The Math of Life

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By Mark E. Smith

I love having problems. See, what I’ve learned in my life is that problems are opportunities for solutions, and with solutions comes success. In fact, in most cases in our lives, our biggest successes begin with a big problem.

Many have the equations of life backward. Although in math we’re taught that problems are solved with absolute solutions, many never look at life that way. Instead, we often view problems as unsolvable or insurmountable. Often when we encounter a problem, we give up or dramatically change directions. And, this, of course, makes achieving success and accomplishing our dreams impossible.

However, if we look at a problem as the first step toward success – that is, if I overcome this challenge, I will achieve my goal – a problem becomes nothing but positive. I mean, losing a great job for example, is in most people’s minds one of life’s toughest problems. Yet, I’ve known countless people who have used a firing as a catalyst to land better-paying, more-satisfying jobs. In this way, the problem of losing a job can either be a devastation or an opportunity for career advancement – and we have the power to choose the path.

Now, there are also bad problems and good problems, and while the objective is the same – find a solution! – few realize the difference. My daughter is formally enrolled to begin college this fall, as are many of her friends. The number one topic I hear from my fellow parents these days is the problem we’re all facing with looming $30,000 to $40,000 annual tuition bills. I’ve been expressing to my peers that this is a fantastic problem to have because while it may seem a financial nightmare on the surface, it’s only because we have amazing kids who’ve worked really hard to get accepted to among the best schools. If our biggest problem is paying for our children’s college because they’re succeeding in life, we’re actually blessed – it’s a great problem to have.

I’ve been working through good versus bad problems in looking to buy a new home. While my fiancée and realtor have been diligent and patient, it’s been impossible so far to find a home that can be made reasonably accessible for my power wheelchair and interior adaptations, such as an accessible bathroom. We’ve found several homes that if I could walk would have been dream homes. However, due to my special needs, house after house has had to be ruled out. It’s seemingly becoming a bad problem because as a man using a wheelchair, I’m seeing firsthand the problem we have in this country with an overall lack of housing that can be made accessible, from rentals to purchases. However, as one with a disability – where based on remaining social stereotypes and societal barriers to employment, my peers have an 85% unemployment rate – I’m blessed to be able to afford home ownership. Therefore, the ability to afford a house, but not be able to find one quickly based on my access needs, is a good problem to have.

In both these situations, what may seem like problems are actually remarkable opportunities for success. Solving the problem of costly tuition means that my daughter is the second person in my family’s history to attend college and, ideally, go on to an amazing career.  Solving the problem of finding my accessible dream home will allow me to live in my own sanctuary, full of laughter and love for decades to come. Yes, such circumstances begin as problems, but eventually they are pathways to remarkable success.

We all encounter problems in our lives, and it’s so easy to be frustrated at best, devastated at worst. However, if we’re going to succeed amidst adversity, we need to look at problems not as obstacles, but as opportunities. When we face a problem, it’s rarely that life isn’t going our way. Rather, when we face a problem, it’s usually life simply asking us to look at the situation a little deeper – and there within most often resides a path to greater success than we ever imagined. We may have problems, but we also have solutions to achieve amazing success.

A Power Chair, a Warehouse, and Me

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By Mark E. Smith

How fortunate are we when life hands us an unyielding passion? And, sometimes life-sustaining passions stem from the most unlikely of sources. In fact, they almost always do.

At the age of five or so, with severe cerebral palsy, I was blessed to have an occupational therapist place me in a power chair, and I went from a world of confinement to one of liberation at the touch of a button. And, I haven’t let off of the joystick since.

Thirty nine years later, I remain not just passionate about power chairs, but obsessed. I know the empowerment they bring, and I live it. My career revolves around power chairs; my personal life revolves around power chairs; and my friends revolve around power chairs.

But, my power chairs aside, here’s what’s amazing about having such a passion: no one can take it away from you because it’s your intrinsic life force. Lot’s of people like what they do. However, a passion is what you love to do, what you’re compelled to do – it’s who you are – and nothing can change that.

