The Greatest Teacher of My Life

The Greatest Teacher of My Life

From A 4th Course of Chicken Soup for the Soul

The Greatest Teacher of My Life

Pare nts learn a lot from their children about coping with life.

Muriel Spark

I had already been a teacher for 15 years when I met my greatest teacher. It wasn’t in a classroom but in a hospital. She was my daughter Kelsey.

Kelsey was born with cerebral palsy, and at age five she faced a battle with cancer that she later won. She has taught me many vivid lessons about courage and determination, and I’m a better person forever because of her patience with me.

When she was four, she wanted to learn to tie her shoes just as her best friend had done. I was stumped. Because of her cerebral palsy, Kelsey has very little use of the fingers on her left hand. If I couldn’t tie a shoe single-handedly, how was I going to teach her?

After three and a half years of persistence, Kelsey finally did it. I remember that first day of summer vacation, when she was seven and a half years old, as I watched and encouraged her. When she took her hand away to reveal two neatly worked loops, she beamed from ear to ear and I cried for joy. And the truth is, no one ever asks Kelsey how old she was when she learned to tie her shoes. I learned about determination from her accomplishment—and much more. Pace wasn’t going to be the important thing in Kelsey’s life—accomplishing her goals within her own timetable would be what mattered most.

Throughout her cancer treatment, Kelsey took charge of her circumstances through creative play. In the hospital, the game was always “restaurant,” with Kelsey playing waitress and the rest of us cast as customers. For hours on end, she lost herself in the drama, as if we weren’t in the hospital at all, but out in the world away from doctors and tests—a world Kelsey was certain she would be a part of someday.

At home, where she felt safer exploring deeper feelings, the play turned to “hospital.” In this game Kelsey was doctor-in-charge for a change. Her game included medical terms even we adults didn’t understand. We’d just play along, knowing that Kelsey had found a way to cope.

When she was six, she wanted to take ballet lessons. I’m embarrassed to admit how much this frightened me. Her muscles were weak from chemotherapy, she had poor balance, and her weight had slipped to 34 pounds. I wasn’t just afraid for her body, but for her feelings. She had no fear at this point and wore a patch over one eye, so I worried about the teasing she might get from the rest of the dance class. But I didn’t know how to tell Kelsey all of this, and she wouldn’t let up, so I enrolled her in a ballet school.

Kelsey danced with abandon! Did she fall? Of course. Was she awkward? Very. But she was never self-conscious or inhibited, throwing herself into the process, completely unaffected by what she couldn’t do. The sheer joy of dancing was enough. Every person who saw Kelsey dance came away with something special. She danced for four years. When she quit, it was only to announce that she wanted to take horseback riding lessons instead. This time I enrolled her without hesitating.

In fifth grade, Kelsey excitedly brought home a registration form for intramural basketball. Now this was going to be a major challenge for her. She could run only slowly, she’s short, and she still had the use of only one hand. Bells of caution went off inside my head again, but I had learned to ignore them. The excitement in her eyes emphatically canceled out all the drawbacks, and we signed her up.

After the first practice the coach said that he was afraid to let her play in a game. When he explained how she might get hurt, I could see visions of lawsuits dancing in his head. But every child who plays sports takes risks, I reasoned with him, and if her risk was greater, her need to belong was greater still. After a few discussions and a little more encouragement, he decided to let her play. For two years, Kelsey played harder than any girl in the league. And while she never made a basket during a game, she brought other gifts that were more valuable to her teammates. In two years, I never once saw a player treat her as anything other than an asset. And after weeks of trying, when Kelsey finally made her first basket during practice, every girl in the entire gym—from both teams—stopped and applauded.

On game days, when we stopped at the grocery store, Kelsey quickly shed her winter coat and flung it into the grocery cart. It took me a while to realize why. She was so proud of her team shirt, she didn’t want it to go unnoticed. Now Kelsey wasn’t just winning her own personal triumphs, she was part of a team, too.

Today, Kelsey is a happy, healthy seventh grader, still lapping up life, trying new challenges, and still teaching her friends and parents a lot about persistence, the power of belief and compassion.

Kelsey, I’ll never have a greater teacher!

Dauna Easley

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