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Observations From Below: The Kid in the Purple Wheelchair

Unfortunately, John had very severe health challenges. He died at the age of 20. I'm so grateful that I was able to apologize and learn so many things from him. I learned patience, respect and not to make assumptions. I still believe he was way smarter than I ever gave him credit.
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"I'm starting with the man in the mirror
I'm asking him to change his ways
And no message could have been any clearer
If you want to make the world a better place
Take a look at yourself, and then make a change" -- Michael Jackson

I love the song "Man in the Mirror" by Michael Jackson. It's a song about taking personal responsibility and redeeming oneself. The reason I love this particular song is that I have been where the speaker in the song has been. People tell me that I am too nice these days, but just like many other kids, I sucked as a 12-year-old.

I'm sure we've all had traumatic emotional events in elementary and middle school . I, unfortunately, in seventh grade was briefly a bully, before I redeemed myself. Back then, my personal care assistant (pca) and I had an office, where we would spend time between classes. We had the room to ourselves, until I was told there was going to be another kid and his pca sharing the space. Like any kid, I didn't know what to expect, so I created an image in my head.

The only thing that I was told was that he had a tracheotomy. I imagined that he would be around my size. When he arrived, he was even more disabled than I had imagined. He was rolled into the room in a purple wheelchair by his pca. He had a trach and a feeding tube and he was very small. He couldn't speak.

My first target was his purple wheelchair and the fact that he couldn't wheel it himself. At that age, I was concerned about gender roles and didn't think purple was a color a boy should use. It reminded me of Barney. He had to be pushed everywhere, which I found to be lame. My pca would joke that he would one day get out of the chair and get me, which I found to be hilarious because he was one of the only people I knew that was so obviously weakened and he was much smaller than me. This lasted several weeks.

I never directly mocked him to his face, but I would talk about him to my pca. One day, I was very loud in my joking, so he must have overheard. I came out of the bathroom and he looked at me and frowned. William Shakespeare once said, "The Eyes are the window to your soul." He was unable to communicate his thoughts, but he always had very expressive eyes. Enter my Catholic guilt. I apologized.

I was mortified. I remember feeling terrible. It still makes me feel bad. If I want to make myself cry, all I have to do is think about that. The key is that I decided that I was going to change. I began to talk with him, even though I wasn't sure if he could understand me. I think he did though. I befriended his pca through our mutual love of the Carolina Panthers. He and I shared an occupational therapist, also. I began to stick up for him to the therapist, too. He didn't like to use technology or go to the occupational therapist. I became his advocate.

That was the first time, I decided to speak up for other people, who couldn't speak up for themselves. I didn't know he was going to become such a big part of my life based on our rocky beginning. It helped that I also began meeting other people with disabilities around the same time. The main thing was my relationship with John. The summer before eighth grade, I would sometimes call our therapist to find out how he was doing.

In eighth grade, we were very close friends. Then John went to a different high school, but we both still had the same occupational therapist, so I continued to get updates, even though I probably shouldn't have. He never did find a good way to communicate. He eventually learned to use switches to answer yes or no questions.

Unfortunately, John had very severe health challenges. He died at the age of 20. I'm so grateful that I was able to apologize and learn so many things from him. I learned patience, respect and not to make assumptions. I still believe he was way smarter than I ever gave him credit.

The most important thing I learned from my experience with John was that even bullies can change. It is never too late to be the man in the mirror by thinking and behaving differently.

Reflections matter.

That's how I roll.