Succeeding Against the Odds

By R. Dollieslager, Asst. Professor of English, TNCC

1 The day I met Patrick, I heard him before I saw him. Standing near the front of the classroom going over the new roster, I was trying to guess which names corresponded to the faces of the handful of early arrivals on that first day of class. The early birds generally wish to make a good first impression, and they do. Hearing the soft bump as the door, located at the back of the room, came partly open and then went shut, I walked towards it, sure that someone outside, as often happens, had peeked into their English classroom, seen all the computers, and decided that they were in the wrong room. Before I reached it, the door swung open into the hallway and a young man stood holding it, smiling politely as Patrick wheeled his motorized chair through the suddenly narrow passage.

2 I enlisted the help of the "doorman" to move three of the wide, flat-topped tables on which the computers sat, hefting them forward about a foot, which was as far as they could go and still stay plugged into the outlets on the floor, an arrangement which provided just enough space for Patrick to maneuver his chair back and forth with a well practiced parking technique to position himself for access to the terminal farthest from the door in that back row. I made a mental note to get in touch with Chuck, in our Physical Plant, to help me rearrange the computer tables in the room before Wednesday's class, and, introducing myself, I stuck out my hand to Patrick. His right side was closest to me as he faced the computer in front of him, his fingers curled around the control stick on the arm rest. He lifted his right hand from the arm rest without really extending it, and his hand remained slightly curled and palm down rather than flat and with the thumb pointing up, as one does when shaking hands. I grasped his hand, returning his warm smile, and he told me his name. I said, "Welcome, Patrick," then turned to exchange introductions and the more conventional handshake with Sean, who had helped Patrick maneuver the door.

3 By this time the hour was reached and most of the seats were filled, so I returned to the front and began calling roll and making i.d. notes on the temporary roster: Karen, short brown hair, glasses, about 18; Dave, 30ish, crewcut; etc . . . I already knew Patrick and Sean. Before our 50 minutes were up, I also knew that Patrick and Sean had met for the first time and formed a quick, amiable relationship based on the serendipity of having both arrived at the door to the classroom at about the same time. As we were finishing discussion of the syllabus which I had handed out--the assignments, the deadlines, the software and books they would need, their prices--I was slowly making my way toward the back of the classroom, where I wanted to be when the questions died down.

4 Satisfied that the first-day questions had been answered, and having about 25 minutes left, I asked everyone to either get out a piece of paper and pen or, if they had already purchased their software, to switch on their computers and to fill up at least a page describing themselves as writers, for the purpose of introducing themselves to me and to their colleagues in the class by focusing on the reasons we were all there together. I had moved to the back of the room anticipating that Patrick would need some assistance, and, when I asked if he did, he said yes.

5 He asked me to pick up the syllabus, which Sean had placed for him to read on the wheel chair's tray, a device that was attached by mechanical arm to the frame of his conveyance, and put the syllabus in the folder labeled English, which was inside the main pouch of the zippered book bag hanging on the back of his chair. Then he asked me to open the small pouch on the near side of the bag and take out the two elastic bands and two pencils. I did this, and Patrick instructed me how to slip the band onto each hand and position the unsharpened pencils, eraser end down, so that they extended across the palm and between the curled fingers; he wrapped his thumbs around the pencils to reinforce the grip of the elastic bands. He couldn't reach the switch of the computer or monitor, both of which were located on or near the back of the hardware, so I turned on the equipment, loaded his disk with the stand-alone word processing system on it, and gave him the two-minute briefing on how to start using the software. The logistics of getting set up took almost ten minutes, so he would have about fifteen minutes to get started on the sample writing I had asked for.

6 While I had noticed that several students had the bright red and blue, shrink-wrapped packages that contained their word processing system and manual, Patrick was the only person to attempt to use it that first day. Most of the students finished writing their short, informal papers before the class was over, and I instructed those who did not finish to give them to me at the start of the next class, but not to spend hours working on it since it was not to be formally graded. As I was showing Patrick how to save his document, I noticed that he had tapped out three or four lines in that fifteen minutes, and I began to seriously wonder whether the time constraints and pace of a college composition course would prove to be insurmountable obstacles to his success. I would observe him closely during the next class.

7 At the next class, the few students who needed the extra time to finish writing their diagnostic papers turned these in at the beginning of the hour, Patrick included, his full page neatly typed with name and date at the top left margin. I didn't help Patrick get himself set up that day, nor would I again during the semester. Always, one of the other students in the class, who had arrived at the door at the same time as Patrick, helped him get squared away. Since Monday, the room had been rearranged so that the rows of tables on which the computers sat were set up at a 90-degree angle to their previous configuration so that Patrick, or anyone in a wheel chair, would not have to make a right-angle turn upon entering the room.

