These persona poems are inspired by the transcript of a young adult who has Osteogenesis imperfecta. His interview was part of the study "Pre-Enrollment Considerations of Undergraduate Wheelchair Users and their Post-Enrollment Transitions" published in The Journal of Postsecondary Education and Disability, which was conducted by Roger D. Wessel, Darolyn Jones, Christina L. Blanch, and Larry Markle. Because the researchers were so moved by the participants' experiences, they requested I turn their stories into poems. They offered me the interview transcripts and notes from a focus group discussion, the article, and I researched the injuries and diseases discussed by the study's participants. I was also able to draw upon the experiences I have had with spinal injuries and teaching students transitioning from high school to college, since I have taught Freshman composition at various schools since 2002.
The goal of this persona project is to partner academic research and poetry to share narrative information collected in a study about college wheelchair users with new audiences. The young wheelchair users' experiences with disability and typical college hallmarks, like increased independence, new responsibilities for self-care, serious relationships, homesickness, and culture shock are both unique and relatable. These stories offer readers glimpses into the experiences of young people struggling to find a path that will lead them towards their adult selves—any college student, past or present, will see themselves reflected in these personas.
I Think, Maybe I Need Some Help?
Mom says maybe I'll need attendant care at college, since I can't put
on the sleep mask by myself. If I don't use it, I could get sick again.
She worries. I'm her baby. The first to go to college. I stop Dad sliding
the mask's black straps over my head—we leave tomorrow from his house,
and I need to do this on my own. Two hours. Two hours past bedtime
and I've got it, got it over my head and snug, by myself. Over and over,
I attach the mask, turn it on, and I call Dad in to say goodnight, to show him.
You're ready for college now, he smiles and ruffles my hair.
I can, or could, do everything on my own. It's all about having a system.
Here, in the dorm, the shower doesn't have the same nooks and crannies
as home, so my stuff sits on the shower chair with me, and we get slippery
and sometimes I drop stuff. The day I almost lost my balance, the day
I could have broken my hip or my hand or my head, that's the day I decided
to get help with the shower. And laundry. I've never liked to do laundry.
I didn't know about the short in the wire that connected to the stick, the chair's
controller, until I am full speed, late to class. It stops like a dime on the wide
sidewalk. I feel it stop, then the seat belt snap, and I keep moving, feeling
the cool morning air on my face, then nothing. When I wake, I feel a little giddy,
hear, he's bleeding, and see someone's elbow hovering above my face.
I don't feel the pain until I'm placed on a stretcher. Later, in the hospital, I hear
Dad on the phone say fractured skull, bruise on brain, broken leg, concussion.
Before I'm released, Dad makes arrangements for the attendants
to help me out with more than just the shower and laundry. Just for now.
Seriously, Mom, I'm Going to Be Fine
Dad and I joke, trying to ease the tension.
I thought I told you that I'd drive you to the curb
and kick you out, he says, and now you've got me workin'.
Mom bites her lip, conducting all the people who love me,
who carry boxes and pillows and equipment into the dorm.
Even my step-mom nods as Mom points to a different box
she should take first, deferring, because it's clear to everyone
—Mom might lose it. I can't believe they are working together:
Grandma, my aunt, Cindy, Karl, my step-mom and Dad,
coming together to settle me into college. Cindy stops
on the curb and pulls her shirt from her back, airing the sweat.
You better get in there, she says, Grandma's starting
to organize your underwear drawer. I turn my chair slowly,
so I don't bang against the box of books near my feet.
And I hear my mom say, my baby. And I see Dad place
a hand on her shoulder and say real low, tears in his eyes,
our baby's in college now. I've never seen them
so together, so filled with joy.
Just Move Already, Dad
A two-hour radius from you. He tells me that's his limit,
but my step-mom let me know about a North Carolina job offer,
and now Dad's on the phone, his voice loaded. I work around
his worry, try to convince him I can pretty much do anything
on my own. Tell him he will soon burn out, if he doesn't change.
I've survived campus for over a year, and there was just one time.
One time, I phoned him when I fell and fractured my skull.
But that could have happened even if we lived in the same room.
He wouldn't have been able to protect me from the short circuit.
Two friends already live there, he tells me. That's the only reason
he applied in the first place, because they said he'd be perfect.
And, the weather. I tell him not to resist. I don't want to be his excuse.
He's got to take risks, like I did coming to college, if he wants to find
his path, fulfillment. And, we're a phone call away. I promise I'll call,
always call, when I need you. He tells me he doesn't want me stranded,
disconnected without anyone who will do what needs doing.
I tell him his leaving will be a test for me. One that will make sure I can live
on my own, here on campus, then wherever I want to go. North Carolina, right?
Maybe. We laugh. We've got to follow our own paths. Sometimes,
we can't finish in the same place we started. I'll leave you the van, he says
quietly, so you can always ask someone to help you get where you need to go.
And we make plans for him to come visit and drop off the keys before he goes.
Yes, Grandma, I'll Graduate
It's the usual litany after the dishes are drip drying
and the aunts and uncles are playing cards in the basement.
Cindy and I sit with Grandma at the table in the kitchen,
and she waves a damp dish towel, punctuating disappointments
as she lists all the relatives who left for college and came back
with one excuse or another. Richard, Cousin Richard almost made it.
She sighs and scratches the white curls piled higher than
the meringue on her lemon pie. His daddy, your Great-Uncle Elmer,
lost his hand at the plant and that Richard, he came right home,
just a term before graduation, to help his take care of the family.
Ellie, his mama, had scoliosis, you remember. She pats my hand at this,
even though I don't have scoliosis, even though I never met Ellie
or Richard or handless Great-Uncle Elmer. Cindy smiles
like little sisters do when you're trapped. I've got two terms under
my belt, and now that it's summer, and the county fair is near,
Grandma worries about me. Grandma doesn't want to see me
working at McDonald's like Cousin Wayne. We've both got
big plans for me. Graduating's just the start. She always says,
Doesn't he look so smart? Especially after I got glasses
and started filling out FASFA forms senior year. College boy.
And, I smile real big, like I'm supposed to, and tell her,
Yes, ma'am, class of 2016. And her eyes tear up, all her hope
for the family pinned on this boy in his wheelchair.
Have I Got Something in My Teeth?
Cause you're staring pretty hard, and I'm eating broccoli,
which is notorious. I always chew slowly, ever since I was a kid
and my doctor said, Osteogenesis imperfecta. And Dad said,
low bone density. And Mom said, brittle bone. And, I figured out
pretty quick that I could break, would break, easy. I'd like to play
basketball or football (what Hoosier wouldn't?), and I'm as neurotypical
as you look over there, but I'm not a fan of long hospital stays or itchy
casts. So, I play it cool. Well, except on the power soccer field
where my teammates and I dominate because we strategize,
like I should be doing now. We've got a match against SoCal tomorrow.
You're kind of pretty, so I smile, and you glance away, face flushed,
and I pretend it's because you probably have a crush on me and just
got caught. Bryant slaps my shoulder, even though I've asked him
not to do that—but he forgets—and I turn back to the team. Ready.