Achievement of the Year
[At the time I attended Dixie College (now Dixie State University)], the school annually [selected] a student who has met unusual challenges in obtaining a higher education as the recipient of its Achievement of the Year Award. [The award was voted on by the student body.] I was surprised to receive word that I had been nominated for the award in 1991, not even four months after I had arrived at Dixie. In response, I sent the following letter to Dixie College Dean of Students Bill Fowler.
While I did not win the award in 1991, I was a co-recipient in (if memory serves; I may be off by a year) 1992. My co-recipient, Eileen Prisbrey, deserved the award in her own right: She was living in her car when she first enrolled at Dixie, and reared something on the order of ten children, largely on her own, yet she still received her degree. A perceptive reader may notice some similarities between this letter and my recent entry, “What My Handicap Has Taught Me.” This letter is part of the inspiration for that essay. Minor edits have been made here for clarity. Otherwise, this letter appears on pages 153-158 of my autobiography, My Story: Lots of Good, Some Bad, and a Little Ugly in the First 32 Years (: Collierville TN: Instantpublisher.com).
April 18, 1991
Dear Dean Fowler:
I’m very honored to have been nominated for [this] award—especially since I have spent such a short time here at Dixie. You’ll notice that the enclosed form has been returned to you in much the same way it was sent—with a lot of blank spaces. The reason for that is two-fold. First, I’ve not yet had much of a chance to receive many honors, get involved in many activities, or hold many offices. I expect that will change very soon and very quickly. And second, the last question on the form requires more of a response than can be given in just a few lines. To give that response is the purpose of this letter.
There may be many challenged for we who are handicapped in being successful in life, but that’s not the way most of us look at it. I don’t wake up in the morning, look at myself in the mirror, and say, “I’m going to inspire the world today!” Non-handicapped people look at us and marvel at the challenges we face only because they’re not handicapped. [I would moderate this statement slightly: I would say that they do so at least in part, or perhaps mostly, because they’re not handicapped.] If they were handicapped, they would realize that we don’t seek to overcome those challenges because we want to be “exceptional”; we seek to overcome those challenges because we want to be “normal,” and I’ve never met anyone who’s gotten an award for being “normal.”
Being “normal” has nothing to do with not being handicapped. Instead, we who are handicapped want others to look at us and to realize that inside these imperfect bodies are whole—“normal”—people. We don’t want life to give us special terms just because we’re handicapped. We want to play and win the game of life on the same terms as anyone else. And since the game of life is a team effort, maybe we can play the game—and share the victories—together. If we have to work harder than most to win those victories, we need not be pitied for that, because it will make those victories far, far sweeter.
I consider myself very fortunate because people can clearly see my biggest handicap. And because most people want to be good, they’re willing to help me in whatever way I need. Yet I know scores of people who don’t get the help they need to face their handicaps. Why? Because those handicaps are invisible. They may be emotional, social, or psychological, and many of them are bigger than the physical handicaps we think are so formidable.
As tough as life is, there is nothing that need handicap us from doing what’s really important. It’s really important to love one’s neighbor as [oneself]. It’s really important to do unto others as we would have them to do unto us. It’s really important to remember that whether we’re handicapped or not, we need to accept one another for who we are, and to always remember what we can become.
I used to waste time trying to convince people to accept me in spite of my handicap. Now, I want them to accept me handicap and all, because without my handicap I wouldn’t be the person I am today. It has taught me a great deal that I wouldn’t have learned otherwise. In her autobiography, the actress Geri Jewell says that the words “Cerebral Palsy” are the two ugliest words in the English language. I disagree. I think there are far uglier words, like “ignorance,” “misunderstanding,” “prejudice,” and “hate.” It’s true that I’ve had to deal with these things because of my Cerebral Palsy, but my CP didn’t create them. People’s reactions to my CP created them.
Any award that I might receive would have to be shared among several people. Credit is due to my parents for rearing me to have a sense of confidence in a world where I could have much to fear because of my handicap. Credit is due to my brother, who is an example to me in all things. Credit is due to my classmates, who have done so much to make my life easier. Also, I would not accept such an award on my own behalf alone, but on behalf of all of those who are playing and winning the game of life with the hand that life has dealt them—as unfavorable as that hand may appear to be. And finally, as an old Chinese proverb put it, “A bit of fragrance clings to the hands of those who give flowers.” No matter who receives it, this award says more about the giver than it does about the recipient.
Thanks for your attention, and thanks again for your nomination.
Ken K. Gourdin