Life is not remembered in days; it is remembered in moments. There are embarrassing moments we would like to forget, and spectacular moments we always want to remember. This momentous day held a little bit of both.
May 19th, 1990, dawned bright and clear. Spring, with the flowers blooming and
the sweet song of the birds overhead, usually holds the promise of new beginnings. However, for me on that day, a phase of my life was ending as well. That was the day I graduated from Emporia State University with my bachelor’s degree in English, and a minor in Creative Writing.
The ceremony was to be held on the football field. Seats were set up for the graduating class on the grass, while family, friends and other spectators overflowed from their designated section in the stadium. My proud family had traveled from out of state to see me graduate.
A few weeks beforehand, the Director of Disabled Student Services had asked me if I would like to have someone push my wheelchair up the ramp onto the stage for the ceremony. Because the field was often wet, and I am not strong enough to push myself on soft surfaces, I gratefully accepted his offer. It was a perfect plan. Well, almost.
I asked my good friend Carolyn to do the honors. For the two years I had known her, I had observed her caring and generosity on countless occasions. Even though she wasn’t actually graduating for another semester, she agreed to put on a cap and gown so that she would “fit in” while helping me through the ceremony.
It started off without a hitch. A folding chair was removed at the end of a row of graduates, and my wheelchair fit into the space nicely. The commencement address was appropriately inspiring; the speaker encouraged us to work hard and dream big, to remember our goals and not get lost in the details. Although the speech dragged on a bit, I was amused by the seniors. Several graduates had written messages in masking tape on their caps, “THANX PA” and “I HAVE A JOB” dotted the crowd.
Finally, the procession for the diplomas began. My fellow graduates glide effortlessly up the stairs and across the stage in their gowns. They smiled briefly for the cameras and returned to their seats to the spontaneous cheers from their supporters.
At last, it was my turn. Carolyn began pushing me across the field toward the ramp and the stage. The grass was a little bumpy, and it slowed us down. The gap between me and the flowing gown in front of me widened more and more. We both felt the eyes of the crowd. Then, within three yards of the safety of the ramp, one wheel sank deep into an unlikely rut on the edge of a low spot.
Oh yes! I took a nosedive into the deceptively green grass that actually covered a mud hole at the end of the stage. My gown was covered with mud. The cold wetness soaked through to my skin as I lay there in front of the whole crowd.
Humiliated! Embarrassed! I couldn’t believe it. Was this really happening? No way!
Time stood still. Quickly, my assessment began. Was I hurt? No, not physically.
Were people staring? Yes. Everyone. Even though my disability had desensitized me to stares to a certain extent, on this day, in this moment, I had expected positive attention celebrating my victory. Not this. I vaguely fantasized about hitting the rewind button and doing the whole thing over.
Suddenly, I heard my name over the PA system. There was a long pause,
followed by a flurry of activity. The gap in front of me now extended to the podium, and even those exiting the stage had turned and could see my muddy spectacle. Almost instantly, several ushers rushed to get me back into my wheelchair. Although they were well intentioned, I just wanted to be left alone to settle and adjust myself. Somehow, the
cushion I was supposed to sit on ended up behind my back and the foot pedals on my wheelchair were backward. Carolyn kept apologizing.
I dusted myself off, both literally and figuratively, the best I could and continued on the trek to receive my diploma with as much poise as I could possibly muster. Maybe the crowd clapped for me, too. Honestly, I cannot remember.
In the minutes that followed, I realized that I had a choice to make. Part of me wanted nothing more than to leave my pride on the ground where I fell, and sink into the black hole of negative thoughts. On the other hand, I knew I could choose to move on, focusing on the humor instead of the humiliation. I could look at what happened as a tragedy or a triumph. Whatever choice I made would color the memory of my college graduation for years to come.
There was only one way for me to go.
At the conclusion of the ceremony, Carolyn was not finished apologizing. With an endless chorus of “I am so sorry I ruined your graduation!” she seemed to think that her repetitions might erase what happened. But that wasn’t what I wanted to do. With a conscious decision and perspective, I reassured her. “Are you kidding me? I must have been the subject of about 500 conversations today! How many other people can say that? It was awesome! Hilarious, even! You couldn’t possibly script stuff like this. I won’t ever forget it, and I’m sure lots of other people won’t either.”
I gave her a big hug. It really was okay.
I learned many things in college about academics, friends, and my own independence.
Unfortunately, I didn’t learn how to fly.
Or did I?