One of my first blogs was about inspiration porn. That blog hinges around one of my favourite stories to tell; it illustrates the absurd things people say and shows how normal human behaviour (like dancing at a wedding reception) is blown out of proportion.
But there is such a thing as being truly inspired by the lives led by people with disabilities. Genuine inspiration is incredibly hard to mock. It is also very easy to know the difference between people who are truly affected and touched and those who claim to be inspired because they can’t think of what else to say. I will give you an example that is near and dear to my heart; I defy you to find any insincerity in the story I tell.
In my last year of high school, the Special Education Department was shocked to find out that I applied to three different universities, all in different cities. I did not apply to one school in Toronto where I lived. After all of my applications were sent in and I waited to hear back, I was hit with, “Are you sure?”, from the head of the Special Education Department. “How will you ever manage away from your family? Are you sure you don’t want to apply to at least one school here in Toronto?”
I was used to this patronizing tone. I’d built up a pretty thick skin to protect myself from it. But the passive aggressive questioning – positively oozing with concern – came at me at a time when I was already dealing with a healthy amount of anxiety that comes with a) preparing for university and, b) making the decision to go to university away from home. That is to say, I was dealing with the exact same anxieties as most of the other students in the school preparing to graduate. Because of this very normal level of anxiety about completely normal things, my normally thick skin was unusually easy to penetrate.
A few days after I was asked these questions, I panicked. I found my Philosophy teacher before school one day and cornered him in the photocopy room. “What if I can’t hack it, Sir?” I asked. “What if I can’t manage going to university in a different city? What if I can’t handle university at all? Sure I can ace classes here, but what if I get to university and I fail?”
He stood there patiently. When I’d blurted out all of my questions and surely turned as white as a sheet, he said, “Okay. First thing, breathe. Now, I’m going to tell you something and you have to promise you won’t laugh at me. I mean this very seriously.”
I stared at him, thinking this was the strangest lead-in I’d ever heard. “Okay,” I said.
“If I had to face what you face every day Layla, I’d be in the corner crying. I cannot imagine having to face the things you do, simply by getting out of bed. I don’t think I could.”
“What?” I asked.
“Everything about your life is a struggle. I don’t mean to belittle you. I mean that everything about your life is probably a real, physical struggle. Didn’t you tell me the bus picks you up at seven-thirty to get here by eight-thirty and yet you live twenty minutes from here? You’re probably just as tired by the time you get here in the morning as I am when I leave at the end of the day. And yet here you are, all too happy to work harder than everyone else. You earn every single grade you get, but I also know you work three times as hard because you don’t want pity success, you want the real thing. So now, let me answer your questions. Yes, you can go to university. Yes, you can ‘hack’ it; if you couldn’t, you wouldn’t have aced my class. Let me ask you something: Do you have any hesitations about where you applied to school?”
“No,” I answered.
“Do you have any desire to go to university in Toronto?”
“No,” I said.
“Good. That’s all the information you need. You’re terrified; so is everyone else. You think you might fail university miserably; so does everyone else. But you won’t. These are all normal things to be scared of. But don’t let a department that has nothing to do with anything you’ve achieved make you question yourself. You got yourself here. They had nothing to do with it. Don’t let them take away your confidence. I’ll tell you something else: I’ve seen a lot of people graduate. Of every single student I have seen head off to university, you are the only one that I am not worried about in the slightest. Not only will you ‘hack’ it, you’ll thrive. I promise. If you ever doubt yourself, just remember that I, a grown man, admitted that if faced with your challenges would be in the corner crying.”
Six years after this conversation I found myself in his classroom again for my Teacher’s College practicum, working with the same teacher who told me that I inspired him... when I was sure that teachers were supposed to inspire and students were supposed to be inspired. My Teacher’s College was failing to make appropriate accommodations for me (I use a power wheelchair) and was calling my character into question. He looked at me one day after I’d embarrassingly cried my eyes out and said, “Layla, they can’t win. Please don’t let them. If they win and you quit, then the entire profession of teaching loses, because we won’t get you. And this is where you belong. You were my reason to come to work when you sat at those desks; you’re my reason for coming to work now. If you quit, then I’m quitting too.”
Finding that you are the focal point of actual inspiration is a real thing. Such heartfelt sentiments could never be mistaken for anything else.
Layla Guse Salah, DTN Social Media Assistant and Blogger