Oberlin Blogs

I Am a Turtle and Other Winter Term Lessons

February 9, 2015

El Wilson ’18

I learned two important things during winter term: 1) I do not have X-ray vision. 2) I am not a chemist.

Don't get me wrong, I learned a lot at my internship at the Brooklyn Public Library's Child's Place for Children and Teens with Special Needs. I analyzed the dynamics of many meetings (I had no idea what grown-ups did at those things), I was blown away by the ins and outs of adaptive video gaming, and I can tell you more about the theory of multiple intelligences than you ever want to know. However, none of these lessons compare to my two most important revelations.

The first came while my friend Bri and I were on our way to see the American Museum of Natural History. Bri and I had driven to New York together (Ok... She drove. I D-Jayed), and the fact that neither of us had even been to New York before glued us together. The weather that day resembled the washcloth currently hanging by my sink: cold, dirty, and damp. As we walked from the subway to our next bus, we came across one of many curb cuts.

I have a deep affection for curb cuts. They are what allow my wheelchair and me to go wherever I please. This particular curb cut ended in a crack in the road. Normally, these cracks don't pose a problem. Not to brag, but I'm a very good driver and can easily pop a wheelie over them. This crack happened to be covered by a massive puddle the color of dark brown Uggs. Since I didn't see the crack and had complete faith in the X-ray vision I don't have, I assumed the curb cut ended in a perfectly smooth transition to the road. (You can see where this is going.) As soon as I hit that hidden crack, my front wheels got stuck and the entire wheelchair flipped forward. I landed with my hands holding my upper body up and the wheelchair resting on my back as the water seeped through my jeans and sneakers. (If people in wheelchairs could do yoga, this position would be called "The Turtle" because the wheelchair makes for a very sexy shell.) Thankfully, the entire city rushed to help, and soon I was across the street.

Nothing important was harmed. My phone, iPod, and wallet were all in one functioning piece. (My left knee was bleeding, but that's neither here or there.) Bri, being the awesome human that she is, insisted that we find the nearest clothing store and buy me dry pants. I ended up with a pair of purple pants that didn't really fit but worked for the day.

In retrospect, the incident wasn't that big of a deal. However, there is a clear moral of the story: I am not a superhero. I have many talents, but X-ray vision certainly isn't one of them. If there is a puddle I cannot see through, I need to go over it backwards or I will end up a very wet turtle.

If you aren't yet convinced that I am more of a danger to myself than the city of New York is to me, then you will be very shortly.

During my internship, I lived in an Oberlin alum's room while she was out of town. Thankfully, her roommates were three very nice humans who frequently made me vegetarian meals and introduced me to Friends. However, they lacked one thing every college student needs to function: a microwave. Honestly, if it weren't for the fact that I learned to make pasta as a young child, I would have lived off of peanut butter and jelly and cereal for several days.

One night after my roommates had gone to bed, I decided it would be a grand idea to try to make hot cocoa. I dug around the cupboards until I found a container of unsweetened cocoa powder. I theorized that if I mixed this with sugar and water hot cocoa would appear. The water that came out of the sink was so hot that I didn't even consider heating it on the stovetop. I simply put all three ingredients in a thick plastic mug I brought from home and stirred. Surprisingly, it tasted pretty good. It certainly wasn't from Starbucks, but it was better than merely drinkable. The only problem was that unsweetened cocoa powder doesn't dissolve like Nesquick. It formed large lumps of brown gunk that floated to the top of the mug.

If I had common sense, I would have poured the experiment down the sink and resorted to stealing some orange juice from the fridge. Instead, I thought that if I put the mug on the stovetop it would melt the powder and make the perfect drink. I knew the mug to be microwaveable. And, hey, if it could handle microwaves why couldn't it handle a hot medal grate? Clearly there is some physics or chemistry that would have shown me just how wrong I was, but I didn't bother to look it up. I put the mug on the stovetop and turned it on low.

Within seconds, flames leapt up the plastic. At first, being the genius that I am, I thought that some of the cocoa on the mug had caught fire, but when the flames didn't disappear as soon as I turned the stove off, I knew there was a massive problem. The kitchen began to smell of burned plastic (If you don't know what this smells like, try to melt a disposable razor). I responded how I usually do to panic-inducing, emergency situations: I laughed hysterically. While I bent over cackling with laughing, I put on a pair of oven mitts and poured a 32oz plastic cup of water over the stove. After several more dumps, the fire was put out. The formerly white mug had holes around it and had turned a dark grey. I proceeded to throw the mug away and use half a roll of paper towel to clean up the water that flooded the stovetop, counter, and floor. By the end of the episode, my arms and shirt were completely soaked. Luckily, the only permanent damage was to the mug, and the stovetop still worked perfectly. I didn't even wake my roommates up.

Believe it or not, the point of this post isn't to reveal just how much of an idiot I am. My adventure in New York taught me many things, but the most important lessons I learned had nothing to do with my internship. I learned how to manage life better. I figured out the world of handicapped accessible public transportation. I now know every website that can help you if you get lost. I even realized that tofu tastes really good if it's cooked well.

I learned my limits. I don't have X-ray vision, and I don't know enough chemistry to deduce whether something will catch on fire. Yet, I also learned that my life has unlimited possibilities. Many adults back home (including my own parents) didn't think I could handle New York. How could a disabled kid manage a city that huge?! But in fact, I managed it, and I loved it. The people rushing around me and the skyscrapers above me made me feel small but significant. I am part of a massive network of humans who can build things as big as the empire state building, and that's awesome. Despite what many think, my disability doesn't hinder me from doing anything. Yes, there will be days where I am so wet that I think I'm drowning, but I'm a turtle, and turtles can swim.

Winter term gives us the opportunity to learn things that no classroom can teach us. My advice to those deciding what to do next year is simple: Go somewhere. Go anywhere. Get in a boat and see where the water takes you.

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