There was a time in my life when I could run up the stairs – two at a time – all the way to the top – even if the building was ten stories high.
For me, there was no better feeling than the burn in my calf and thigh muscles as I climbed the stairs. I loved the increased pulse rate and the heavy breathing puffing at the end. Exhilarating! I would take comfort in the knowledge that I was burning up the calories – and I usually rewarded myself with a slab of chocolate – and a diet Coke – afterwards.
I did that by choice. And I took it for granted. I didn’t think twice about accessing a building – ever. I didn’t need to. I was young, fit and able. I could climb to the top of the world – if I wanted to.
Then everything changed. In one split second I was paralyzed from the neck down. Decisions were made on my behalf. I was medically boarded – banned from my chosen teaching career – without any consideration of what I wanted. Suddenly I was cut off from parts of society and prevented from participating in all sorts of things due to physical barriers. I was like an alien in a world designed specifically for able-bodied people. I was left to deal with the aftermath – loss of confidence – and worse – defeat, failure, frustration, depression and no sense of self-worth.
I came to hate steps – be it a flight, a few or just one – it doesn’t matter. A step is something that once gave me a right of entry, freedom of choice and opportunity. It is now something I dread – evoking fears of isolation, segregation, restriction and frustration – a grim reminder of my reality.
This week I was invited to be the guest speaker at Ermelo High School. It was the official opening of a brand-new lift which was installed at the school to accommodate a young paraplegic girl. The community raised in excess of R 700,000 under the project leader Andre Vermeulen to make the school accessible for Mariska Venter, grade 8, who was left paralyzed from the waist down in a tragic car accident a few years ago. The accident also took the life of her dad, who was once head boy of the very same school, as well as the life of her older brother. Mariska’s story is one of unbelievable courage, determination and triumph over adversity.
The trip, for me, was emotional. The last time I drove along that road, a little over 12 years ago, was en route to that fateful holiday. I never made it back – on the same road – or in the same state. The town itself holds significant memories for me – victories, medals, aching muscles, freezing cold weather, hot chocolate, new friendships, fun – I participated in many a gymnastics competition held there.
This week, I sat there in my wheelchair, among the kids, in the warm winter sun warming my frozen bones, watching as Mariska cut the green ribbon. She wheeled herself into the glass lift. She smiled. My heart ached. I wanted to cry, as my mind was flooded with the painful recollection of how I was never able to go back into my own classroom again – and many other places. Why? Steps. Steps. Steps. Too many bloody steps.
But, I also wanted to shout out in joy and applaud wildly, as Mariska ascended the building – beating my most hated barrier – steps. Her friends had been carrying her up those steps since the beginning of the year. They are heroes in my eyes. Yet, I was excited that Mariska could regain her independence and reclaim her dignity. I have no doubt that she is eternally grateful to her friends, but no young lady wants to be carried anywhere.
The atmosphere was alive with love, care and concern – pure, raw humanity.
At first, I was amazed at how an entire community pulled together in a time of crisis to help one person. But, I don’t think the community has yet realized the value of the impact this project is going to have on each and every one of them. An entire school – 700 young minds – and their families and friends will be touched by Mariska’s story. The ripple effect of changed mindsets will live on for years to come – nurturing a tolerance, acceptance and celebration of differences and uniqueness. Also, imagine living in a community where one has the comfort of knowing that if anything had to happen, the people around you would care enough and be prepared to help in any way they can? People like this make the world a better place.
I am in awe Mariska’s courage, self-confidence and beauty – inner and outer. I am so proud of her. I have seen too many people in her position just giving up and withdrawing from society and from life itself. Her smile will forever be etched in my mind.