I started speaking to young people way back in 1975 when Martha Brown, a nursing school instructor at Abbott-Northwestern Hospital's now-defunct school of nursing, asked me to speak to her nursing students about living with a spinal cord injury. I spent three years going to that school once every three weeks to impart my wisdom about life in a wheelchair.
When I think about it now, I wonder what I thought I was doing being just twenty years old, and having only been disabled for four years! What did I know? How was I an expert? All I know is, it launched my speaking career.
That disability awareness presentation has evolved into a self-esteem presentation that challenges every one of my audience members to reach their potential and to recognize just what their capabilities are — no matter how old they are. We all have capabilities we don’t even know are there. We just have to find them!
Sometimes finding our strengths are easy, and other times we go through our whole life and never find them.
Everywhere I go, unbelievable things happen. Here is one of those stories.
One summer evening several years ago, I was in a Dairy Queen with a friend and his two boys getting a treat after one of the boy’s little league baseball game. We were waiting to receive our order when a young lady behind the counter handed me a receipt with a note on the back that read:
I’m getting help.
It’s working too. THANKS,
I think you saved my life.
Then she wrote her name and the high school she attended. I looked up in amazement and she was standing behind the counter, smiling and shaking her head up and down! I couldn’t ask her what it was that made her feel that way because she was very busy, the restaurant was packed, and at just that time our ice cream came and my friends were leaving the counter to go eat. I shared the note’s contents outside the restaurant with my friend and have wondered about her ever since that night.
I did three presentations the day I visited her large suburban high school. In the first program there were approximately 150 kids. In the second, there were maybe 300 students. After lunch, I came back to the auditorium to find a 500 seat room overflowing with about 700 young people, many of whom had heard me once or even twice already that day. The aisles were full, the stage had steps all along the front and they were full; people lined the walls. The Fire Marshall would not have approved!
The school had more than 2,000 students so they let the teachers choose if they wanted to attend my program or not. The kids heard my program, went to their next class and asked their teacher if they could go hear me again. Word started spreading and before I knew it, the place was overflowing. It often happens that way; I have to prove myself in every school to a new group of young people.
This young lady was in one or more of those programs. Each program was different. I don’t know what it was I said she picked up on but it hit her in a way that made her write, “ … I think you saved my life.” Parents, teachers and all other adults don’t always know what young people hear, or for that matter, when they are even listening! That is why we need to think about the consequences of what we say and do. The things we say to our children are very important. They may not tell you it’s important, but it is.
We need to listen to them too. We as adults, as parents, as teachers need to validate their feelings. She needed to understand the problem wasn’t the issue; the issue was how to deal with the problem. I tell them it isn’t a matter of degree. It is a matter of doing the right thing.
It is a matter of learning a problem-solving process. Young people already have a process in order, but many times they don’t realize what they are capable of doing. We as adults, as parents, as teachers, need to help guide them, to be an integral part of their lives. You are very important to your children. They may not tell you how important you are, but deep down — they know, because “Kids are COOL!”
Note: A version of this originally appeared in a monthly newspaper entitled Family Times. It was a periodical for parents in the Twin Cities. I wrote a column for them in the mid-nineties entitled Kids are COOL!