By Steve Varisco, RMU Student.
I am usually the one complaining. I like to do it. My friends expect me to rant and rave about the simple annoyances in my life. (Some even find it amusing.) I’ve even gone as far as to complain about how terrible it is being a night student: work all day, class all night, on a terrible diet due to no time for dinner, all the homework and group projects, submitting papers for final grades, etc. It is terrible being me with all of my first world problems. This post is something different. I want to share a learning experience I’ve had.
I’ll try almost anything once. I enjoy having unique experiences. There is one experience that will stick with me forever. This came about during my first attempt at college 15 years ago. One of the people in the dorms with me was in a wheelchair. Being the smug and invincible teenager that I was, I bet him that I could handle being in a wheelchair for an entire day. I used to always say, “The whole world is handicap accessible now. What’s the big deal?” Little did I know, my dorm-mate was on the wheelchair basketball team and he had a spare chair. I was about to learn what the big deal was.
The terms of the bet were simple: I couldn’t use my legs for the entire day. But the fun actually started the night before the bet began. The door to my dorm room was not wide enough to accommodate a wheelchair. What I would have to do was roll out of bed and pull myself out into the hall where my new mode of transportation waited for me.
I need to interject at this time and notify all readers that I was 5’10” and weighed in at a whopping 145 lbs. My musculature could have, and was, described as non-existent. Pulling myself across the 15 feet from my bed to the door was not exactly stress free. What was worse was trying to maneuver in the bathroom. But that is a story for another day.
Finally, I’m in my chair and ready to make my way to class. Right from the start, I noticed the smallest incline in every sidewalk. The idea of propelling myself up each one seemed like a cruel punishment. Had I not known better, I would have thought that my stride-challenged friend had spoken to God himself to ensure that there were no downhill slopes the whole way to class. I was moving at a snail’s pace. By the time I got to class I was 15 minutes late. Usually, I was 5 minutes early. First lesson learned. Can’t move so fast when the world is leaning against you.
Once in class a fun new discovery hit me. All the desks had the chairs connected to them. There was no way I was going to try sliding in one. I decided using a hardcover text book as a table top was the best idea. As I pull the backpack off of my lap I realized how sweaty and steamy the gap in between the two points had become. I was soaking wet wherever the backpack had been touching. Luckily the backpack was waterproof or else almost the entire contents would have been in contact with “eau de Varisco.” As I’m about to put the book on my lap so I could take notes, I decide against the idea. I just felt disgusting as I sat defeated and listened to the instructor drone on for the rest of the hour.
Finally it was time to go back to my dorm. Learning from earlier mistakes, I sling the backpack around the back of the chair. I roll outside and relish in the fact that the whole ride back will be downhill. I start rolling towards the dorm. Thank goodness I don’t have to push myself. I start picking up speed. The breeze feels so refreshing. I get to the end of the block. I hadn’t had to stop like this yet. I grab the wheel rails and they slide through my hands. I let go. I brace myself and grab on again. The rails are sliding through my hands, burning as I try and stop. I clamp down and manage to hold on to execute my stop before hitting the street. I look at my hands. They are black from dirt and a fine layer of skin had been removed. Second lesson learned. Every advantage has a disadvantage.
It was only 10:30 a.m. and I was already hating my big fat mouth. I roll inside and was greeted by the professional wheeler. “How’s it going?” he asks.
I can hear him already enjoying what he thinks will be a victory. I muster the best smile I can, “Piece of cake!” I say as I roll towards my room.
I expect my arms to fall apart at any time. I get to my room and remember I won’t be able to go in there. The chair doesn’t fit. I turn around and roll to the common area tables. I can see Mr. Wheels smiling at the other end of the hall.
I live through the whole ordeal two more times during the day. No matter how much I planned, I was never able to anticipate all the obstacles in my way. On the way to my second class, I found that my shortcut through campus woods wasn’t going to help. Foot trails aren’t made for wheelchairs. Halfway down the paved path through the woods, I encountered a downed tree limb. Any other day I could have just stepped over. That day, I had to double back and take the long way around. By the time I get to class there are only 10 minutes left. The third class is on the other side of campus. I usually make it just in time. Defeated, I roll back to the dorm. Third lesson learned. I’m an idiot for thinking I can do this.
Upon my return, I’m sweating, out of breath, dirty and tired. Wheelie is waiting for me. I could sense him sitting there smiling from the time I gave up on going to my third class. When I get inside, I roll up to him and concede. “You win” is what I wanted to say. I couldn’t really say much. I was worn out. I stand up, glad to use my legs. They were the only parts of my body that weren’t screaming for relief. I wave off the chair and Mr. Wheels. My hand is a smear of dirt and blood. Defeated I walk into my dorm room and fall asleep.
Wheelie McWheelson and I are still friends to this day. Whenever we meet up, a game of wheelchair basketball is customary. Needless to say, he always wins. He also never lets me forget that day. Even if he didn’t constantly remind me I will never forget. Learning about somebody by walking a mile in their shoes is dumb. Try wheeling “half” a mile in somebody else’s chair.