Jumping Off a Cliff

Abraham WeitzmanJune 7, 2021Connection and IsolationAwesome Moments

When you part ways with friends you have known for as long as you can remember for a big adventure, it is terrifying and wonderful.

When I left the Henry Viscardi School, I was giving up interesting people, supportive therapists, and wheelchair basketball for the unknown world of New York City public school. I knew it would be completely different from the insulated environment I was accustomed to — at HVS everyone was like me, severely disabled. It was intimidating to leave my seven classmates for rotating class schedules, packed halls, and new therapists who would need to learn about my communication system. It felt like the only way to the glistening pool was jumping off a cliff. I jumped.

In September, I started Bard High School Early College Queens with a human security blanket, Mahmood Alladadweh. We had been a team at home for seven years, and he agreed to be my para for the first year to make the transition easier. Mahmood knows everything about me, from my physical needs to my favorite band, so I was braver with him behind me pushing my chair. It did not take long to realize I did not need to be brave. I was given a peer mentor. I made friends. I joined the vinyl club. It all sounds simple now, but at the time I was “on” all the time.

High school is an opportunity to reinvent yourself. I'm in a wheelchair most of the day and I do not self-propel. This means I rely on other people approaching me. I cannot speak to call out, “Hey, how’s it going?” I needed to attract people to come over to see what I was writing on my communication system. In middle school, everyone knew me and understood that it took a while for me to write. I needed the new kids to see I was worth the wait. Being smart and funny and kind and troublesome (having a reputation for speaking truth to power) all seemed essential to social success. I worked at creating a persona in class that would make me someone to sit with at lunch.

Defining myself as willing to listen ended up being important, and luckily it is one of my specialties. First I listen carefully and then I ask questions so people know I’ve been paying attention. I use the workshop method I learned at Writopia. It starts with finding something to appreciate in what they say and then wanting to hear more. I recommend this plan to anyone looking for new friends. The friends I made the first week of school are still my friends today.

In the corridors, I was invisible and obvious at the same time. In my wheelchair I am shorter than the eye notices, but I was, and still am, the only wheelchair user at school, so I felt like a pest needing everyone to make room for me in the crowded halls. I had heard nightmare stories of kids blocking the way in other schools. I had nothing to worry about; Mahmood is just as big as the seniors and the other students could not have been nicer.

Hearing the story now makes me wonder what I was so worried about. At the time I thought I might not be able to handle the physical nature of being part of a competitive high school. As I am writing this, I am using my six-switch array to type. I need to stand to hit the switches with my chest. It is slow in producing words, and after half an hour and one paragraph, I need to sit down and rest. I thought I would struggle to keep up in class and social situations. It was difficult but not impossible and it was rewarding in every way.

Bard was all new to me. My middle school had a strict format for classes designed for students with disabilities who need time to prepare responses to questions. This was comforting but not exciting. At Bard, the students led discussions. The ideas came out of other student responses and you never knew where the conversation might go. I had no trouble thinking fast but writing fast was not possible. The first day I struggled to create answers to questions raised several minutes earlier. For a comment to be relevant, I had to find a way to relate it to the last speaker. I started to listen to the theme instead of individual ideas. This made my comments fit into the flow of the seminar. Once again listening helped me find a place in my new community. This year Bard gave me support to further integrate disability into the school culture. My brother and I started the Abled-Disabled Alliance, and our advisors helped us bring in speakers and add to the library. We increased the visibility of disabled writers and their narratives. This was possible with a team of students and faculty.

When I jumped off the cliff four years ago, Bard gave me a soft landing, with teachers who were flexible and students who treated me like I was a friend even before they really knew me. Mahmood was right next to me giving me support and the confidence that I would succeed at fitting in academically and socially. I listened and the others waited to hear what I was thinking. This fall I will be going somewhere bigger, Columbia University. Bard has prepared me well to make friends, join an academic community, and share my disabled culture. It is a little daunting but there is no cliff. This time I will roll in nervous like everyone else.

Abraham Weitzman is a 13-year-old New Yorker who loves Mel Brooks, Edgar Allen Poe, and Sherlock Holmes. He enjoys traveling and staying home.