8 The word processing system we would use was very basic, having been designed specifically for college students and including an on-line college writing handbook. Nevertheless, I always had the students read and work the software's tutorials on the second day of class. I roamed and answered questions as they did the tutorials, and I watched Patrick, while trying not to be intrusive. He used the eraser end of his strapped-on pencils to depress the keys, one at a time, when writing text. The control he had over the lateral movement of his arms was not precise, so when he pressed a key by error, as frequently happened, he would press the backspace key and then take another shot at the desired letter or character. It was very slow going, and I speculated whether he had dictated his first-day paper and had a parent or friend type it for him. I estimated that it would have taken him nearly two hours to produce the 250 or so words needed to fill up one typed, double-spaced page. Since the course was basically a workshop, in the ensuing weeks of our composition class, I came to learn, as did Patrick's classmates, that such was the pace and the diligence of his work, all of which he did himself.

9 Patrick is so memorable to me, in part, because I admired his work ethic and his steady, quiet determination; more so because of the influence he unintentionally had on his classmates. He was about 20 or 21 at that time, and though in response to one of the assignments in that class, it would not have been inappropriate for him to have written a personal narrative describing the circumstance that resulted in his being wheelchair-bound, he never did. I learned from colleagues that he had been in a wheel chair since his early teen years, and I had the vague impression that it had to do with an auto mishap, but I didn't know then, and I still don't. Patrick was very slight of build and, had he been able to stand up, would have been quite short. He was very handsome, in an engagingly boyish way, with black hair, dark eyes, and long, curling eyelashes, the sort on which women often spend a good deal of time and money hoping to recreate cosmetically. His personality was just as engaging. While not demonstrably gregarious, he was quietly easy-going, with an ability to make people feel comfortable at a first meeting. This is why whoever happened to arrive at class at the same time as Patrick would end up as his assistant for the day, or at least for the start of the class. This became the unspoken agreement, a tradition that needed no discussion, for people simply help out those whom they wish to count among their friends. During our frequent in-class workshop days, I rarely gave Patrick physical assistance; removing and replacing material in his book bag, booting the computer, and starting the word processor were logistics that everyone was willing to assist in without even having to be asked.

10 Despite the inordinate amount of time devoted to the physical act of typing a paper, or even the relative difficulty of turning a page in the reader, his work was always turned in by deadline, he was always prepared for class, and he never missed a day. It was through his example that he exerted such a strong influence over his colleagues in the class. There were very few absences in that class in that semester. When someone was absent, or when a project wasn't finished to be turned in by deadline, I got no excuses and no requests for special consideration; these circumstances, however, were few. The class, as a whole, exhibited a level of diligence and maturity that I've rarely observed in my teaching experience. And how could it be otherwise? How could any person see the sorts of problems that someone like Patrick had to overcome in order to succeed at the work, and then hold that any of their own temporary difficulties did not pale in comparison? Patrick was not the best writer in the class, but his writing was competent. That he was able to produce competent work at his slow, plodding pace, the act of which was itself fatiguing to him, was a source of my admiration and of admiration from his fellow classmates.

11 Patrick is not the only student I have had who had to overcome seemingly insurmountable difficulties in order to succeed, either because of physical disabilities or learning disabilities, or simply because of the extra baggage life has heaped upon them to carry around. Maybe because I teach my classes in a computer environment, maybe for other reasons, I get a good share of disabled or differently abled college students. Although it has been a number of years since he was in my class, I often think about Patrick, most often when someone hasn't finished his or her work and wants me to make concessions. Like when I'm told, "I just didn't have enough time." Or, "I couldn't finish reading the assignment. Reading is so boring." Or, "I'm sorry I'm late again; I'm just not a morning person." Or, or, or . . . As much as I try to be understanding of the legitimate pressures of college, especially for community college students, who often have work and family commitments to juggle as well as school, I can't help but think about Patrick, or the other students of his same set of mind, determined to do whatever needs to be done, to spend however long it takes, in order to succeed. I try not to be cynical when I hear excuses or requests for special consideration. I hope I'm not cynical.

12 The last time I saw Patrick was a couple years after he took my class. He was maneuvering across the stage of a small auditorium, wheeling towards our Dean of Students to receive his associate's degree. When he appeared on the stage at that solemnly joyful graduation, spontaneously, 300 people stood up to cheer and clap for him. These were the faculty, his fellow graduates, and other classmates, people who knew him from school. They were followed almost immediately in their standing ovation by the rest of the thousand or so family members and friends of the graduates, well wishers who had packed that small-town auditorium for the evening of speeches and ceremony. Not everyone there knew who Patrick was, of course, but everyone did know that here, obvious because of the students' reaction, was a person who had somehow exerted great influence and, therefore, deserved great recognition.

13 Half a continent and two decades separate me now from that place and time. I don't know what became of Patrick, exactly. I do know that wherever he is, whatever job he is doing, he is quietly influencing his co-workers and neighbors to be better people than they would have been had he never wheeled into their lives.

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