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'Mr. Connolly Has ALS' Shows the Resilience of Our Beloved Principal

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About a year ago, I watched my son, Samuel, have a conversation with his Concord (New Hampshire) High School principal, Gene Connolly. But neither spoke verbally. They both used communication devices — Samuel because of his cerebral palsy and Connolly because he had developed amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) and lost his ability to speak.

For 14 years, Connolly was always on the go. Whether in the press box at football games or greeting students at the start of every school day, he was an active, beloved, engaged leader who left a lasting impression on thousands of students who attended Concord High. But in 2014, he was diagnosed with ALS, a neurological disease that attacks the nerve cells and leads to progressive muscle weakness and paralysis. He joined approximately 14,000 other Americans living with ALS, which typically results in death within three to five years.

Since the onset of his degenerative disease, Connolly has shown tremendous persistence and humor. Connolly credits the school and the greater Concord community as a source of unfailing support and understanding as his illness progresses, enabling him to continue to lead the school for two years while also raising awareness about the disease locally, statewide and nationally. Connolly retired in June 2016, but the positivity and candor that he demonstrated as he lost the ability to talk and walk will be his most profound legacy.

The documentary “Mr. Connolly Has ALS” is built around interviews between students and Connolly. I asked the entire student body to participate in an interview process akin to the StoryCorps model of public radio but on video. Students submitted thousands of questions, which were narrowed down to 50.

The film also includes my documentary footage of Connolly’s life in and out of Concord High School over the past year, as well as archival footage of Connolly’s key public activities as principal from the past 14 years. Samuel, now 18 and a senior, is also featured in the film and served as a story consultant.

The student questions were threaded throughout the documentary to explore the themes that Connolly’s ALS catalyzed in the community: how to live life fully, develop resilience, show love freely and identify priorities; what it feels like to acquire a disability; how people perceive individuals with disabilities; and how to approach an inevitable death with honesty and dignity.

As Connolly said in one of our interviews: “People don’t understand the disease. They think the disease has affected my cognitive abilities. While I look different, inside I am the same person.  It can be frustrated and exhausting. I have a newfound respect for people with disabilities.”

ReelAbilities Film Festival is the largest festival in the U.S. dedicated to promoting awareness and appreciation of the lives, stories, and artistic expressions of people with different abilities. Founded in New York City in 2007, the festival presents international and award-winning films by and about people with disabilities in multiple locations throughout each hosting city. Post-screening discussions and other engaging programs bring together the community to explore, discuss, embrace, and celebrate the diversity of our shared human experience.

Lead image is of Connolly with Sevignee Mugisha 

Originally published: March 6, 2018
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