Moving Forward, With or Without One Shoe

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Credit: Courtesy of Alexis Smith

The author at her senior luncheon. She was the only student at her school with both physical and learning disabilities to take regular classes.

The day before I received my high school diploma, my peers at George Westinghouse College Prep in Chicago watched a YouTube video of people tripping and falling during graduation ceremonies. The students laughed. But I recoiled in fear.

I was born with spastic quadriplegia, the most severe form of cerebral palsy. Because of my mom’s heroin drug use, I was born three months early, asthmatic and eyes crossed. My twin didn’t make it.

I didn’t learn how to walk until I was four years old. Now I spend most of my day in a power chair, though I can, and sometimes do, get around on crutches. My legs and arms are stiff, and they stick straight out when I’m excited or angry. They jump when I get scared. It’s hard for me to cut with knives and scissors, button up my shirt, type and staple thick stacks of papers. Some foods are more difficult to enjoy, like sub sandwiches and tacos.

Despite these challenges, I was the only student at my school who took classes while having both physical and learning disabilities. Now I’m college-bound. But getting through high school was difficult.

Sure, I stayed up late and seek extra help to keep pace. I missed out on family events and my favorite TV shows. I skipped meals to study. The hardest part, however, was dealing with my classmates.

My peers resented that I got extra time on tests, quizzes and assignments. They called me a “white girl” because I spoke proper English. They made fun of the size of my head and the way I would draw in art class. They criticized the food I ate. They teased me when my personal assistant would help me get ready for swimming. They stepped over me as they cut through crowded school hallways.

They also asked a lot of questions, many of which were offensive, intrusive and downright stupid. Can she stand up straight? (None of your business). Can she feel her legs? (Yes, I’m not paralyzed). How do you use the bathroom? (I do what I do, just like you). Can you have sex? (I could, but I wouldn’t tell you).

They never thought to ask what my interests were. They never praised me for my talents, which include writing, debating, editing video, blogging, acting and doing adaptive sports.

They never asked what want out of life. I plan to go to college, find a good-paying job to support myself, travel out of the country and one day, get married and have a child. But they wouldn’t know that about me.

Maybe they didn’t talk to me much because they don’t think I can really speak. That’s what happens when I go to see my doctor. She doesn’t ask me questions about my health. Instead, she just asks my grandmother. As if I don’t know about my own body. As if I’m not my own woman.

I don’t even get to pick out my own clothes. My grandmother, who raised me, won’t let me go shopping because she thinks the aisles are too narrow for me to navigate. So she brings clothes home from the store for me, and that’s what I have to wear.

On graduation day, underneath my fresh makeup and emerald gown, I was in a panic. I knew I would slow down the line as I marched alongside my classmates. I was afraid that I would mess up the order.

When the moment finally came, I lost my black shoe on one of the stairs. I remember thinking that if my shoe were to trip up my classmates, they would never forgive me.

My assistant walked with me. She held on to one of my crutches while I gripped the banister to get up the stairs and on to the wobbly stage. I was so afraid of dropping my diploma when they handed it to me that I asked my assistant to take it as I walked across the stage.

But when I cleared the platform and smiled for the camera, something somewhat miraculous happened. My class gave me a huge round of applause. I hadn’t exactly been that nice to them either over the years. Suddenly all the times I had cried myself to sleep seemed to fade into distant memory. It was all about the exhilarating moment of right now. I felt like I was flying.

After the ceremony, my assistant took me out to dinner. I had shrimp, fries and strawberry lemonade. We rode in her car and listened to Beyoncé. She called her mom who congratulated me over speakerphone. She gave me an edible card, a brown rectangle with sprinkles and whipped cream.

Months later, reality has knocked me down from my high. I’ve decided to defer my acceptance to the University of Southern Illinois until next January. I can’t afford a personal assistant, and I need someone to help me put on my leg braces and shoes every day. I require some help washing and fixing my hair, and I can’t put on my bra by myself. Other than that, I’m independent. I could get public assistance, but my counselor at the Department of Human Services didn’t realize that I had aspirations of college. A subsequent counselor said she didn’t know how the process worked because she never had a client go way to school before. Now there is not enough time to process my application before fall semester – and there are no guarantees the services will be approved, or so I’m told.

Meanwhile, the Chicago Housing Authority awarded me a fellowship to attend Harold Washington College. It was one of the few awards I applied for because I didn’t know if I had other opportunities. My school counselor always seemed more concerned about helping able-bodied students.

I turn 20 in a few months, and so far, I’ve learned some hard lessons. I’ve learned that sometimes in life you’ll lose a shoe. Sometimes you’ll trip and fall. And even though I can’t walk as straight or as fast as most people, I can still move forward.

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