Saturday, July 30, 2011

Happy Friendship Day Aaron!

Aaron Kurrell
Every year I teach third graders how to use the World Almanac for Kids.  They love it!  It’s filled with pictures of popular movies, weird trivia, sports facts, and more!  One day while flipping through the pages, I came across a list of lesser known holidays.  Do a Google search, and you will be amazed at what you find!  It would seem that every day of the year has been tagged with a theme.  According to some sources, Sunday, August 7th, will be Friendship Day. Wikipedia claims that Friendship Day is a Hallmark Holiday.  Still another site claims that the holiday has been moved by order of the United Nations to today, July 30th.   At any rate, I’d like to take this opportunity to write a tribute to my friend Aaron Kurrell.  We have known each other for at least eight years and we both have cerebral palsy.

Aaron and I first met while eating cafeteria food in the dining hall at St. Cloud State University.  Introduced by mutual friends, Aaron and I quickly connected with each other because we both were studying to become educators.  At the time, Aaron was pursuing a career path to become an English teacher, and I had dreams of becoming a school library media specialist. Our conversations often centered on our coursework, classmates, and shared perceptions of our professors, not our mutual disability.

I’m usually uneasy at the suggestion that I would really “hit it off” with another person because we both have a disability.  I often view having cerebral palsy as a physical characteristic, much like the fact that I have brown hair.  I’m not automatically friends with brown-haired people any more than I am automatically friends with people who have CP, but befriending Aaron has been different.  We became friends in spite of our common gait, but over the years I have come to appreciate how valuable it is to have someone in my life who personally understands the experience of living with CP.   Today I would like to honor Aaron by sharing three things I have learned from him through our friendship.
The first thing I have gleaned from Aaron is a model of of self-confidence.  When we met in college, I was struck by the fact that Aaron was so comfortable in the “skin he was in.”  At the time, I was quite ashamed of the fact I had CP, and felt I was “above” the need for help or admitting that I had limitations.  By stark contrast, Aaron neither wore his disability like a badge of entitlement nor did he walk around defeated by his limitations.  Aaron simply accepted the fact that he had cerebral palsy.  Without shame or pride, Aaron graciously accepted help when he needed it, and accomplished tasks independently when he didn’t.  This attitude inspired me and ultimately helped me to become more accepting of myself.  

Another thing I have learned from Aaron is that sometimes it is helpful to talk to another person with CP when interpreting awkward social situations.  I’ll never forget the night I was at a party where someone watched me walk across the room and then exclaimed, “What are you, limping!?”  Not sure what to do, I stammered, “I have cerebral palsy.”  He replied, “I’m sorry.”  I responded, “That’s okay, I have a very mild case, so a lot of people think I’ve been in a car accident or had an injury.  It’s an honest mistake.”  

“No, I’m sorry you have that.”

Suddenly, I was floored and furious.  No one had ever offered me pity in my life!  As soon as I got home, I called Aaron and lamented about the evening’s events.   It was comforting to talk to someone who truly understood my dilemma.  Over the years, Aaron and I have talked about many things including our shared startle reflexes, hatred of risers, long periods of standing, and stairs without railings.  We both can’t keep our eyes open in photographs and struggle to walk while carrying items in our hands.   We’ve both had public and private encounters with people who assume the need to pray for us for healing from cerebral palsy without asking our permission, and both park in “rock star” parking spaces.  Aaron has more guts than I do when it comes to online dating—he doesn’t tell his dates that he has CP until he meets them, I like to tell them ahead of time so they’re not surprised.  (This may be a gender difference; I’d love to hear reader’s opinions!) These sound like quirky little nuances, and they are, but when I talk to Aaron about the little things that makes us different, it makes me feel normal. 

Finally, Aaron has taught me patience.  One difference between Aaron and me is that Aaron walks with crutches. This is insignificant except that when we walk together we have to move slowly so we don’t trip each other.  I’ve also noticed that transitioning from sitting to standing positions takes a little more time with crutches; it’s okay not to rush when getting out of a car or standing to leave church. 

In his book The Life You’ve Always Wanted John Ortberg was advised that if you want to be a spiritually healthy person, “You must ruthlessly eliminate hurry from your life” (p. 76).  He even developed an evaluation tool to determine if you have what he calls, “Hurry Sickness.”  You can print out a questionnaire in PDF format.  I tend to be someone who rushes through life whenever I can, oblivious to the world around me.  When I’m with Aaron, I remember to appreciate the moment, take a deep breath, and observe my surroundings.  Slowing down helps me to notice people, listen carefully, and be more fully aware and present.  Ultimately, Aaron has helped me to become a better friend.  Happy Friendship Day,  Aaron.   I’m blessed to know you!


Ortberg, J.  (2002).  The life you’ve always wanted.   Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan. 

Monday, July 18, 2011

Becoming Dr. Hill

Graduation Day from SCSU with my parents, Chris and Jeff Hill.

