Volunteer Receptionist at Little Company Hospital, seeking position as school counselor
“This is the wheelchair and me. We’re buddies; we come together.”
Gaby talks about her desire to become a teacher and how prejudices about her being in a wheelchair dashed those hopes.
Not many people know this story, because I don’t like to share it. I hold it very close. It was during the student teaching. That’s where the trouble started, and if it’s okay with you, I’d rather not use the school’s name, because I’ve left that behind in a way. But that’s where the problem started, because to me it seemed like my abilities or capabilities were coming into question, simply because I use a chair. And not just that, but I would have an assistant with me — not so much in the classroom, but to help me take care of my personal needs throughout the day. The school also wanted to know what my assistant’s role would be in the process.
Early on, the school wanted to have a meeting with me. It was myself, members of the university community from the school of education, and the assistant superintendent and assistant principal of the school where I’d be student teaching at. I had an idea going in that they had some concerns, and I basically had to put them at ease and let them know that everything was going to be okay. Don’t get defensive. Don’t let them think that they got you, because they didn’t. I was basically being asked how I would handle certain situations if they were to arise, given my physical situation or my circumstances, because I was in a chair. As a first time student teacher I didn’t know what I would be expecting. I didn’t know what I would have to deal with on a daily basis. I was just going with the flow. I would deal with things as they came up.
For example, “How would you deal with a child that ran out of the room? How would you handle a situation of a fire alarm? What would you do?” I sat there and I answered them all. I said, “Well, if a child ran out of the room, I certainly wouldn’t be running after him, because I would have 20 to 18 other students to look over, so I would have to reach for the phone, call the office and tell them.” So I basically had to sit there and defend myself, for lack of a better word, and kind of prove that I could do this and that I did belong here. But when I was first told that they wanted to have this meeting, it kind of felt like, you’re basically telling me that you don’t think I can do it. After that I kind of felt like I had a target on my back. I felt like people would be watching me a little bit more because I was in the situation I was in with the circumstances that I had.
But I went in there and I gave everything I had on a daily basis. It was after I taught my first lesson that I noticed I was having issues writing on the board because of the angle and everything. I asked the teacher for some feedback afterwards. How do you think I did? And she said, “Let’s talk about that later.” I was like, oh boy. I knew, in the pit of my stomach I knew that something was wrong. I just didn’t know what. So yeah. Toward the end of the day, she pulled me aside and she said, “You know, I don’t know how to put this. I’m sure you’re intelligent, you’re smart, the kids love you, but I don’t think you can do this. I was watching you during the lesson; it didn’t seem like you were able to maintain control of the class and answer their questions while they were asking them.” It got to the point where she said, “I wouldn’t feel comfortable leaving you in my class alone or having you take complete control of my class.”
When she said that, oh wow. It was like I had just been punched in the gut. The wind had been literally knocked out of me, and I kind of zoned her out after that. I was there physically with her, but I wasn’t there. I don’t know if that makes any sense. But I was listening to her but I wasn’t hearing her, because after that I blocked it all out. She continued on to say, “If you want, we can have another meeting with school administrators and people from the university and try to figure out what we can do to fix this.” I said, “Well, what difference would it make? I’m giving it all I had. What if I had my assistant write on the board for me? Like I would dictate to her what needed to be written on the board and she would write it for me.” She said to me, she said, “Then who would be teaching?” I said, “It would be me, but I would be doing it in a different way, you know?”
But it was after that that she’s like, “Let’s just have another meeting to see what we can do. Go home tonight, think it over.” Then she’s like, “If you want to, you don’t have to even go back in the room.” She went back in the room for me and got all my stuff, and I just left because I had a class that night. (What not a lot of people know is that my assistant was actually my mother. She’s my primary caregiver at home. She wanted to do this for me too. I left the school, and she saw the look on my face. [Pause] It’s so hard to talk about. )
She saw the look on my face, and I just burst into tears, and she said, “What happened?” I said, “She doesn’t think I can do it.” She’s like, “What are you talking about?” She was confused. I was like, “She doesn’t.” And then I tried to explain to her, in the midst of my bawling my eyes out. But after I’d calmed down, I told her what happened, and she’s like, “Well, go see the people from the School of Education. Talk to them about it. See what they say, what can we do, what are your options?” That’s exactly what I did. I went to see the person in charge of student teachers, and she called upon the certification officer, I explained the situation. And they’re like, “Well, do you want to have another meeting?”
I said to them, at that point, I was done. I was done because I had given everything that I could possibly give, and for me to sit through another meeting and kind of just have everyone talk about me or talk at me while I’m sitting there watching them, I was like, you know what? It was a difficult decision to make, but I was like, no. You know what? I’m done.
