This can’t be happening, I thought. I did NOT suffer through the last nine months to crumble right here, right now, in this shaking school building!
It was my first day back at work and my first earthquake. It was like the punch line to a very BAD joke.
With adrenaline (and Genium) pumping, I followed my fellow teachers down two flights of stairs to the school lobby. We exited the building onto the street, where we found the rest of professional Philadelphia standing around in the sunshine. People were confused but laughing, wondering what had happened. It was August 23, 2011, nine months after the bicycle accident that took my leg and almost took my life. A 5.9 magnitude earthquake, centered in Virginia, had just shaken our elementary school.
It was a first day back I’ll always remember.
Thankfully, the kids wouldn’t return to school for another week. Once school started, there were many more skills for my Genium and I to master. Turns out, the kindergarten hallway is the perfect place to practice balance and agility. Stepping over backpacks, picking up papers that’ve fallen out of cubbies, tying all those dangling shoelaces….There was a challenge around every corner. At physical therapy, I’d spent months on “back to work” skills – all in preparation for dodging kindergartners!
During the first few weeks of school, I trekked those hallways. I visited every grade, talked to all the kids, and answered as many questions as I could. My new leg was ON TOUR.
In every classroom, I taught the word prosthesis. The students oohed and ahhed over a machine that came right out of their favorite movies, Transformers and I Robot.
Can I see its computer? they asked. What happens if the battery runs out? Can you get electrocuted? Does it have voice control?
Can you kick? Can you jump? Is your foot real? Is your shoe real? How do you take a shower? When you take it off, is there blood?
They were fascinated by the technology. To kids, a prosthesis is the stuff of super heroes. I even earned a new nickname: ROBOT GIRL!
I was proud of their curiosity and openness. Very quickly, the students accepted my new leg as part of me and part of our school. But there were moments when I realized that even the youngest children sensed the seriousness of what had happened.
Were you scared? Did it hurt? Who saved you? Their foreheads creased with concern.
How did the doctors cut off your leg? (Their words, not mine.)
And my own personal demon: Where’s your leg NOW?
Sometimes, the look in their eyes was enough to give me chills. They had no way of knowing that those same questions kept me awake at night. That even nine months after the accident, I continually searched for answers.
I tried to strike a gentle balance between honesty and protection. To their toughest questions, I replied, “I don’t remember.” But what I really meant was, I don’t WANT to remember, and I don’t want YOU to know.
As the school year went on, the kids got used to my prosthesis, and so did I. I learned to sit Indian-Style (or “pretzel-sit”). I worked longer hours. I ventured out of the building for coffee. Even the smallest accomplishments made me proud.
Of course, one day I tripped.
It was nothing dramatic. But suddenly there I was– on my knee and my Genium – on the linoleum floor, eye to eye with backpacks and lunchboxes.
I was surprised, but unhurt. Surrounded by a sea of splattered coffee. Not my finest moment.
I have no idea what caused me to fall. There were no hidden ruts in the floor, no littered worksheets or pencils. Nothing slippery at all, except the stuff I spilled myself!
A band of first graders rallied around me. “Are you ok?!” they cried.
“I am, but my coffee’s not!” I laughed.
Amputee Rule #1: What goes down must somehow get back up. This is a lot easier to do if you’re smiling. I propped myself onto a half-kneel and then onto my feet.
“I can tell you guys are great helpers,” I said in my best teacher voice. “How ‘bout if you get some paper towels from the teachers’ bathroom so we can wipe this up?”
They scrambled down the hallway. I fetched a trash can from a nearby classroom. Then we all got down on our hands and knees (yes, down again!) to mop up the stickiness.
Now, three years later, teaching has become routine again. I tie shoes more easily. I don’t trip as much. Dodging kindergartners is not quite the challenge it was.
We’ve been earthquake-free since 2011. But some things haven’t changed. When I wear a skirt, my ROBOT LEG still draws a crowd!
The students at my school have become prosthetic experts. They’ve walked miles with me, side by side. And most importantly, they can ALL tell you the importance of wearing a bike helmet.
They say as a teacher you touch the future. I sure hope so.
Be sure to follow Rebecca’s journey at www.my-1000-miles.blogspot.com.