The Hope of Rollerskating
I took my first independent steps shortly after I was ten years old. Unlike our apartment, our new house was mostly uncarpeted, which, for someone who is used to crawling as a major mode of transportation, this small detail constituted a major lifestyle change. The difference between crawling on high pile carpet and tile for young knees meant that I learned to walk independently very fast to avoid the inevitable pain of pressing your knees into a completely unforgiving surface. And although I was well on my way to learning how to walk by this point, my mother has later admitted to me that she knew that a tile floor would provide me with the additional incentive needed to learn rapidly.
Of course, I’ve never been one to do things by halves, so looking back I’m always a little surprised that people had such a reaction when, nine months later I had saved enough from my allowance to buy a new pair of pink roller skates. The following week I took them to the therapy center and announced to my physical therapist, Sue, that I thought learning to roller skate should be my next therapy goal.
Perhaps this is where I should back up to explain, my version of “walking” at this point, can best be described by that scene where Bambi is attempting to get his feet under him. I wasn’t really walking at this point so much as I had learned to maintain a consistent direction during a controlled fall.
But Sue, the woman who taught me to walk, bought it the idea of roller skating as a therapy goal.
She reached for the roller skates that very afternoon and put them on my feet. Bambi was now trying to maintain a tentative balance while on wheels on ice with a film of motor oil underneath her to make life really interesting. In addition to being on wheels, I was two inches taller than I had ever been. And, having only walked independently for less than a year, I never realized how important having your feet directly underneath you really was.
As soon as we went from the treatment room to the clinic hallway, the questions from other therapists began. “What on earth are you doing? Sue, she’ll never be able to learn to roller skate. That’s not a reasonable therapy goal.”
What is the difference between allowing someone to hope, and setting them up for disappointment? I’ve been challenged with this question often by people who are trying to make me “see reality.” These people then hide behind the statement “I just want to protect you from disappointment.” What they don’t see however, is I’ve been hurt already. A lot. And as anyone who has suffered though agonies can tell you, reality fiercely slaps you in the face before you can see it.
Hope is, by definition, something born out of adversity, slim chances, and unquenched desires. We do not hope that our loved ones will come home on time tonight when they’ve been on time every night for the past year. Unless there is a specific reason as to why tonight is different, we merely expect them to be on time. This is not hope. Hope does not come without the considerable risk of disappointment. Despite what any politician, inspirational speaker, or salesman may want you to believe, you cannot offer people hope without running the risk of them facing disappointment; the two will always go hand in hand.
Now there will be many who will respond to this by claiming that there is a world of difference being giving hope for someone to obtain a reasonable goal and encouraging someone to reach for an unreasonable goal. In the upcoming weeks Sue was challenged with this statement plenty. In addition to roller skating being an unreasonable goal, it was deemed something even worse: not useful. After all. What possible use could I have for roller-skating? Wouldn’t my time be better spent learning to climb stairs or walking on gravel? Shouldn’t I be conquering something which would otherwise prove to be a hindrance in the real world?
This argument suddenly kept popping up more in my life when I decided to become an actor. Was me being onstage really a reasonable goal? After all “you’re just so intelligent, performing seems like it would be such a waste. Have you thought about being a lawyer instead?”
But the argument of anything being a reasonable or even useful goal depends on the honest answer of a single question: according to who? Like anything else, is the judgment of a single person (or even a group) enough to make that declaration true? Someone may judge a dream unreasonable because they are unwilling to make the sacrifices it would take for it to come true. One man may deem it as a waste of resources simply because qualities such as intelligence, strength, and specific abilities are not his to offer or make use of. But that doesn’t mean that a goal was ever unreachable. It simply means that that person was unwilling to do what it took to attain it. But one man’s limitations should never be placed on another, self imposed or otherwise.
At the age of four, just before I started working with Sue, my mother sat in a meeting with my school’s administrators in which she was informed that I would never be encouraged to walk during school. Their justification was that encouraging me to walk was an unreasonable goal. Despite my mother’s protests and evidence to the contrary, none of the administrative experts or physical therapists would concede. Finally a student teacher raised her hand and said that she would give up her lunch hour to teach me skills I would need for walking. She never got to see me walk without the walker that she had to tape my hands to. She never saw me on roller-skates. But something told her those efforts were not wasted.
One wonders what the reaction would be if my mother had brought in a pair of skates.
No man is ever made to live his life as he would wear a hand-me-down pair of shoes. It is not the role of anybody else to break in the seams and canvass of the pair of cross trainers, and then hand them back to you explaining what they are and are not capable of. That is your task, nobody else is permitted to unless you allow it.
What Sue realized and other therapists did not, is that even though I would never be a roller derby queen, there were things to be learned which roller-skating exemplified. Things like flexing one’s hips, finding core strength, regaining a center of gravity, and even the coordination it takes to bring one foot consistently in front of the other, all are skills which a pair of skates can challenge you to master more than being on your own two feet. Like football players taking ballet lessons to improve their game, Sue never expected me to become a great skater. And if I had become one, that point would be moot. What she was interested in is that I learned how to walk to the best of my ability. And if it took a pair of roller skates to learn that, then who was anyone to say that roller skating did not lend itself to a reasonable therapy goal?
Eventually I lost interest in the roller skates. I think I brought in a bike instead. And when I got my permit, Sue and a few other therapists took me out to learn to drive. Which is pretty impressive given that I came to the therapy centre at the age of 8 months with the expectation of never accomplishing the skills of speech and being able to sit up independently. It is the people who refuse to stop because hope may bring disappointment, refuse to believe that any dream is unreasonable, and strive for something which is deemed useless, who have the richest lives and greatest victories. The people who live life safely, refusing to reach beyond what is in easy grasp, have no claim on the lives of those that do.
After I was halfway through college, I went back to the therapy centre for a visit. Walking down the hall, I saw a small boy grasping desperately at the wall for balance. He was trying to move forward despite being attached to a set of roller skates. At a closer look, I saw they were the adjustable kind which attached to shoes. They bore the initials of the therapy clinic. Some therapist obviously thought they would be a good investment for teaching disabled children. The boy’s own therapist was encouraging him to move away from the wall. In answer to his protests and fears of falling she said “yeah, so what? Not like you haven’t fallen before.” I couldn’t help but smile.
Those who refuse to fall cannot learn to walk. They will look at a pair of brand new roller skates and never try them on. And eventually, they will do everything possible not to let a loved one fly.