I made sure I had more than enough credits to graduate with, which I did. I had 121, and I technically only needed 120. So they’re like, you can still graduate, but you just won’t have that certification component. You’ll have a degree, but you really wouldn’t be able to use it unless there was a school that didn’t require certified teacher. I was like, fine. Whatever. Just give it to me. It had been an emotional day. I was everywhere mentally. So I made the decision, and the next day, it was myself, my aid, and my cooperating teacher. We were in the classroom, and I basically told her what my decision was. But I wanted to say goodbye to the children. She said, that’s fine.
What happened next was kind of like my worst nightmare. My last day was going to be that Friday where I was going to be allowed to say goodbye to the children. But when I came in, I came to the realization that the whole school knew my situation. My cooperating teacher came to me and asked me if I had started a rumor that the remaining student teachers from my university had quit. And I said, “No, I didn’t start a rumor. But you could start a new one for me. You can tell them that it was just me, and that there’s nothing else to it.”
But I had people coming up to me, telling me, “We know that you decided to leave.” One person in particular, whose name I didn’t even know, that’s how short of a time I’d been there, she came up to me and she’s like, “We know you decided to leave. I just want to let you know that you should be very proud of what you’ve done and what you’ve accomplished and good luck to you.” And I appreciated her sentiment, but I was thrown off by it. Because I didn’t know who she was. Nor did I remember telling her of my decision to leave.
Did you get a chance to say goodbye to the kids?
I did. And that was the hardest part. That was the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do, aside from making the decision that I did earlier. I basically told them that I had been assigned to another school. I wasn’t given a reason as to why; I was just told that I had to go to a different school. I was very surprised at the attachment that they had formed so quickly to me. Because I had been there for a very short amount of time. I handed out pencils as a gift, and there was one student who didn’t want to use her pencil. I asked her why. She’s like, “I want to use it to remember you. If I use it, I won’t have it anymore.” So that was really hard, that was extremely difficult.
My cooperating teacher had the audacity, as I was leaving my last day, to tell me, “If you need anything, call me.” Of course I didn’t say it out loud, but I said to myself, I’m not going to call you. Not after that. I left that day, and I haven’t been back in that school district or that school since.
I finished with a Master’s of Education in school counseling, in August of 2011. I went into an interview for an internship, and I was nervous. I went in there scared, thinking that it was going to be a repeat of what had happened to me three years earlier. I was sweating because I thought the first thing that was going to arise is something related to my wheelchair and how would I do whatever I had to do with the wheelchair. But no.
First of all, my advisor was very aware of the situation that had happened to me in the past. I informed her of it and I said, this is what I dealt with then and this is what I’m afraid I’m going to deal with now. She assured me, she said, “I’m not going to let that happen.” So it was just like, okay. I’ll believe it when I see it kind of thing. So I went in for my interview and I was nervous and I was stuttering and I was completely freaking out. But I decided beforehand that I was going to be completely honest. That I was going to be completely upfront. I was going to say, “Look. This is it. This is the wheelchair and me. We’re buddies; we come together.”
So that’s the first thing I did. I said, “As you can see, I’m vertically challenged.” That’s the way I refer to myself, vertically challenged. Because I think the word disability has such a negative connotation to it. The first thing my soon-to-be supervisor did was laugh. So that kind of broke the ice a little bit. He thought it was hilarious that I had referred to myself as being vertically challenged. He started asking questions like, why did you want to be a school counselor? What did you hope to accomplish during your time as an intern? Typical interview questions. After one week of waiting, I received the long awaited phone call. I got the position.
What would you want people to know and understand about the fact that you’re in a chair?
To not look at the chair, but to look at the person that’s in the chair. Believe it or not, they have so much, they have more to offer than you think that they do. I think people, when they see the chair, it startles them. It intimidates them and they’re afraid to ask questions because they don’t know how people would react to them, to the questions that they’re being asked. Because people might think they’re being nosy or being rude. So they’re just better off not asking any questions, but I don’t mind people asking questions. What I basically want people to know is, don’t look at the chair, look at the person that’s in it. They have a lot more to offer than you think.
What’s next for you?
I still want to be in the arena of education. There’s so much left to fix.
In April of 2012, Gaby completed her course work and took the National Board Certification test. “I passed by the grace of God. It was a difficult test, but I’m now eligible to get the accreditation for being a Nationally Board Certified counselor.”
She is currently seeking a position. In the meantime, she is a volunteer at a school district working with 4th and 5th graders providing them with supplemental tutoring.