So, at 44, after 39 years of using a power chair – despite all of my life’s accomplishments – there’s still that one, ultimate thrill for me: when I have an awesome new power chair, as was the case this past week, where I immediately become that five-year-old again (a secret warehouse as my personal race track), where I feel an awe-inspiring sense of liberation and empowerment that wipes away all of the complexities of life – and I’m just living my passion to the core.

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Taking Off My Shirt

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By Mark E. Smith

I struggle with body image. I know that many of us do. Yet, my struggles with body image take a different turn than most. See, while many who struggle with body image want to conceal their body, I want to reveal mine.

We live in a society were outer image is powerful. Yet, it’s rarely accurate. And, that holds true in my case. As a man with severe cerebral palsy, using a power wheelchair – where my posture is contorted and my movements spastic – I am the blatant fragility of disability in the eyes of many. Yes, I dress well, but, ironically, that very form of dress, while socially elevating for most, accentuates the concealment of who I am. In a button-up shirt and chinos, or a suit and tie, I’m the portrait to many as a contorted figure in a power wheelchair, fragile, needing help, and certainly asexual.

And, nothing could be farther from the truth. Underneath my clothes, there’s nothing fragile, helpless or asexual about me. Beneath my socially-concealed body is my true self: masculine, muscular and edgy. While society can project assumptions on me clothed, the truth is told when my shirt comes off, when the real me is literally exposed.

Yet, when we think of my struggle with body image – wanting to be embraced for who I truly am beyond my exterior facade of socially-stereotyped disability – it’s actually no different than anyone else’s, is it? While many of us on the surface wish to change an aspect of ourselves that we feel awkward, embarrassed or even ashamed about based on society’s idealization of appearance, it’s really not what we want at all – that is, deep down, we don’t want to change who we are. No, what we truly want is to live in a society that doesn’t judge or value us based on subjective appearance; rather, we want to live in a society that recognizes and embraces the beauty of who we really are – nothing for us to feel the need to change, and all of ourselves celebrated and seen for who we truly are.

When We’re De-Elevated

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Ny Mark E. Smith

It happened in an instant. In fact, as one who doesn’t experience anxiety and is pretty calm in virtually any situation, I began to panic. There’s a horrifyingly surreal quality to suddenly becoming invisible.

My family and I went to see the famed Rockefeller Christmas tree, and it was more crowded than anywhere I’ve ever been. However, because my power wheelchair has an elevating seat that places me at 5’7” tall, I worked my way through the crowd slowly but surely, eye-to-eye with those moving about, where people smiled at me, gingerly moving aside as needed for my 24”-wide power wheelchair to pass.

As we got closer to the tree, the crowd became so dense that I couldn’t see the ground, merely following the heads in front of me. Then, suddenly, my power wheelchair dropped down a medium-height curb leading to the tree. Although the unexpected curb startled me, all was fine and we continued to the tree, shoulder-to-shoulder in the crowd, finishing with a classic family photo of the tree behind us.

We worked our way back through the crowd, and I watched carefully for the curb, knowing that while I couldn’t climb it while elevated, I could lower my seat to standard wheelchair height and safely drive up it. As I reached the curb, the crowd continued flowing around me – that is, until I lowered my seat. Suddenly, at typical wheelchair height, my world changed. It was literally darker, more confined and, most shocking to me, I became invisible. While the crowd was moments earlier around me at standing height, now people were slamming into me, falling on me, oblivious to the fact that I was “down there.” I’d gone from a person in the crowd to suddenly invisible and of no stature simply by lowering my seat.

I yelled to my fiancee for some sort of help and in a panic, I charged the curb, clipping people along the way. For me, in among the rarest moments I’ve experienced, it felt like it was life or death – I was both fighting and fleeing.

Once up the curb, I quickly elevated my seat, and as people immediately began safely flowing back around me, I took a deep breath, composed myself, and realized a universal truth: Being invisible to society is terrifying.

For me, that was an experience I’ve culturally known in other ways as a man with a disability. Beyond the change in physical stature I described with my elevating seat, I’ve more readily been de-elevated in social stature at times. However, the de-elevation of who we are – where we become invisible in an instant based on ignorance, stereotyping and discrimination – is a disturbingly universal one.

