Eight-ish years ago when I started at Lander, we had a big class of incoming freshmen. One of these students was Colleen. Colleen had a good sense of humor, appreciated my sarcasm and was in a wheelchair. In a 3D Design class, the wheelchair was pretty easy to work around until it came to plaster pouring day. I wondered how much she would be able to participate that day but I didn't want to make an issue out of something until it was an issue, so I plowed into the normal tasks and shouted the orders and the plaster started flowing. When it was time to pour Colleen's plaster, she pushed herself out of her chair and down onto the floor where she blended in with all the other students in the mass of hardening plaster for the next hour. I realized then that she wasn't afraid of much and that I needed to make no special plans for her in my class. She was hellbent on doing what everyone else did. I respected that.
A year passed before she needed my Sculpture class. That class gets a reputation for danger and such, I'm not exactly sure why. Colleen came and talked to me about what we would do in the class and the idea of using power tools and welding with limited mobility did not really appeal to either of us. We sensed the absolutely terrible things that could happen in various studio situations and we both opted to allow her to substitute a sculptural ceramics class instead. Neither of us were thrilled but we knew it was the reality we were dealing with.
Our department is relatively small and very family-like. I saw Colleen as much as all the other students. We joked, laughed and made fun of people together just like I do with everyone else. Colleen was involved in just about everything we had going on. She was always at events, even events she couldn't really participate in. The school would host 5K runs and fun runs and we'd get as many people from the art department as we could to show up and run. At one of the first ones we did as a group I looked over at the starting line and there was Colleen in her chair up on the sidewalk taking photos for everyone. I pride myself on not feeling emotions but there was a weird tingling either in my chest or my brain when I saw that. Over and over at various goofy events I'd be doing something ridiculous and I'd look over to the side and see her there close, but not exactly participating in the physical nonsense.
The next spring the school announced they were going to do a Color Run. If you don't know what that is, it's usually a 5K run with volunteers stationed at various points along the route who throw colored powder at you as you pass. At the end you're covered in colored dust or if you sweat a ton like me, you look like a paint store exploded on you. One afternoon while I was talking up some student participation in the Color Run, Colleen was in the room and made the comment that she wanted to do it. I encouraged her but immediately I thought about her rolling slowly through the course and it made me sad. Without thinking I said, "Dude. You should let me push you fast!" Colleen didn't say no to adventures. She jumped at the opportunity. It was on.
Race day came. It was late afternoon on a beautiful spring day. The school went all out. We had white t-shirts ready to receive the color and they gave us neon sunglasses to protect our eyes. There was food and games and music and as we were lining up and listening to the instructions, I was treating this like any other race. I was scanning the crowd of people looking at the competition. The serious athletes had mostly skipped out because they were smart enough to know it's not fun to have people throw colored powder in your face while you run. The competitive side of me sized up the competition and decided we could win. Since I wasn't just one person, I couldn't push my way to the starting line and we were walled in by college kids. The starting gun fired and the crowd started to move forward.
Some of the people around us saw we were trying to go fast and they would sort of part out of our way. We were supposed to stay on the sidewalks but there was no room to pass there so we jumped the curb and took over the bike lane in the street. It was smooth sailing there. We were moving up a hill and we were passing people by the dozens. The crowd was thinning out and we were now cruising with the people who start every race at full speed and then tire out after a mile. This was exactly where I wanted to be. We were not going to be a cute thing that happened at this race, we were going to win it.
Dude. I was flying. I had a mission. Colleen was going to know what it felt like to pass everyone. She was going to know what it felt like to win a freaking foot race against her entire university.
I'm guessing most of you have never ran full speed behind a wheelchair. It's pretty much what you imagine it would be like. I had my hands gripping the two handles and there was just enough room between my body and the chair for my legs to fully extend as I sprinted without banging my shins on the frame. The chair did not handle well on bumps or on curves, so I was having to slow down pretty good at corners. But every straightaway and every downhill, I felt like we were flying. I was talking to Colleen a little, mostly making fun of people and telling them to get out of our way. I kept shouting "COMING THROUGH!" when we came up behind runners. She was laughing the entire time. I leaned forward enough to see her face a couple of times and I promise you I'll never forget the smile on her face.
We were getting doused with color the whole time. Poor Colleen caught the brunt of it as she acted as a shield for the lower half of my body. People were high-fiving her while they showered her in colored powder. Right after we blew through one of the color stations we passed the last person in front of us. We were winning. All I had to do was maintain our lead and I figured that was going to be easy. I kept my pace. We were going so fast.
It's funny now to think back on this and to remember things that didn't even register with me at the time. Like when Colleen told me she was going to have her mom bring her seat belt so she wouldn't fall out of the chair during the race. I barely heard her say this. I laughed and moved on.
