Since 2003, I have had the honor of speaking to the "Peer Insights" class at Eden Prairie High School about my battle with Cystic Fibrosis. This is a unique classroom environment because it is a mix of students with different physical and mental challenges - down syndrome, cerebral palsy, etc - and their "peer partners", who are your typical high school students. During our time together I give them information on CF, let them try on my therapy machine which makes them them giggle as their voices vibrate, and show them the medicine I take on daily basis. The best part of the presentation for me is when I open the floor to questions. This amazing group has always engaged in discussions and this year was no different. We talked about death, marriage, college, my high school experiences. You name it, they had a question. No subject is off the table because what these kids need honesty and vulnerability.
My goal has always been to motivate others who have struggled like I have. The only reason I feel semi-qualified to speak to them is because I've walked a similar path. I remember how hard it was to make others look beyond the label of "that kid who has..." and get to know the real me. But there are some differences as well. My disease has very minimal outward signs and symptoms, so I have the initial opportunity to cultivate friendships before letting them know everything about me. I can't imagine how hard it must be for them to find true friendship without dealing with immediate judgment and ignorance. They persevere valiantly, only wanting equal treatment from their peers. For the most part they are given it; It's just a small percentage of the population that are insecure and vile enough to leave a permanent scar on these wonderful people. A few years ago, a young lady in the class asked me how to cope with people teasing her about her disability. When I suggested a few options she replied "What if that doesn't work?" I had no answer for her and it broke my heart. Why are people deliberately mean? Why is it so much easier to fear and hate what we don't understand? Don't they realize that it hurts to be laughed at, ridiculed, or patronized for things you cannot control? Thank goodness for their "peer partners" in the classroom. They are a true friends because they interact with their classmates with respect and honor, the way we all deserve to be.
Before the bell rang, I left these students with a final thought: "We all have our crosses to bear. Some just aren't as visible to the naked eye. Whatever your cross is, you can get through it. No one can control what happens to us, but we can control how we react to it. Every student in this classroom has the ability to be the best person they can be. All you have to do is try."
After the classroom cleared their teacher complemented me on my honesty and my ability to connect with her students. She told me they had never been that engaged in a discussion with any other guest speaker. The fact that I empowered her students really meant a lot to me. If listening to me and seeing what I have been able to do will give someone the confidence to achieve even greater things, then I am happy to do it. What those students and teachers don't realize is that they inspire me to be a better person. It's a blessing every time I get to walk into that classroom. My dream is to one day become a motivational speaker and go around the country promoting self-confidence and self-worth; becoming an advocate for anyone who battles bravely through their life challenges. With any luck, I will find a way to do that and continue giving back to students just like these ones...my kindred spirits.