Imagine how it feels as an African-American trying to hail a cab in a big city, and empty cabs pass you by. Imagine being gay at a dinner party where rhetoric arises, condemning homosexuality. Imagine being a woman shopping for a car, and the salesman only speaks to your husband. Imagine walking into a clothing store as one of a plus size, and the sales people ignore you. Imagine being in bed with your spouse, and he or she turns his or her back to you as you’re trying to communicate. Or, imagine being homeless on a Los Angeles sidewalk, and no one even looks at you as they pass. So many of us can relate with being de-elevated to invisible.

Yes, I was fortunate amidst the crowd at Rockefeller Center that eve because, at the touch of a button, I elevated back to being seen. However, life for many – including me as one with a disability – often isn’t so easily resolved. When we’re dismissed by others and made to feel invisible, there is no button to push. Rather, the experience of being made invisible based not on our character, but based on the ignorance, stereotyping and discrimination of others… well… just hurts.

Gala of the Messy and Miserable

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By Mark E. Smith

Facebook and disability – they’re both masters of illusion, where publicly you never see the whole picture of a person, just the best parts possible. But, what happens when you remove that curtain, where life isn’t glamorous postings or a guy in a power wheelchair, wearing a suit and tie, whizzing by you at work?

We really do live in a kaleidoscope culture, where people only want to see and present the pretty parts of life. The real and gritty parts are scary and painful – and yet all so real. None of our lives are pretty and perfect all of the time. In fact, they can often be messy and miserable. And, what I’ve learned is that the pretty and perfect parts don’t unite us; it’s the messy and the miserable that do – because they’re heartwrenchingly real. We can only relate to the pretty and the perfect to a limited degree. However, the messy and the miserable is often where life lands us – and we all can relate to that. In this way, there’s a reason in all of our lives to shatter the illusion and get real, where we have the courage to expose the messy and the miserable, and that’s when we truly connect with others.

My own Facebook and disability form an illusion. No, not intentionally, but by the nature of it all. My colleagues see me poised and polished in my career – perfect hair, whizzing by in a power wheelchair – and my Facebook shows an amazing life. So, if that’s the pretty and the perfect, where’s the messy and the miserable come in?

All over the place! I attended a gala recently and, if I say so myself, I looked GQ-hot rolling in. But, what no one saw was what it took me to get to that point. I’m no GQ model. Rather, I’m a guy with severe cerebral palsy whose life can be messy and miserable. Like many with complex disabilities, I had to build in my “bathroom regimen” in the process of getting ready, which takes time and is physically taxing. Then, the reason why I was polished and on time at the event was because my daughter and fiancee helped me get dressed. I can do it on my own, but it takes hours, so the more practical of the two options was accepting the gracious help of my daughter and fiancee to get me ready.

But, we never have these conversations, right? It’s not like someone says to me at a gala, “Mark, you look so handsome tonight.”

And, I reply, “Thanks. I struggled through a bathroom regimen this afternoon, then my fiancee buttoned my pants, tied my shoes and styled my hair….”

Yet, that’s the reality, and when I think about that gala, I know that many people there had messy, miserable aspects to their lives, too. After all, life isn’t easy for any of us. Maybe there were couples who argued like mad on the way, but walked in with smiles. Maybe they were couples who drove there in a car with the gas light on because they’re broke, but walked in like a million bucks. Maybe someone recently lost a family member and it took all of his or her strength to get dressed up and attend such a chipper gala. And, how many individuals there had disabilities or conditions unseen, from depression to epilepsy? I know that the beautiful lady on my arm – my fiancee, the one who helped me face my challenges to get to the gala – had her own challenges that eve, ones that no one knew, as she continues recovering from a recent cancer-related surgery.

The fact is, everyone’s life can look pretty and perfect on the outside. But, how many of our lives truly are? Life is often messy and miserable – and, as a result, absolutely beautiful. See, when we let down our facades, and with grace and dignity discuss the messy and the miserable in our lives, it makes those around us let down their guards, and that’s when we truly connect with others. And, when we connect, we’re not alone in the messy and miserable, and it makes all in our life – the messy and the miserable – dramatically easier to cope with.

And, so at that gala, I made my own silent toast to the messy and the miserable hidden beneath the facade of the pretty and the perfect – because we’re all in the trials of life together.

