not that easy for me to do what I want to do because I have cerebral palsy. It is as if my muscles all have their own individual brains and none of them are listening to the brain in my head. Imagine that most people cannot understand your voice and that it takes you several minutes to type every sentence that you want to share. It is annoying sometimes when people do not realize that I, along with others with disabilities, have a lot to say and need others to take the time to listen.
Disabilities or any other challenges that you’re going through do not define who you are. I didn’t choose to have my disability but I do get to choose how I live with it. When you find yourself up against obstacles in your own lives, you are the ones who get to decide how you face those challenges. Most of the time I hold on to hope. I find ways to fight my goofy muscles and try to do what I am able to do. I focus on those things that are meaningful to me such as my love of creative writing or getting lost in a good book.
Can any of us face challenges on our own? No. I am lucky because I have an amazing family, helpers and friends. To fight through tough times, we all need to draw on what gives us strength and it is important to ask others for help along the way. But don’t wait for someone to ask you for help. Reaching out in simple ways can make an amazing difference to a person who is struggling with whatever life brings.
We leave here tonight, each of us with a unique universe to explore. Open your minds to new ideas, new people, and new experiences. There will be challenges along the way, but we need to choose the infinite possibilities to create a more inclusive society where we see value and dignity in all people.
Originally written for and presented at my High School Graduation in June 2016