July 18, 2011

Tomorrow will be Tuesday July 19, 2011. Tomorrow's date may have little significance for you as a reader, but as for me, I believe that July 19, 2011 may turn out to be a landmark day in my life. You see tomorrow morning I will begin pursuing my doctorate degree at Bethel University in Education Administration.

When I think about the journey ahead a small part of me wonders if pursuing this degree might not be the smartest move I've ever made. There's a $300 monthly student loan bill that I will pay for the next decade upon finishing the program. I've been promised 12-15 hours per week of homework and am predicting that my free time and social life will evaporate as a result.

I suspect that at times I will be discouraged. Even though I absolutely love school and my endorphins seem to fire at the mere thought of studying, I am sure that pursuing this degree will not be a pleasant experience all of the time. In her wonderful book Expecting Adam, Harvard graduate Martha Beck articulates her feelings about pursuing her doctorate in such an accurate way:

You might assume...[that] I found Harvard pleasant. Oh, how wrong you would be. Actually, I don't know if I ever met anyone at Harvard who found it pleasant. It seems to me (although I may well be projecting) that all the people there scurry anxiously from one achievement to another, casting wary glances over their shoulders, never quite sure that they've managed to throw failure off their scent. To me, being a student there was heady, exciting, even thrilling, but these sensations came laced with heavy doses of fear and misery. It was like having lunch with a brilliant, learned, witty celebrity who liked to lean across the table at unpredictable intervals and slap me in the mouth—hard. Was it interesting? Very. Stimulating? In more ways than one. Pleasant? I don't think so.”

What I have found pleasant was the excuse to purchase a new MacBook Pro and finally have high-speed internet installed at my house. My old laptop was purchased in 2002 and has a floppy disk drive, if you can believe that! When I purchased that computer, wireless Internet access wasn't widely used and no one had ever heard of Facebook. It feels good to have new technology at my fingertips!

What I have also found pleasant is the thought of how many doors this opportunity will open for me. I'll be able to increase my earning potential, meet a new cohort of people, and someday pursue career positions as a K-12 principal or make the leap into the world of higher education. I can't wait to crack open a book, engage in a lively debate, and write a research paper!

It's the sheer anticipation of this “heady, exciting, thrilling” experience that has lead me to reflect on how thankful I am to be moving in this direction of pursuing a doctoral degree. I'm thankful that I was raised in a family that values education. I'm also thankful for numerous people in my college career who frequently encouraged me to pursue a doctorate. I'm ultimately thankful that I found a program that fits my needs and I'm even thankful for the student loans that are making this journey financially possible!

First Day of Kindergarten, 1989.  I'm looking up to my older brother Jeremiah who was starting 3rd Grade.

Today has given me pause to reflect and discover that I thankful that I wasn't born a generation earlier, or this opportunity may never have happened. It sounds inconceivable in 2011, but the reality is that had I started kindergarten in 1969, instead of 1989, I may not have had access to the public school system because I am a person with a disability.

Martha Minow, Harvard law professor, published a thought-provoking book last year called In Brown's Wake discussing how the landmark Supreme Court case Brown v. Board of Education continues to impact education today. Minow (2010) writes, “Compulsory education laws in the United States for many years exempted students with mental and physical disabilities, and many such schools excluded students or assigned them to separate institutions well into the 1970s” (p. 69). In 1975, the Education for All Handicapped Children Act (now known as Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, better known as IDEA) mandated that all public schools educate students with disabilities. In 1990, the language of this act was updated to include help for people with disabilities who wished to transition from high school to college. (See a complete special education history timeline).

Granted, I only have mild cerebral palsy, so the accommodations I have needed over the years have been limited. An Individual Education Plan (IEP) gave me access to adaptive education teachers who helped me stretch my hamstrings a few times a week during study hall. I worked with these professionals from kindergarten all the way through HS! It's challenging to keep a straight A student on an IEP, so eventually I transitioned to a 504 plan in HS so that my locker could be centrally located in the building and I could keep an extra set of text books at home so I didn't have to worry about carrying them while maintaing my balance.

While in college, I was able to receive much needed accommodations including extended time on tests in a quiet environment where I could concentrate, and priority registration so that my schedule allowed me to get across campus with as much time as I needed.

These are small things, but so often it is the little things that count.

Graduating on May 14, 2006 from SCSU was the best day of my life. My G.P.A. started with a 4, and my career ended with a speech. (Need some inspiration? My speech is posted above.) My professors gathered around me with my family in a private lunch reception prior to the ceremony to share their sentiments and wish me well. After graduating, I continued on to earn my master's degree before entering the field of education. It was the family tradition (I am a third-generation educator and one of over 10 family members who teach) and the love of learning that inspired me to become an educator, but it is the students I have met that will keep me in the field. They truly have expanded my capacity to love!

I look forward to the years ahead toward becoming Dr. Hill.