Dust and Sweat and Blood

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By Mark E. Smith

Someone asked me what the hardest part of my career has been? I didn’t have to think twice: Learning to embrace criticism.

Whenever we put ourselves in the public eye, even on a small scale, criticism flies at us. I once read a scathing criticism about Mother Teresa. Why would anyone ever criticize Mother Teresa?

I would have never imagined 25 years ago when I published my first piece in Sports ‘N’ Spokes magazine about racing wheelchair technology that readers would send letters to the editor criticizing me. But, they did. I remember the next month’s issue where a Canadian racer lunched a personal attack on me in the Letters to the Editor section. It hurt and made me second guess myself, not as a writer, but as a person. Then I wrote a piece in New Mobility about the goal of equal rights for those with disabilities, and I again was shocked by the hate mail. By 1995, when my childhood autobiography was published – as wholesome as writing gets – I wasn’t surprised but disappointed at the strangers who didn’t attack the book, but me personally.

With my work becoming so visible online since the late 1990s, and my career and public persona growing exponentially ever since, public ridicule and criticism is something I’ve faced on a daily basis for two decades now. It’s weird turning on your computer each day, seeing complete strangers hating you. But, it goes with the territory of being in the public light.

What’s intriguing about criticism, however, is that it’s by no means limited to those of us in public roles. In fact, among the most painful forms of criticism can come from those closest to us, those who profess to care about us – spouses, parents, siblings. I know because I’ve been there, too.

I recently received an unsettling phone call from a 22-year-old college student with cerebral palsy. He’s striving to graduate college and build a life for himself, but his dad gives him no support, just criticism. I could relate on an eerie level because I was in almost his exact situation, where my estranged father went out of his way several times to lash out at me, mocking me for pursuing my education, criticizing me for “thinking I was better than everybody else because I was going to college.” Sure, it stung, but by that point I couldn’t put any credence in my father whose track record was a tenth-grade education, a walk-away father and an unemployed, life-long alcoholic.

And, that’s the pattern of critics: typically they’re the last people who should criticize anyone. From my public career to my personal life, I’ve never had anyone doing what I do criticize me. It’s always those not doing who criticize. Among the best quotes on this topic is President Theodore Roosevelt’s excerpt from a 1910 speech:

It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.

Researcher and lecturer, Brene Brown, expands upon this, noting, “If you place yourself in the arena, you’re going to get your ass kicked. But, those not in the arena, who aren’t getting their asses kicked with us, have no right to judge. …Take your seats and be quiet.”

From Roosevelt to Brown, I wholeheartedly agree. We can’t put credence in armchair quarterbacks. If you’re on the field with me, taking blows, marred by dust and sweat and blood, I’ll give you due credibility. However, I can’t take beer-belly, armchair quarterbacks seriously – they invest nothing of themselves. If you criticize me, I will hear you out of decency, but I’ve learned that if I truly believe in what I’m doing – and I do – criticism may still feel lousy, but it doesn’t change my inspired path. Some are satisfied by watching and criticizing, but I’m busy doing.

Let us live boldly in the arena, and as the seated critics shout – too cowardly to be in the arena taking blows with us – use it as validation that we’re doing everything right and getting stronger all the time, thriving on being marred in dust and sweat and blood. It takes nothing to be a critic; it takes everything to strive to make a difference. See, the ultimate strength isn’t in ignoring your critics; rather, the ultimate strength is in having the courage to continue moving your life and career forward regardless of what they say.

The Science of Hope

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(Beyond general admissions, my daughter is applying to an honors college program that includes research within the student’s field. In the applications process, a 750-word essay is required, explaining the desired area of research, why it’s of importance to the student, and its impact on humanity. It’s a lofty task that, ideally, begins students on an extraordinary academic journey, one that ultimately changes the lives of others. My daughter’s essay is in line with the inspired writing you read here week after week, and so it’s my privilege to share her essay with you this week.)

By Emily C. Smith

As I pursue my undergraduate studies in psychology, there is a much larger life mission at work for me. It’s a passion, a field of study, a research quest that ultimately effects each one of our lives: what’s the origin of hope within the human psyche?

