Updated: Jun 24, 2020
| This is the 461st story of Our Life Logs |
Warriors carry an extra appendage while preparing for combat. They choose what will heighten their power when they meet adversity. They master the appendage. They set out to conquer.
For me, that extra appendage is, was, and will always be my power wheelchair. My wheels are a chariot to freedom rather than a temporary crutch to prop me up from the harsh aspects of society. My voice is my banner. My truth is my strength. I had to become my own fortress when I was faced with discrimination and hardship. Such is the warrior’s plight.
I was born in Seattle, Washington, in 1978 with cerebral palsy, specifically, spastic quadriplegia. This means that the muscles in each of my four limbs are chronically stiff, rendering me frozen in a seated position. My body must be massaged liberally in order to keep my muscles from permanently locking in a fixed pose. I was educated from the age of eight months onward in occupational, physical, and speech therapy.
As a child, I would sit alone in my bedroom observing my muscles that moved without restraint. I’d think that I was tainted, that I did not deserve the gift of existence. Not to mention, I was a people-pleaser from the impressionable age of six—the same age I was when I moved from Seattle to a small town in Michigan called Whitehall. This is really where my fight began.
Mom and I lived with my paternal grandparents for six months in 1984 while Dad was trying to find a job. I would receive cards and stuffed animals from my dad as keepsakes from his adventures. But I wished he would return, and we could get away from the toxic environment that was his parents’ house.
My paternal grandparents never really knew how to love me because they just did not comprehend my cerebral palsy. All they saw was my physical affliction as a link to how their son messed his life up. In my paternal grandfather’s eyes, I would always be a guest in his castle. He had this white-socks-white-bread-made-in-the-USA attitude for most of his life. Another time during a holiday gathering, at my paternal grandparent’s house, my dad’s mom called me over like I was a dog and had me crawl on all fours so she could show me off like a trophy to all her friends.
That’s where the people-pleasing began. I learned that it was easier to fold than it was to fight—though, the consequence of making myself so small became unbearable.
Their views of me were archaic and degrading. My own grandfather would not remove the metal surround and shower doors from the ochre bathtub to make it easier to take me in and out of the tub. Every time my mom would lift me out to get me in my pajamas, I would end up with scrapes and bruises on the back of my legs from that surround and shower door. Then I’d hear my grandpa tell my mom to get over it because this was his house. This is what my sensitive ears were exposed to nightly; the constant verbal attacks between my mom and my paternal grandfather.
Eventually, my mother could not remain idle, and I learned the true nature of a warrior. On April 1, 1984, Mom and I made our escape in the early morning hours and never looked back. I vowed to be my own champion henceforth.
When I was 10 years old, Mom and Dad took me to an orthopedic specialist at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. I was analogous to a human game of Operation, being poked and prodded for the ultimate victory. After endless testing and X-rays, the doctor told me that I was going to be wheelchair-bound for the remainder of my life. I was a candidate for an experimental surgery known as an inferred back transplant or IBT. Basically, the procedure consisted of a small computer being placed under a flap of skin at the base of my spine; the computer would send inferred impulses to the section of my brain that was damaged from the CP, allowing me to walk without assistance.
But the surgery was dangerous, potentially life-threatening. Hearing this news, I decided to use voice to shape a meaningful existence as a differently-abled young woman rather than a modest life as an able-bodied individual. Most people rose each day and put one foot in front of the other. I’d just do it with tire treads.
I was the only student with a different ability enrolled in Eisenhower Middle School that year and was given a one-to-one paraprofessional aide who would help level the playing field of my education, so to speak. Unfortunately, the playing field was a battleground. My peers saw what they wanted of me and bullied me relentlessly. I was almost driven into ditches when kids would turn on my chair and grab the joystick as a joke. Someone wrote the word spastic on my locker. When I saw that desecration, my eyes bugged out and my jaw dropped to the floor.
When I began to weep softly, my aide hugged me and told me that everything was going to be all right. That statement was the farthest thing from the truth.
A week later, as I came back to my locker from class, I asked my aide a question. Suddenly out of nowhere, my aide became overcome with an intense anger. Her eyes had fire in them. Then, I felt the stinging of her hand on my left cheek. I was in shock. My aide started bashing me with profanity and stereotypical jabs.
I did not tell anyone about this event, not even my parents, because I was truly afraid of what this woman was capable of. I began having a recurring nightmare where this woman was stalking me, her insults piercing my heart like daggers.
But this was not enough to crush me. With each passing day, there was a strength that formed inside me, growing too powerful to ignore. I knew I had to begin to be my own advocate if I were to survive. I felt like no one would listen, but I would make people hear my voice. I would set my own bar and be my best self.