Did I mention how fast we were going? We were flying. Still in the lead, we headed up through the old plaza. I knew we were getting close to the end. A couple of turns ahead and we'd have a downhill sprint across the bridge and over the finish line. There was a big group of people there preparing dinner and waiting to greet the finishers. They were going to freak out when they saw Colleen cross the finish line first.
The old plaza was made of brick. Over time the bricks had become pretty unlevel and unfriendly to wheelchairs. I had not tried to roll a wheelchair across the plaza before. I certainly had never tried to push one across it at a high rate of speed. And yet, here we were, bumping up against the sound barrier very close to the end of the plaza. The chair bounced violently over the bricks. We were almost back to the sidewalk. Almost.
The front wheels of a wheelchair are much, much smaller than the back wheels. I had never paid attention to this fun fact before. Not until those little wheels rammed up against the concrete slab designed to keep the bricks in place. Suddenly physics became very important to me. I think I mentioned we were moving very fast in a forward direction. Well, not anymore. We stopped pretty abruptly when the wheel jammed against the concrete. I guess because of physics I should say, the chair stopped. We didn't necessarily stop. In fact, I kept going at pretty much the same rate of speed, tethered to the Earth only by the death grip I had on those handles. My body made a perfect arc up and over the wheelchair. The chair pivoted on the tiny front wheel and Colleen made the same perfect arc, tethered to her chair by the seat belt her mom brought. This arc brought her face in direct contact with one of those unlevel bricks on the ground.
I jerked the chair back upright in a panic and expected to see a lifeless Colleen covered in blood. There was some blood but I was startled by the laughter coming from the chair. Colleen was laughing hard. I thought, "Oh no, I've knocked her silly" but she was fully aware of the ridiculousness of the situation. I squatted there in front of her trying to convince myself she was really OK. I noticed she had hit her face on the brick and there was a knot starting to come up on her eyebrow. I kept asking if she was OK while horrified runners passed us on their way to the finish line. They were horrified but they didn't stop to see of we were OK. Colleen noticed that people were starting to pass us and she stopped laughing and started yelling at me to go. At first I thought she had regained her senses and was mad at me for almost killing her. Then she said, "People are passing us, I'm fine. We need to GO!"
I was dumbstruck. I can't say that anything could have prepared me for this situation. I didn't know what to do. It seemed very insensitive to just keep going but it seemed pointless to just quit. I mean, we still had to get back to the finish line anyway. So I brushed her off and grabbed the handles and started to push. Just like a good Tom & Jerry cartoon, the same wheel immediately hit the same concrete slab and I almost flipped us a second time. She may have called me a name at that point but we recovered and we were off to the finish line again.
I was slower now, totally freaking out and quietly realizing I was about to push an injured and bleeding Colleen into a crowd of people who were going to think I was a monster. A couple of heartless people threw more colored powder in our faces just to add insult to injury and we crossed the finish line. Pretty quickly people noticed the blood running down Colleen's knees. That was the thing that drew them in close enough to notice the golf ball sized knot on her brow. Her eye was steadily swelling shut. And turning blue.
Y'all, I was devastated. Not to take anything away from Colleen's injuries. I may have had a scrape or a bruise but I felt nothing but horror. Now I was going to have to stand there with her and let everyone see the terrible human that flipped her out of her wheelchair. The nurse came over and wiped off her knees. The nice police officer checked in with us. If I could have sunk into the ground I would have. But Colleen was still having fun. She was laughing and telling people what happened and assuring everyone she was fine. Her eye was almost completely swollen shut by that time.
It took a lot of insisting to finally convince me she was fine. When I finally believed her, I walked in a daze to find the other art majors. They sensed that I was shell shocked over the incident and they shifted into high gear making fun of me for it. This is when always taking shots at your students comes back to bite you in the butt. Sean, Katertot, Danielle, Whisk and Cessquatch spent the next hour or so making jokes about me crashing Colleen. It was unpleasant to say the least.
Over the next few weeks almost every member of Colleen's family told me how much they appreciated what I did. This seemed bizarre to me. I expected them to call me an idiot. I mean, it must have been pretty short-sighted to think we could move that fast and not have any incidents. But they were sincere. Her mom wrote me a nice letter. It made me feel a little less like a monster.
Just a few days later we celebrated with Colleen at graduation as she crossed the stage proudly sporting her ginormous black eye. Now I'm speculating here but I think she was proud of her black eye. I think it was proof that she did something fearlessly and had a great time doing it. A temporary souvenir. To this day she still laughs about the whole experience.
And to this day it still makes me tense.