It’s a very personal subject to me, and one that effects the life of every person on the planet. We either have hope or others have hope for us, and if hope is removed from our perspectives and lives, virtually all possibilities cease. Yet, with hope, potential dramatically expands our horizons, where a bleak prognosis becomes potential, where vying is a path for victory. However, the questions remain. What are the origins of hope? Why do some people have hope while others do not? And, how does hope, itself, impact the many circumstances throughout our lives?

I’ve learned about hope in my own life, and wish to extend the power of hope to others. I want to empower others with what I refer to as the “science of hope.”

As a very young child, my mother became addicted to prescription medication. I went through grade school, then junior high watching my mother drift away. I struggled with having hope. I remember being 11, and picking my unconscious mother off of the bedroom floor, tucking her in bed, my heading off to school. I remember sitting in class that morning thinking about all of the times I rushed to hospitals with my father because my mother had overdosed. I thought about all of the times I locked myself in my room as my mom crashed about the house. I remember all of the efforts my father made to put my mother through rehab, threatening to sue doctors who prescribed her more pills. Indeed, I remember sitting in class that morning, knowing my mother’s addiction was killing her – and there was no hope.

My father, though, knew something I didn’t. See, he was born with severe cerebral palsy. He wasn’t expected to live more than a few hours, and once he did, he was declared an absolute vegetable. His life ended up a lesson in never believing in a negative prognosis, but using hope as a guiding light, even in the bleakest of times – maintaining a high-profile career and giving me as much of his time as possible as my mother wasted away.

Soon, the inevitable occurred. My mother moved out, removing herself entirely from our lives. With bare walls because my mother took all of the pictures and very little experience running a house, especially at my young age, I wasn’t just void of hope, I was terrified. We were a 12-year-old and a suddenly-single father with severe cerebral palsy who used a power wheelchair in a bare-bones house – alone.

Yet, my father introduced the one component that would rescue me from my stifling fear and pain: the power of hope.

He hugged me and said, “It’s now just you and me. I don’t know how we’re going to do this, but we are. Soon these walls will be filled with pictures of our life, our dreams rebuilt.”

My father’s unshakable hope was my guide post. I held onto his hope as we learned together how to not just live, but to thrive, that guide post slowly becoming less of a need as it was replaced by my own intrinsic sense of hope.

Despite the tragedy of my family, hope has been the ultimate gift. We all face adversity, but when you have hope, you have the ability to not just survive, but excel. From my home life to my academics to my extracurricular activities, hope has led me to empowering heights. Give me a negative circumstance and I will show you the positives; show me limitations and I will show you possibilities; and show me a grim prognosis and I will show you hope.

I know where I got my hope – that is, from my father, from experiencing adversity and having him lead the way with hope. And, I want to further that legacy by not just portraying hope, but by scientifically defining it for humanity. See, I don’t want hope to merely be a mysterious state of mind that some have and some don’t. Rather, I want to research hope to a tangible level, where it’s a definable tool that doesn’t just elevate our individual lives, but all of humanity.

Kevin

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By Mark E. Smith

As he spun on the salon chair, his joy was contagious. No one else his age, 20s, would dare spin on the chair, hands thrust in the air, yelling, “Woohoo!” but he did. Most of us would be too self conscious, too restricted by social norms. But, his authenticity allowed him to do what we’d all love to do – that is, follow our unbridled enthusiasm. Yes, he was different from the rest of us, and we were all a little jealous.

He stopped spinning for a moment, looked at my 17-year-old daughter and waived, flashing a big grin.

“I’m Kevin,” he said.

“Hi, Kevin,” my daughter replied from her seat along the front window. “I’m Emily.”

“Emily, watch…,” he replied, spinning some more, hands in the air.

He spun, and he spun, and he spun until his mother and father pulled him from the chair.

“Bye, Emily – I’ll call you,” he said, putting his hand to his ear in a telephone gesture, and we all giggled at how adorably unabashed he was, moving toward the door.

As he left, I glanced at my daughter and soon there was a knock on the window behind us. We looked, and Keven blew Emily a big kiss, promptly dragged away, smiling, by his mom.