On a frigid November morning in 1992, I was sitting outside the portable classroom where my junior high math class was being held. I was calmly meditating when suddenly, I felt constriction around my throat. I glanced around fast and saw my aide with her hand squeezing my Adam’s apple. As the color drained from my complexion, all the events of those two weeks leading up to this point flashed through my mind, frame by frame, like the old View-Master. My life clicked through as well. I went into an automatic fight or flight response. In a nanosecond, I chose to fight back; the warrior that was forming inside of me rose and said, “Enough!” My left hand shot up like a bullet from a six-shooter in a spaghetti western.
I pried her death grip from my throat and gasped for breath. My mind came out of its foggy state and I pieced together what had happened. My aide had pulled me back by my shirt collar and forced me in a choke hold. My math teacher came out of the portable and witnessed the entire incident. Realizing that she had been caught, the aide walked off in a hurried huff. As she left, my aide said, under heated breath, “Nikki if you ever tell anybody about this, I swear I’ll kill you.”
After the attempt on my life, I came home in tears. I told my parents what had happened. My dad was enraged. He was ready to drive to my middle school and strangle this woman with his bare hands. I wiped the tears from my eyes and told my dad that I would handle things.
I decided then that I’d bide my time. I’d wait until the right moment to report and expose her. I’d show her that I was not as weak as she thought.
I began observing every move my aide was making so that I could provide an accurate description to relay to the principal of Eisenhower. For the next two months, this bullying went on without ceasing. Everything from the words, “cripple,” “retarded,” and “stupid” rang in my ears.
During one day of my physical therapy, I recall hitting a corner wall with my walker’s front wheel and falling on my stomach. My aide just let go. One of my teachers was walking by. My aide plastered on a faux smile just as my teacher asked if I was okay. I silently nodded. My teacher walked away. My aide lifted me back into my wheels, looked me straight in the eye and said, “There will never be another aide in Albuquerque who would want to take care of an ugly selfish brat like you. You don’t have the guts to tell anyone what I’ve done. You are weak and no one will ever believe you.”
I thought to myself, “We’ll see about that, lady, because you will not see me coming!” I knew what I had to do. It was time to step into the arena.
A week after the episode, I rolled into the principal’s office. I was very forthcoming when I told him everything that had transpired during those two months. The purposeful tripping, the slapping, the dropping of my glasses in a commode after I had just used it, the jabs, and finally, the attempt on my life through choking.
The principal was mortified as one would expect. He commended me for being so brave, but I remained humble. I excused myself and was right outside the moment my aide was summoned to the office. A moment later, the woman emerged from the office, looking completely stunned. The flames ignited in her eyes once again. “You little witch, you got me fired!” That was all this woman could say to me. I replied, “I guess I’m not as weak as you thought. I just did what was right.” My former aide just stormed out the door.
Then, I just rolled out into the Albuquerque sunshine and thanked the universe. The battle was over. The warrior in me had won.
Now, this was not the end of my discrimination. I interacted with the aide once more in high school and still faced ridicule for my cerebral palsy from my peers. But it felt different. After standing up in middle school, I had become a stronger person, a warrior.
My father, mother, and I moved to Palm Desert soon after that, and for years, I thought my action was cowardice, but this was not the truth. I was simply using my voice as a katana for the first time. And, as they say, it got easier in time. When I turned 16, my father died. In his wake, I stood up to my grandparents. I told them they must respect me because their son’s blood was also mine and I mattered. I forgave them and let them go.
As I made my way through my higher education, I had no specific career aspirations, but I knew for certain that I wished to use my life as a platform to show others who had challenges that they were not alone. I went on to complete a solid education with two bachelor’s degrees in history and English literature, later starting my own one-woman tutoring service called “The Rolling Tutor.” I also currently work as a remote freelance writer, sharing my experiences with diverse audiences.
Now, 27 years later, I wrote a letter of forgiveness to this lady, my former aide. In doing so. I was also allowing my 12-year-old self to feel the honor for standing up for herself. For if steadfastness is the skeleton that forms my spiritual anatomy, then stories and words are the skin. In the struggle of discrimination and evil, I have learned that thriving by example is the anatomy of this perfectly imperfect samurai.
This is the story of Nikki Roeder
From first breath, Nikki had to grow into her warrior skin as she was born with cerebral palsy, a congenial disorder that affects movement and muscle tone. Early on, Nikki was misunderstood by certain family members and her peers at school. Nikki decided to stand up for herself when her paraprofessional aide, who had relentlessly abused and tormented her, laid her hands on Nikki. From then on, Nikki fought for her own truth and respect, no matter the cost. Nikki went on to receive two bachelor’s degrees, one in English and the other in history. Nikki has used these degrees to pay-it-forward as a champion for the differently-abled population in the Coachella Valley. She holds three part-time jobs as a telephone operator for a big box retail chain, a writing tutor at the local community college, and has started her own one-woman-tutoring service called “The Rolling Tutor.” Nikki currently works as a remote freelance writer, sharing her experiences with diverse audiences.
This story first touched our hearts on November 8, 2019.
| Writer: Nikki Roeder | Editor: Colleen Walker; Kristen Petronio |