Author's note:  I found some follow up videos that you may be interested in looking at:

Team Hoyt (Related post: Team Hoyt, June 19th) sent me a recent video of an interview conducted by "HBO Real Sports With Bryan Gumbel"  Watch the interview below:
 I also found a young man with cerebral palsy named Gregg Mozgala, who certainly has the courage to dance.  Enjoy!  (Related post:  The Courage to Dance,  June 6, 2011).

Sources Cited:
The except from Expecting Adam came from the New York Times Website:

Beck, M. (1999). Expecting Adam. New York, NY: Berkley Books.

Minow, M. (2010). In Brown's wake. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, Inc.

Friday, July 1, 2011


Photo by Jeremiah Hill

 July 1, 2011

I hate exercising most of the time. It's a chore, it's a struggle, and I often find it to be a frustrating and confining experience. I was mentioning these reoccurring feelings to an athlete who replied, “If you don't like to exercise, you haven't tried enough activities.”

Interesting thought.

Exercising alone, such as a walk around the block, can be okay, but it can be lonely, boring, and lacking any sense of accountability.

On the flip side, I've found that exercising with others while maintaining a healthy sense of self-esteem is a hard thing for a 27 year old female with cerebral palsy to maintain in most public group exercise environments. When it comes to the local gym, it's hard to watch people right next to you twice your age run twice as fast for twice as long on the treadmill. It's hard to attend a fitness class only to feel overwhelmed and unable to keep up with your same-age peers who are seemingly running circles around you. It's also hard to interact with the instructors' questions, comments, and stares when they have had little to no training in adaptive athletics and despite their best efforts, have no idea how to accommodate your needs.

So, after hearing a few suggestions, and mustering up a little courage, I decided to take the plunge...into the pool.

Like many Minnesotans, I struggle with SAD and was desperate one winter to find some physical activity that I could engage in consistently and not absolutely loathe. I was willing to try almost anything to get my body moving and my endorphins firing.

I found water aerobics.

At first, I got flack from family and friends alike. “That's for grannies!” “I saw a water aerobics class once. There were about five people in the pool with a combined age of 3,000.” Pretty soon, I didn't tell anyone about my discovery of this one activity that I had grown to appreciate, because I didn't know how to receive people's teasing comments, weird looks, and general lack of understanding.

To the critic's point, water aerobics has its own unique culture. In the four venues where I have participated in a class over the past five years, I have only had one male classmate and one male instructor. This sport has apparently been taken over by the ladies!

At times, participating in water aerobics has made me feel old. (Currently, I think I am the only one in the pool who doesn't have the words to ABBA's Greatest Hits memorized.) Occasionally I look around at my classmates in the pool and realize that I am the youngest one there, sometimes by 25 or 50 years! Something inside my brain screams at me, “You shouldn't be having this experience right now, you're too young!” Like it or not, it is often among this group of people where I feel I belong. Many have mobility issues due to the aging process. Their range of motion is sometimes limited, they're concerned about balance, they can't do all the same activities as their peers on dry ground....little is separating us except a few decades. In many ways, these kind ladies who warmly welcome me each morning are my peers.

Yet, as I walk down the ramp stepping into the pool's cool water, I am immediately reminded of why I got out of bed at 6:30AM on my day off to drive across town in order to exercise with women who can order off the back of a Perkin's menu. I feel FREEDOM!

Suddenly, I am immersed in an environment that allows me to move in ways and in positions that I can not experience on land. Suddenly, I can cross-country ski instead of falling flat on my face! Suddenly, I can kick with greater stability because the water and the swimming noodle are holding me up. Suddenly, I don't loathe exercise, I actually like it!

I have been advised by physicians and long-time participants that you can't lose weight doing water aerobics because it is not a weight-bearing activity. The resistance of the water can help to build strength, but it is important to cross-train on land. The good thing about working out in the pool is that I can work my body harder and subsequently raise my heart rate for a longer period of time. The water environment encourages movement. If you don't move your body the entire time, you will become cold and miserable!

It's often when I come out of the pool after moving non-stop for 50 minutes that I ask, “Why do I feel like I just met someone in a dark alley with a large stick?” I have to remind myself, while I grab the Advil, that I did just work out. It's a funny feeling because you can't feel the impact of your activity while you are doing it in the water, but when you dry off, you can feel the effects of your work, sometime for days!

It is not only the freedom I feel and the health benefits I receive, but also the water itself that I enjoy. When I'm moving around in the pool, it is almost feels as if I am navigating within a giant hug. I feel warm in its embrace. My need for touch is satisfied. I also feel hidden. The neat thing about water aerobics is that if you are in the water deep enough, no one can see or critique any of your movements. They just see a floating head. I can work to the best of my ability without anyone making comments or asking why I'm not able to do the exercises in the same manner as other 20-Somethings. This discretion is important to me. It helps me not to make comparisons, doesn't challenge my self-esteem, and gives me the freedom to be myself.

I'll see you at the pool!

Author's Note: I recently added more pages to my blog site which tell more of my story. You can access them on the right side of the page by clicking on “My story,” My story on YouTube,” or by visiting: