One step into a larger world

By Drew Curran

Most people see “The Little Mermaid” as an entertaining children’s film. For those who like to think deeply about it, the movie is an allegory for the events in the Garden of Eden in the Book of Genesis. In the case of “The Little Mermaid,” the character of Ariel corresponds to Eve. Ariel makes a deal with Ursula to go above to the surface giving up her voice as payment, which is like making a deal with the devil. When Ariel finally does get to the surface she has to struggle without her voice.

In 2002, I was a senior in high school. I struggled with speaking my entire life due to the fact that I was born with cerebral palsy. I attended the Henry Viscardi school, which is a school for students with disabilities who are educationally oriented and on par with non-disabled students. The only difference between Viscardi Students and most public-school students are physical disabilities.

My disability did not affect me intellectually. I consider this a miracle. My brain scans when I was an infant showed damage to the speech and motor areas of my brain. It was difficult for most people to understand me, so up until 2002 I was not at all confident when speaking to most people I saw on a daily basis. I was only confident when speaking to those that could really understand me, like my family, friends, or therapists. My friends would interpret for me during class and in almost every situation where someone had difficulty understanding me. This was a very frequent occurrence. As you can imagine, the trust I had to have in my friends was pretty absolute, because they were essentially my voice during the school day. There were people who wanted me to use communication boards or computer programs that would speak for me. But my mother was totally against this. She believed that I would eventually get better at speaking and not need any assistive devices to help me speak. My mother turned out to be right. When I got to my late teenage years my speech began getting a little better due to the years of speech therapy and my own constant drive to improve my speech and my body.

I had been a member of the student council for four years at school. At the time, 2002, I was the longest serving member on the council. I thought I was the natural choice to become president of the council. The difficulty was that I would have to run for that position, which meant making at least one, if not more, speeches in front of the entire school, which I was dreading. My best friend PJ had consented to be my campaign manager. I had announced that I was running, but only to my class and a few other students as well as my faculty advisor (who was also my science teacher and my favorite adult at the school).

About a week after, PJ and I were getting our stuff out of our lockers. After beating around the bush for a few moments he told me with a sad tone in his voice that he couldn’t be my campaign manager because some of the other students had convinced him that he would be a better president than me. He had decided to run against me. I had mixed feelings about this major development. I had been encouraging PJ to go after the things he wanted, as he had always been introverted and shy. PJ was always one of the people who translated for me when others couldn’t understand me. He had always been able to understand me perfectly, and had no problems speaking himself. He also has a disability that has to do with his muscles, but it is not similar to mine. I was very angry at him for a few days, but after I cooled off. I realized that having PJ in my life as a friend was much better than freezing him out, as I was doing at that time. Later, I considered running for vice president so that PJ and I could be president and vice president together. I knew I would be chosen over the other candidates for vice president. However, when I consulted my family and other friends, they said that I was right in saying I had more experience than PJ and therefore would be better at being president, so I decided reluctantly to continue my campaign. The way it works at Viscardi was that you were able to campaign with flyers and word of mouth until election day, then on election day there was an assembly so that the entire school could see the candidates debate.

I had practiced my speech for that day for a long time, as had PJ with his speech. I was first to speak. I spoke for about ten minutes, but it felt much shorter because I was so nervous. My heart was racing and I could feel the sweat on my arms. I spoke about my experience and my plans for the student council’s upcoming year. I repeated that I had nothing bad to say about PJ and that he was my best friend, at least three times. I could tell by the applause that only a small portion of the crowd actually understood everything I had said. As I expected, PJ made a good speech and I lost the election. My advisor said I had done an excellent job and that she hoped I would return to my position in the council, for the fifth year in a row. The first thing I did after she said that was that I went to congratulate PJ. We both knew our friendship was much more important than any election.

The next year I came back as a representative. PJ actually said to me once that he wished I’d run for vice president. Consequently, as a returning council member I helped PJ as much as I could. PJ did not like his vice president, so I was given the chance to act like the vice president in every way except in title. PJ had a successful presidency and our attention turned to graduation.

I was lucky enough to be the valedictorian of the senior class. One of the responsibilities is to deliver an address to the audience at the graduation ceremony. I started to find confidence on the night I graduated and gave the speech. I consider this the night I began down the road to all the other accomplishments in my life, up to this point. I worked on the speech for months with the help of my English teacher. When I finally got the writing quality up to where I wanted it, I started practicing it with my speech therapist. I did this for a few more months. I was reasonably confident that I would deliver the speech as well as I could. Eventually I had practiced the speech so many times that I could recite it from memory. The night before the speech I could not sleep because I was too nervous. This would be the biggest crowd I’d ever spoken to, but my mind kept coming back to the student council election…if only I had spoken more clearly, I might have done better.

The people who wanted me to use assistive speech devices never dreamed that I would make a speech like I did on that night. It was in the school gymnasium; the chairs were blue and white – our school colors – and I was up on the stage with the teaching assistant from my English class turning the pages for me. I was very nervous even though I had rehearsed the speech more times than I could count. That afternoon, during rehearsals, my speech therapist said I had given the speech almost perfectly. I don’t know if she was telling me the whole truth or just trying to give me more confidence. But, whatever her motive, what she did worked. I went out and did my absolute best. During the ceremony I was sitting with PJ, he leaned over and whispered to me that he thought I did a really good job with the speech. The last line I spoke was, “we are going into a new dawn.” I didn’t know how true this would turn out to be in my life. At the end of the ceremony all of the teachers stood in an arch formation and the graduates went underneath their outstretched arms. This had a particular impact on me because I was elated that I had just accomplished my first really big step to becoming the person I wanted to be. I felt like Ariel breaching the surface for the first time.

24 September, 2022