At the end of my Junior year at W&M I was a complete emotional wreck- I was a hot mess, to be sure. On April 22 my whole world turned upside down and that afternoon is, unfortunately, a day I can never forget. My boyfriend since the 7th grade said to me "I want a girlfriend and in case you can't tell, it's not you." I hung up a sobbing mess only to see two of my friends burst through my door crying. They assumed I was crying for the same reason, saying they just couldn't believe he might be gone. Well I knew they couldn't have been talking about my ex because a) they hated him and b) we had just broken up 2 seconds before.
That's when they told me our friend was en route to the hospital, unconscious and unresponsive. He was a senior and had been the Orientation Adviser to our freshman hall. After that first week was over he stuck around and quickly became our friend. It was less than a month before he would've graduated and he was giving his last W&M tour for potential new students and their families. In the middle of campus there's the Crim Dell, which is a pond that has a famous bridge over it. One of things you're supposed to do before you graduate is jump in it, a rite of passage if you will.
At the conclusion of the tour he jumped in. Only he didn't jump, he did a back flip in and hit his head on a submerged piece of debris; his spinal cord was severed and by the time the students who jumped in found him, he couldn't be resuscitated. We didn't have all that information at the time, so we all piled into my car and headed to the hospital. It's a moment I'll never forget; we were walking from the parking lot just as another friend was coming out of the ER door. She saw us and shook her head, tears streaming down her face. We all stood there looking at each other for what seemed like an eternity.
The rest of the day I only remember in hazy snippets and when I think about that time, it's like an elephant is standing on my chest and I can't breathe. I've never been very good at dealing with things when they happen, I'm more of the suppress-it-until-you-can-cope type. I had an interview two days later for a summer job and I sunk myself into preparing for it. When I got the job it seemed like a life saver to me, something I could fully immerse myself in that would allow me to forget about my broken spirit.
I worked as a legal intern for the Virginia Department of Education, specifically in the special ed. division. It was heaven and hell all rolled into a ball. On the one hand, it gave me a purpose when I really needed one, but it also left me profoundly depressed every day when I left. The kids and their stories all clung to me and I couldn't get enough professional distance from them. Every child broke my heart and I was disgusted to realize how many political games were played in special ed.
Some parents fought tooth and nail for their children while others just shipped them off to the "best" facilities they could afford. School boards were vicious in trying to protect themselves, both fiscally and legally. It was a game played out by lawyers and school boards, and the loser was almost always the child. While I was there I wrote a help manual for parents, a guide to show them the ins and outs of special ed. law and policy, because so many times they were just legally out-maneuvered when they actually had a legitimate complaint/dispute.
There were so many gray areas though, sometimes parents did try and take advantage of the system and sometimes school boards/special ed. directors were looking out for the child's best interest when their parent wasn't. The real heroes are the people who dedicate their lives to helping these children with special needs. It's a thankless, underfunded job that will break your heart over and over again.
Because I was so emotionally raw at the time, everything and everyone became personal. Most people who work in special ed. become jaded over time because they have to, it's a matter of emotional and psychological preservation. When I went back to school at the end of the summer I was a different person. I'd seen the damage of jaded and I became an idealist. Never before had I felt so out of control of my life as did during those months and I hated it. HATED IT.
Generally, when someone feels out of control in their life, they either try to frantically reclaim it or surrender and give up. Very few people are able to rise above and create something positive from it. The Special Olympics is an example of something amazing born from the loss of such control. Eunice Kennnedy Shriver created the SO after her sister, Rosemary Kennedy, was rendered mentally incapacitated after a botched lobotomy. After witnessing the horrors of what happened to her sister, she dedicated herself to becoming a champion for those with special needs. There was no longer anything she could do to for her sister but there were millions of others that she could help; and she did.
I'm always amazed at people who display such inner strength and fortitude. Working in special ed. opened my eyes to the harsh realities of the real world. My problems no longer seemed as earth shattering and I realized that becoming jaded is one of the worst things that can happen to a person. It dulls your passion and then makes you complacent- tricking yourself into believing that you're satisfied with the status quo because you believe there's nothing you can do to change it.
During one of the lowest times of my life (but not the lowest) when my defenses were down, I let hundreds of kids into my heart. And it hurt, it does even now. But it made me realize that idealism isn't naive, it's hope- the hope for something better. When I read that Eunice Kennedy Shriver died this morning, it brought back all of my memories from those days. And while death is always sad, she leaves behind a beautiful legacy. From her sister's tragedy she created something enduring and positive in her memory. She was the kind of person you want your kids to say to you "I want to be like Eunice Kennedy Shriver when I grow up." Sometimes her story gets lost in the Kennedy family saga, and that's such a shame, because she certainly was one of the heroes.
4 hours ago