24: The Highest Mountain

24: The Highest Mountain

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Inspiration for Teachers

The Highest Mountain

A teacher takes a hand, opens a mind, and touches a heart.

~Author Unknown

I arrived that first fall morning an awkward, out-of-place ten-year-old. I had suffered a serious head injury as a toddler when I’d fallen from a twenty-foot wall, which led to constant struggling in school. Now in fifth grade, I’d been separated from my friends and tossed into a special reading class. Quickly, I tried to blend into the walls, longing to sit at the back of the room unnoticed, like I had done in so many other classrooms. However, this one was different. The room was so small that I couldn’t sit unnoticed, let alone blend in. One full wall held hundreds of books. A large window along another overlooked the front of the school. Across the back there were no desks — just two long tables with only enough room for about eight students.

Six of us shared the same look of horror on our faces when we met our teacher for the first time. She had a big smile, kind eyes, and brown hair pulled back into a ponytail. She was young — only thirty-one years old. But she was in a wheelchair. I was shocked to learn that she could not move her legs at all and her arms only a little. One partially limp hand had a pencil attached to it by a metal device so that she could write.

I had never known anyone who was paralyzed before, and seeing her that first day, honestly, terrified me. I kept my head down most of the morning, feeling both fear and shame.

We were all afraid to ask our new teacher what had happened to her, except for one brave student named Jon. To our horror, he bluntly asked, “Why can’t you walk?”

The question didn’t seem to bother her at all. She answered it with honesty and dignity. “In my teens, I was a skier. While qualifying for the Olympics, I fell during a giant slalom race and injured my spinal cord.”

My first reaction was, “Wow!” It surprised me that she didn’t brag about making it to the Olympic tryouts or talk about how much her life had changed since the accident. In fact, she never dwelled on her situation or acted like she felt sorry for herself. Instead, she greeted us with a big smile every day. I later learned that she was considered a sure bet to be on the U.S. Olympics team, and that she had been featured on the cover of Sports Illustrated the day before her accident.

No matter what bad stuff was happening in the world, our teacher provided a safe place for us to go. It was a turbulent but important time in history as the Vietnam War raged on, astronauts prepared to walk on the moon for the first time, and Martin Luther King, Jr. fought for equal rights. Prejudice, protest, and violence were part of our world. We children didn’t understand much of what was happening at the time, but we did understand that something special was happening in our classroom.

Our teacher, Jill Kinmont, nurtured our young minds with persistence, dedication, and love. She took us patiently through reading cards, spelling lessons, writing assignments, and then whole books, praising our efforts with every step. I was a very slow reader, but she showed me that it was okay to take my time. Speed-reading was never a part of our curriculum. Our focus was on the details of a story and its message. Each day, we arrived to the comforting smell of sharpened pencils in the air, and soon became enveloped in these stories, appreciating the effect of words.

She made each of our birthdays special by celebrating with cards and small gifts. During one of these celebrations, Danny announced that he had written a little children’s book, and it was to be published. Miss Kinmont was thrilled. “That’s wonderful! I’m so proud of you!” The boy’s face beamed with joy. His book earned him $25 — a large sum at the time.

We shared special bonds and formed friendships in class. It was during this time that I found my best friend, Debbie. We became nearly inseparable, both in and out of school, anxiously awaiting our special reading class each day. We looked up to our teacher for her courage and kindness. It didn’t take long for us to forget that she was in a wheelchair. She was simply the teacher who made learning a “reachable goal” for us. Her classroom provided a safe place of acceptance, a place we didn’t want to leave.

I remember the day I was “intellectually” ready to leave. I was eleven and a half and had just passed a series of rigorous reading and spelling tests. To other teachers, spelling the word “furniture” might be a small matter, but my teacher treated it as a monumental accomplishment.

“You did it, Sandy!” she marveled with a big smile. “You spelled a very difficult word and passed the tests. Now you can return to a regular classroom!”

A part of me was proud and happy — I had worked hard to get to this point — yet another part of me didn’t want to leave that welcoming, accepting teacher.

When an article featuring Miss Kinmont for her talent as a special reading teacher appeared in the local newspaper, I was very pleased. It was a great honor to be photographed beside her as one of her students.

There was a book about her, and then a hit movie called The Other Side of the Mountain. As I watched the movie with so many others, my heart swelled. This was about my teacher, the bravest person I knew, who believed in me! She had taken an awkward ten-year-old, barely able to read and write, and changed her world forever. Looking back, I wish I had thanked her for making such a big difference in my life.

I went on to become a published author and a teacher of young children, too. I’ll always remember the most important thing my teacher taught me: With persistence and love, no mountain is too high to climb.

~Sandra J. Lansing

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