“This is carrots,” said my mother, pointing to the word that might as well be Russian or Arabic for all I knew. “Carrots,” she repeated, then told me what the word means in Chinese, my native tongue.
“Carrots,” I said after her.
“Perfect.” She pointed to another word in the thin picture book adorned with a yellow cover. The pictures showed a boy planting his own garden. “This is ‘pineapples.'”
I eagerly listened to each syllable as my mother pronounced each word clearly. So this was my first official day of learning how to read after attending my first day of school. No, I wasn’t a chubby pre-schooler, nor was I a hyper kindergartner; in less than sixty days, I would blow out eleven candles on my birthday cake.
“I’m going to wash the dishes. I’ll be back in a little bit to check on how you’re getting along with the book.” She gently touched my hair before she left the room.
I studied each sentence, flipping through the book and enjoying the pictures; not knowing how to read, I could only admire the talented drawings. I usually immersed myself in creating pictures of my own ever since I was about six or seven. I turned back to the first page of the book, which had been chosen by my special education teacher. I felt a tingling in my soul, the kind of tingling one feels in anticipation of something wonderful happening very soon.
Having been hospitalized for years between America and China for treatment of the severe juvenile rheumatoid arthritis that has made a home within my body since infancy, receiving education–the knowledge of life–for the very first time was a thrill for me; no longer was I lying on my hospital bed daydreaming about going to school and reading.
My eyes relished the sight of the words as I pronounced them aloud. I smiled to myself when I was able to read a complete sentence, then an entire paragraph.
A couple of hours flew by before my mother opened the door to my room, and I greeted her with a big grin. “I can read much of the book!” I declared.
I wondered, when I might catch up to those students who had had five years of schooling already. The words I had just learned were all that I knew. I had no idea from where rain comes or why we see a rainbow after a refreshing rain.
Wanting to learn as much as I could as quickly as possible, I absorbed all that was taught in class, and mostly self-taught myself how to read; like Cookie Monster, I devoured one book after another as though they were chocolate chip cookies, yet always hungered for more.
After about 180 days of attendance, my special education teacher told my mother: “She’s ready to go to a regular sixth grade class, and she’ll do very well in it.”
Eight years later, I reminisced about those 180 days as I sat on the stage before hundreds of people. It was my high school graduation ceremony, and I was a student speaker who excitedly awaited my turn to speak.
My mother held the microphone for me when my turn arrived. I began:
“Good evening, my fellow graduates. My name is Shirley Cheng. It is certainly an honor in speaking to welcome and congratulate every one of you tonight! First, I would like to take this opportunity to thank those people who have made it possible for me to be here tonight: my beloved mom Juliet, (who is here beside me, holding the microphone), who has been giving me unwavering love, support, and encouragement; Mrs. Shapley, who took the time to personally administer the test to me; and every single teacher who has given me the treasure of knowledge. I have no words to describe how grand I feel right now, so I’m not even going to try. I have encountered numerous barriers in getting an education due to my physical disabilities, but I still strove to prevail, to achieve my heart’s desire.”
Several camera lights flashed before my eyes. The audience applauded when I shared with them my life story.
“Unfortunately, I lost my eyesight towards the end of my sophomore year in high school. So I received home-tutoring instead, but was unable to accumulate enough credits to get a regents high school diploma. Thus, I received a high school equivalency diploma instead, and for which I am very, very, very grateful! I took the GED test using cassette tapes and a tape recorder. I did everything in my head without seeing anything, including math calculations and graphs. I also recorded my essay on the tape recorder, and I scored over 3200.”
Another round of applause broke out. When the noise died down, I continued.
“Well, all that’s left to say now is that I am thankful to be here, knowing I can take the next step of my journey. I want to congratulate every one of you for having come this far with your ambitions. Give yourself a pat on the back, and know that whatever you have your heart set on, you shall achieve it, and no matter what hardship you may face, you shall prevail. Be strong, listen hard to the voice calling from your heart. Do what your heart desires, and if anything or anyone gets in your way, turn your head and go in another direction to achieve your goals. Thank you and have a great night all!”
I flashed the audience a big smile. I could barely hear my mother over the thunderous applause as she said, “They’re all standing up!” Cameras flashed from every corner, bathing me in radiance.
After the speeches, the special recognition awards were handed out to ten students, including me, for scoring over 3,000 on the GED exam. “Your speech was great,” commented the lady, while handing me my award. Then the audience cheered for each of the ninety-four students as they received their diplomas.
After the ceremony ended, several people, mostly parents from the audience, came up to me. “That’s a wonderful speech. It was the best I’ve heard in a long time,” remarked an official from the school district.
“Your speech touched me. It almost made me cry,” commented an audience member.
More compliments flew my way as my mother pushed me out of the auditorium. A few people stretched out their hands for me to shake. “I would like to take your picture,” said one gentleman. I gladly posed for the shot, my mind drifted back to those unforgettable 180 days.
Yes, those 180 days were truly special education; they opened the door to a whole new world for me. It wasn’t just a moment’s pleasure, but an everlasting treasure of self-fulfillment and endless opportunities to success. I smile each time I recollect those days and how far I have come, from learning to read an entire book for the first time to publishing my own books.
Shirley Cheng (b. 1983), a blind and physically disabled award-winning author (her newest book is titled “Waking Spirit: Prose