Sunday, January 30, 2011

Looking Back On The Road Behind Me

And looking to the long road ahead. This is an essay I wrote for a friend of mine who, as part of her internship in the Disability Services Office, is putting together a booklet for high school students transitioning to college. Once I sat down to write it, it just flowed. Transition to college (and people writing about it) seems to be a theme in my life lately, and I think it might be the universe's way of telling me that things are better now and I can look back on the road behind me and talk about it now. Remember a few months ago when I said that someday I would write a post about my identity as a college student? Well...I think this might be it. Hope you enjoy!

The day my parents left me at college for the first time, I couldn’t stop crying. Despite months, and quite frankly, years, of asserting loudly that I was sick of high school and couldn’t wait to get to college, once I actually got there and my parents were about to leave, it was a whole different story. It was like being plunged into ice cold water – I had been warned the water was cold, but once I dove in, I was utterly shocked and completely unprepared. I don’t think I can remember being as scared as I was that day ever before.

The crying continued for weeks, and then months. But in between periods of extreme sobbing, I learned some valuable lessons. Although I had theoretically been fully independent in my daily activities since my early teen years, doing everything myself, day in and day out, with no parents around to help me, was exhausting, especially since I have limited stamina to begin with due to my cerebral palsy. I have muscle weakness in all areas of my body, as well as problems with depth perception and sense of direction. All of a sudden, I was on my own. It was the little things that got me – I remember one day I spent almost a half hour trying to open a child proof cap on a bottle of cough syrup, only for my unsteady hands to send the medicine flying once I finally got the cap open. Once, I got lost in my own dorm. Getting my own food, carrying it to my table, and then eating it without spilling anything on my clothes was a daunting task. Putting independence into practice was more difficult then I had thought.

Things were also tough because I was using my motorized scooter more than ever to get around campus. Before college, I had only used the scooter on occasion, if I was going somewhere that required walking long distances. Going from someone who was fairly independent walking, to someone who was almost a full time wheelchair user, was a bit of an adjustment. All of a sudden curb cuts, ramps and elevators became ten times more important. In the beginning, I would discreetly attach myself to a group of kids who seemed to know where they were going, only for them to disappear down a flight of steps, leaving me lost again. Automatic doors were a godsend – when they were working, and most of the time they weren’t. As a result, I became very adept at opening doors from my scooter. Living most of my public life at the level of other people’s butts and waists was also interesting. Oftentimes, people wouldn’t see me, especially cashiers at a counter designed for someone standing. When they did, they would give a little gasp – “Oh!” – and nimbly leap out of the way, or yank a friend out of my path as though they thought I was intent on purposely running them over. On occasion, people absorbed in texting would fall in my lap. Unfortunately, none of the males were that good looking or we could’ve had the start to a great romantic comedy. It made for some hilarious moments, especially when I realized I spent most of my time apologizing to people who should really be apologizing to me for not looking where they were going.

Before I knew it, my first semester of college was over, and although I was still crying and homesick, I was a changed woman. I had learned many lessons, and most of them weren’t from the classroom. Two weeks ago, I came back to campus after winter break, still scared, still crying, and still reluctant for my parents to leave. But I knew more now. I knew my way around campus. I knew how to carry a tray of food without dropping it. I (sort of) knew how to open a child proof cap, and if I didn’t, I knew to ask for my medicine to be put in bottles with non child proof caps. I knew when to ask for help. In the two weeks I’ve been back, I’ve already learned some new lessons (like scooters and snow don’t mix), and I’m sure the learning experience will continue throughout my college experience. I may not be your average college student, but it’s the unexpected things that spice up life, and besides, who said being average was any fun?