“Sometimes the smallest kid on the playground leaves the biggest footprints”.
I was two years old looking down into a cheese grinder…that was my first memory of the worst day of my life. The next thing I remember, I was standing up in a crib holding onto the rail with my left hand. My right arm was missing just below the elbow. It was dark in the room, but there was just enough light that I could see other cribs, but there were no other kids. I was alone, scared to death and crying uncontrollably. A heavyset nurse opened the door halfway and stepped in, she yelled, “Quiet down!” As quickly as she appeared, she left slamming the door behind her. I don’t ever remember seeing her again, but she was a metaphor of things to come.
Three months later, I began rehab learning how to use my left hand to feed myself, dress, groom and practice other valuable life skills. Before I turned four, I was fitted for a prosthetic arm with a “fully functional” hook attachment. The prosthesis was heavy, uncomfortable and clumsy; needless to say, it wasn’t functional for me at all, it was the equivalence of dragging around a boat anchor.
We all have something; mine was just more obvious than the other kids and I was an easy target for them. They called me “Caption Hook” and the teasing and bullying was something that I would become accustomed to. However, just as any legendary Pirate saga would play out, the hero goes down in a blaze of glory, usually by cannon fire or walking the plank, tragic none the less! That eventful day would play out for me when I was in the third grade. During recess, there was a group of kids chasing me around the playground teasing me. Nothing out of the ordinary, just the typical name-calling, bullying, etc. But this time something was different about me. Perhaps I had reached that point you get to when you finally have had enough? One moment I’m running from those kids, the next I’m turned around running right back at them swinging my hook yelling and screaming like a crazy person.
At the tender age of five, there I was planted squarely in one of the cruelest places on the planet, an elementary school playground.
After the carnage, I was taken out of my public school and enrolled into an alternative special education classroom. It’s kind of ironic that the school officials deemed me the bully in that situation, don’t you think? Well for me anyhow, the bullying did stop. However, instead of learning a standardized curriculum like reading, writing and arithmetic, now my daily tasks consisted of taking wood blocks that were cut into particular shapes and placing them into their corresponding holes. Square peg round hole, yep that was me.
That experience would have a profound lasting effect on both my emotional and academic growth and development – or dare I say lack of? After that year during summer break, my family relocated to a new home closer to my father’s place of work. As a result, I was enrolled into a fourth-grade public school classroom. A new school system meant new kids and new teachers; this coupled with the fact that I wasn’t transitioned resulted in a complete and utter disaster for me. During that school year, my teacher had a cubical set up in the front of the class and made me sit behind it the entire school year. By today’s standards that type of treatment would be considered child abuse, or at least it should be. Obviously, my parents were unaware of what I had experienced during the school year. They both worked long hours and I was so used to being treated differently that I didn’t even think to tell them. Despite failing, they refused to hold me back and requested that I continue on to fifth grade. My emotional and academic development was critically in need of rescue.
Remember the worst day of my life? The best day was getting Ms. Kane for a fifth-grade teacher. She greeted her students at the door every morning with a hug and gave words of encouragement! It’s a testimony about how love can change the world. Her passion to teach her students manifested itself in such a compassionate, sincere and graceful way and I thrived under her wing. As it should be, school was finally becoming a place where I wanted to be and thankfully things would keep getting better from here.
It was in the sixth grade that I started to develop physically. My strong desire to participate in sports, along with my athletic abilities, translated to successes on the gridiron. That would further facilitate my relationships with my peers. By the time I reached high school, I had all but removed the target off my back. The very kid that no one would pick to play on their team would later excel in baseball, wrestling, track, competitive water skiing, win a world silver medal in hockey, become a published songwriter and recording artist, an accomplished piano and guitar player, and have a career as a board certified Occupational Therapist.
Looking back now, I know that God gave me this heavy burden because he knew I was strong enough to carry it. The fundamental building blocks, that formed who I am today, were gathered on those playgrounds and classrooms. All the teasing, bullying and modifications I made to figure out how to participate and excel, were assets in helping me become a role model with a message that is both important and relatable:
“Believe in your dreams even when they seem impossible, free your superhero and you’ll be unstoppable!”
Athletic accomplishments: world silver medalist, two-time runner-up and national champion with the USA Standing Amputee Hockey Team, college football player, state and national qualifier in wrestling, competitive water skier, played baseball and ran track.
Professional attributes: Board certified Occupational Therapist, motivational speaker, singer/songwriter and an accomplished piano and guitar player.