A Graduation Story

Looking back, my high school graduation was a pretty impressive feat. It wasn’t doubt around my academics, but rather my health and endurance. Two years before, I started a series of surgeries for knee and hip replacements that challenged my physical abilities.

As the fall term of my senior year in high school began, I was coming off a summer of intensive physical rehabilitation from my orthopedic surgeries. While I was in less pain, the healing and recovery was much more difficult than anticipated. I needed an extra set of knee surgeries to remove scar tissue from the new joints and I was just generally weaker and not progressing as had been hoped.

But one thing I had was determination. Even while I was out of school for the surgeries I had kept up with my school work, including having teachers and tutors visit me at home to give me lessons while I was on bed rest. I remember learning physics at the kitchen table and writing equations while laid up on the couch. In many ways, my goal to graduate on time kept me busy and motivated to keep working during a very difficult time of my life.

For me it wasn’t just about graduating on time and getting ready to go to college (another goal that I worked hard to achieve), it was about walking down that carpet to receive my diploma while standing on my own two feet.

Ever since the surgeries I struggled to stand and for many months I could not. I had to keep relearning how to stand. And then how to sit! That was so terrifying! Standing on my shaking legs, holding onto my walker, seeing that chair behind me as an oasis of rest yet feeling petrified to let go and trust my legs to set me down safely.

Once I progressed enough in physical therapy to stand and walk a few steps, it became clear that I had to try for more—that I had to make every effort to walk at my graduation ceremony. It meant so much to me, that I would be earning my diploma and that I had worked at my physical recovery to experience this moment on my own terms. And I also wanted it for my family—for them to see me and take pictures with me proudly holding that precious piece of paper.

When I returned to school, my parents requested an aid to assist me with my physical therapy. Although I probably qualified for one during all my growing years, I had always wanted to remain independent. But this time I needed extra help to exercise, practice walking, and build my strength as much as possible.  It wasn’t just about walking graduation, it was also preparing myself for college and future independence—to be able to take care of myself and become confident that I could.

Heather became not only my coach, but a lifelong friend. She encouraged me through bad days and physical barriers. We practiced walking in the nurse’s office, then in hallways when others were in class, then a wooden staircase (in case the ceremony was moved indoors for rain). In my memory, it seemed unending. All the exercises, the struggles to balance, placing one foot in front of the other.

And it made all the difference. I practiced and practiced. We created a plan on how it would go and told the school I would need some extra time, but that I would get up from my seat and walk those steps (50 yards was it?) to take my diploma. And as the day drew closer it felt like everyone was cheering me on—they all wanted to see and be a part of it.

I didn’t let up and the day arrived with sunshine. Some local television and newspaper reporters came to cover graduation and I unexpectedly made the news with my grinning face, wobbly legs—diploma in hand!

It’s a moment that I will never forget. And even more, I remember all the hard work that went into it. My high school graduation wasn’t just about growing up into adulthood, it was an unforgettable lesson that I could achieve what I set my mind to—that only I know my limits and that my grit and determination could carry me wherever I needed to go, for the rest of my life.

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