Friday, May 31, 2013

On Setting and Achieving Goals, Part 1

Yesterday I was privileged and honored to be asked to be the guest speaker at the graduation ceremony of my former school, Mt. Herman Exceptional Student Center. It is a small school for physically and mentally challenged students and I worked there for seventeen years. I want to share it with you. Because it is lengthy, I will post it in two parts. Here’s the first installment:
            Imagine, believe, achieve! The theme for this school year has been “Achieve”.  Graduates, parents and guardians, I want you to know that learning is lifelong. Whenever you are in a new situation, you are learning. How you act, interact with others, react to others - they are all learning experiences. So embrace those moments; they make life interesting!  I’m retired and I am still learning. 
I learned early in life to set my goals in 5-yr intervals. Yes, there are some long term goals we have to consider, like retirement, but circumstances change, and often what we thought we wanted ten years ago is very different ten years later. I’ve seen this while watching my students grow up. The communication system they used in elementary school was often different from the one they used in high school. The students’ cognitive and motor skills changed, and always, ALWAYS the technology is changing! You have to keep up with new developments and be flexible.
When I was in my 40s I was diagnosed with breast cancer. In thanksgiving to God for early detection and in celebration of my new life, I wanted to learn to do something I’d never done before, so I took up karate. I just wanted to learn a few new moves but one day my instructor said, “That’s great, Ms. Cherry. I can’t wait to tie a black belt around you.” I said, “You think I’m black belt material?” He replied, “Yes, you have the right attitude.”
I learned several things about setting and achieving goals from karate and they were applicable to setting goals for my students here. First, sometimes it takes other people to see the potential in you – that’s why we work together as a team here, therapists and teachers and parents. Second, no preconceived notions! I thought one had to start training for a black belt as a child and do splits and back flips, but that wasn’t true. As the communication specialist, I used to expose all students to several kinds of communication – words, vocalizations, sign language, gestures, picture boards, switches, motor movements, eye pointing – and they would show me which one they preferred to use. I learned to follow the child’s lead. No preconceived notions!
Third and most importantly, I learned the power of a positive attitude. A sign in our dojo read “Can’t is a 4-letter word.” Every child will communicate at Mt. Herman. We, as a team, just have to find the system that is right for each one. Well, I set my goal to become a Black Belt before I became a 5-yr breast cancer survivor, and I achieved it!
Fast forward 20 years. Cancer struck again, this time lung cancer. I had to have part of a lung removed, and what was left of it was damaged by the radiation therapy. I was taking chemotherapy. Now this is the exciting part, because the students at Mt. Herman became my role models.  I thought, “They have medical problems - asthma, feeding tubes, AV shunts in their heads – and they come to school every day, some of them take long bus rides to get here, and they learn – despite those difficult physical circumstances!” If they can do it, I can do it! People can live with just one lung. I’m going to carry on with my life as usual and enjoy it! And that’s just what I did!
Soon afterwards I retired. I had always wanted to go to Antarctica and see penguins in their natural snowy habitat. This was my lifelong dream vacation! Despite my damaged lung and the fact that I was, and still am, getting chemotherapy every 3 weeks, I booked my trip. The second day we were in Antarctica, we were scheduled to go on the continent where the penguins were. Oh, boy! This was my goal, and I am ready to achieve it! We rode a small rubber raft to the landing site. I stepped out of the zodiac boat and there was a 3 and a half foot steep slope that I had to go up to be with the penguins. Because no one lives in Antarctica, there were no steps, no handrails, no park benches. The guides had cut 3 crude steps into the slope, a twelve inch step, an eighteen inch one, and another twelve inch one.
Now picture this: a 63 year old lady from flat sunny hot Florida, in a mountainous, snowy, cold land. I’m used to wearing light shirts and pants and sandals. I am now bundled up from head to toe in three layers of winter clothes, with half inch thick bulky boots up to my knees, and the snow is 12 inches deep! If I couldn’t get up that slope, I had to get in the zodiac boat and go back to the ship. I couldn’t stay where I was because it was a wet landing; there was no place to sit.
Again, I thought of my students. Students with physical challenges get up in walkers and go up and down these halls. Visually impaired students navigate these halls with and without a cane. If they can do it, I can do it!
So I’m saying to myself, “Think positively. Can’t is a 4-letter word.  There’s got to be a way. Aha! I’ve got an idea. So I went up to the tour guides who were seated on either side of the steps and said, “Gentlemen, I am going to get down on my hands and knees and crawl up these steps.” They said, “Oh that won’t be necessary. Just take our hands.” And each of them took one hand and - whoop! -  they got me up those steps! I was up where the penguins were! I had achieved my goal!
And equally impressive are the goals that our graduates have achieved. D… and K… help their teachers in the classrooms.  T… understands humor and laughs out loud appropriately. R… can activate the iPad with his finger. J… communicates with her expressive eyes. M… walks down the hall and visits his favorite classrooms! B… can manage her picture schedule with minimal reminders. P… can push a delivery cart around the school to deliver and pick up items. R… has developed a sense of confidence about her work and also has a sense of humor. B… has improved with his vocational skills and can turn on a washing machine. R… can identify objects to make choices. A… cooperates with her teachers and participates in classroom activities. E… is alert and curious about everything that is going on around him. W… can follow 3-step directions and remembers how to do his vocational tasks without being reminded. V… couldn’t be with us today but she had musical talent. She could tap out or dance to any song in perfect rhythm. She was our rock and roll dance queen.
And now graduates, I have a gift for you. TO BE CONTINUED

The pictures show me at the podium with my gift, a plaque of a tile decorated by the students from Blue Heron Enterprises; and me and my former principal, Mark Cashen.

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