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The Teacher Who Inspired Me as a Student With Cerebral Palsy

As a high school student with cerebral palsy, taking health class was therapeutic. I learned it was acceptable to love myself regardless of my weaknesses. My teacher, Dr. Carlos Lugo, encouraged his students to have healthy attitudes and high self-esteem. He suggested that his students look in the mirror every morning and say, “I am important. I am unique. I’m worthy as a person.” This was a way to create a positive image about ourselves, an image that would guide us throughout our lives.

I was the only student in Mr. Lugo’s class with a physical disability. He never treated me differently from the rest of the class. I noticed special ed students were often treated differently from students enrolled in regular classes, especially in terms of expectations for higher education.

Mr. Lugo encouraged the health class to look with optimism toward the future and to set goals despite any challenges or criticism we might face. I felt especially motivated when he encouraged everyone in class to attend college. I never before heard any of my teachers mention a word about attending college. His advice made a strong impression on me.

This June it will be 20 years since I graduated from high school, and I am still in contact with Mr. Lugo. We have become close friends. When I am going through a tough time and I need encouragement, I just grab the phone and call Mr. Lugo. Hearing his words of wisdom helps me to cope with the situation. If for some reason he is unable to answer my call at that moment, he responds back the next day or so.

Throughout my college journey, I kept Mr. Lugo updated about my progress and my setbacks. I remember a couple of times when I phoned him and explained how challenging it was for me to keep up with my academic responsibilities. He always had encouraging words for me, even when I returned to college after dropping out during one of my most difficult period. I especially recall when he told me this: “The  goals that seem too hard to accomplish are the ones that end up being the most rewarding, because of the struggles that we had to encounter along the way.”

Sometimes talking over the phone is not enough. I ask if can come over his house a Sunday evening. Like a father and a daughter we spend time sitting in the living room talking while we enjoy a glass of wine. Talking with Mr. Lugo is like talking with my own father. That is how close our friendship is. Then, his wife cooks dinner and invites me to join the family at the table, making me feel at home.

Four years ago, after a very long journey, I obtained a Bachelor’s degree in
communication with a concentration in print journalism and a minor in English.
Graduation day was a long and exciting day for me and for my family and friends. The ceremony was held in the morning and lasted for three hours. Afterward, we went out for lunch to celebrate. Once we got home we were tired. All my parents wanted to do was to take off their shoes and relax.

Then I received a phone call from Mr. Lugo’s wife to congratulate me on behalf of the family. He wasn’t able to attend my graduation due to his busy schedule. A while after I hung up, I told my parents I wanted to stop by his house. We lived just a few minutes away.

I called Mr. Lugo’s wife back, and asked her if he would be home and if it was OK for my parents and me to stop by. His wife said yes. It was a weekday and my parents thought that it wasn’t appropriate to visit him on a weekday, since he is a very busy person. I was determined to go anyway. It felt important for me to visit Mr. Lugo while I was still wearing the graduation gown I had put on early that morning.

Once my parents and I arrived at Mr. Lugo’s house, we were welcomed by him and his family. He asked his wife to take a photo of the two of us. For me, going to Mr. Lugo’s home and being in a photo alongside my former teacher and mentor while wearing my graduation gown, was my expression of gratitude. It was a way for me to say to Mr. Lugo, “Thank you for believing in my abilities. Thank you for not focusing on my disability. Because of your support and encouragement, I was able to start a new journey and overcome my initial insecurity about accomplishing it.”

Like a farmer who plants seeds every spring and then gathers his harvest in the fall, Mr. Lugo helped me to grow. Back in high school, he planted a seed of healthy self-esteem in his students. The seed of believing that I was capable of reaching my goals despite the criticism and setbacks I might encounter along the way.

I strongly believe that there are many wonderful special education teachers from different backgrounds out there doing an excellent job. Sharing my own story is a way to point out the difference these teachers make in their students’ lives every day.

Juana Ortiz’s book “I Made It” is available on Amazon.

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