I was immediately struck with the thought that whoever defines intellectual disabilities has it all wrong. I realized that there were a lot of us with intellectual disabilities in the salon that eve, but Kevin wasn’t one. He followed his enthusiasm, lived with an uninhibited heart and wasn’t afraid to extend love to others. Few of us could say the same.

Honoring Being Wanted

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By Mark E. Smith

I’ve just returned from my daughter’s first college visit. It was actually a bit more than a typical college visit that high school seniors do because she’s being recruited by the school based on her achievements. As a dad, I see aspects like a waived application fee, streamlined early application, early acceptance and a scholarship as all the reasons to go there – plus, it’s a great school in a great part of the country for internships and a subsequent career. However, there’s a more profound reason why my daughter is leaning heavily toward this particular school: she’s wanted.

So many people want; yet, in most circumstances, wanting isn’t emblematic of success. However, being wanted has everything to do with success. As I’ve told my daughter, anyone can want to go to any college and apply, hoping to get in. However, the ultimate success is in being sought out based on merit, where a college wants you.

The realized value of being wanted instead of simply wanting, applies to so much of life. Top executives never apply for jobs – they’re recruited. When we’re in the most fulfilling relationships, we’re desired by our partners. Among the greatest successes in life involve being wanted, not just wanting.

However, there’s a caveat to being wanted, one that I continue seeking to instill in my daughter. Being wanted has nothing to do with entitlement, but everything to do with unyielding dedication and responsibility. You earn being wanted by being extraordinarily dedicated, and then you honor being wanted by striving even more. In my daughter’s case, she’s being wanted by a college because she’s worked hard in high school, but now she must work even harder to honor the college’s recognition. The recruited executive can’t rest once he’s landed among the country’s top jobs, but must honor it by working even harder. And, in our relationships, we must always honor our spouses with love and attention, where desire is unwavering.

I’ve been fortunate to experience the privilege of being wanted via the writing portion of my career. I used to have to hustle and try to secure paid writing jobs. However, I’m fortunate that now editors come to me with writing assignments. However, tight deadlines and working late nights are par for the course — again, the privilege of being wanted must be honored with dedication or it won’t last. Being wanted means being unyielding in what you do.

Wanting is great, especially when there’s effort behind it to achieve a goal. However, being wanted is emblematic of ultimate success because it’s where dedication intrinsically leads our lives to new levels of potential and opportunity.

Who Really has the Power

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By Mark E. Smith

I thrive on possessing power. But, not in the way you might think. In my business and family, I, in fact, practice the opposite, seeing my roles as humbly serving others. And, yet, when it comes to me, power is synonymous with personal accountability. I learned at an early age that in order to have power, you must be personally accountable; and, if you’re not personally accountable, you have no power. You can control life or life can control you. It’s initially circumstance, but ultimately choice.

It all started with my failing Biology in high school, namely because I wasn’t doing my homework. I wanted to do my homework, but my home life was a mess. My mother and stepfather made our home Hell. I came home from school each day to my mother in the most horrendous conditions – always drunk, but sometimes high, overdosed, manic, or suicidal – and then my stepfather came home drunk, where they fought and smashed up the house. My mother loved to break things and my stepfather loved to scream, and it made for long nights. On top of that, I was struggling to develop my independent living skills due to my cerebral palsy. How was I to somehow do homework with so much volatility in my life?

I lay in bed looking at my report card one night feeling ashamed because it was dotted with Fs and Ds. I’d worked really hard to be mainstreamed in an era when it wasn’t common practice, and I was watching it all slip away. I tossed the report card on the floor and decided my parents and cerebral palsy weren’t going to dictate my grades. I had the power, not them.

I went from a failing student to the honor roll the next report card period by literally locking my bedroom door in the evenings and letting my parents trash the house and there lives as I focused on my homework. I remember typing my homework while trembling and crying as my mom pounded on my door, screaming. Still, I wasn’t giving her power over my life. My grades were my responsibility – and I had the power to succeed over all.

Those years of finishing high school with A’s didn’t make me smarter, but they did make me wiser. I learned that our lives, in the long term, aren’t dictated by anyone or anything, but us. Circumstances may set us up as victims, but we can choose to be victors.