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Important life lessons spring from overcoming disabilities

Unabridged from my Bonus Years column in the Lifestyle section of The Sunday Capital, Annapolis, Maryland

Perspective. That’s one of the advantages of the bonus years.

As you pass through your late 50s and then into the 60s and 70s and beyond, you are able to take a more measured assessment of life’s events. Your thinking and understanding are more contextual.

I thought of this last week as I was talking with Annapolitan Marilyn McGilvery.

Marilyn was born in 1935. At the age of 2, she was stricken with polio, a disease of the central nervous system that left her partially disabled in her left leg. For many years, she walked with a leg brace. Today, she is able to walk with the help of a cane.

Anyone born before 1950 remembers polio — often called “infantile paralysis,” children were more often victims of the virus.

Polio was a dreaded disease before the vaccine by Jonas Salk was introduced in 1955 and the mass immunizations that followed. Before Salk, summer was the “polio season,” and youngsters were always warned to avoid drinking fountains, swimming pools and other places where the virus might be transmitted.

Today polio is largely eradicated in developed countries, though it remains a problem in some third-world areas.

When I asked Marilyn how her experience with polio had shaped her life, she said, “My handicap taught me a lot.

“First, it taught me to ask for help when I needed it. We all need help at different times in our life, but there is something about our culture that often makes us reluctant to ask. When you are disabled, sometimes you have no choice. You must ask for help. That experience also helps in other areas where you might be less inclined to seek help when you need it the most.”

She continued: “We have these notions of the rugged individual. I don’t dispute that, but there are times when we are more ragged than rugged, and there are times when individualism gets trumped by friends and neighbors. Those are truths that you learn when you have a disability.”

My talk with Marilyn also reminded me of what it was like “then” and “now” when it comes to the status of women in American society.

Marilyn was an honor student all through high school. She was elected to the National Honor Society in 1953 during her senior year. Yet, her school’s vice principal told her, “Don’t ever apply for college. You didn’t do well on the Iowa test.”

Marilyn thought, “What is the Iowa test? I don’t recall taking the Iowa test.” Yet, she followed her administrator’s advice and married at a young age.

During 40 years of marriage, she and her husband raised two children, Scott and Dawn. Because her husband worked for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service of the Department of the Interior, they lived in many interesting locations throughout the U.S., including Oregon, Illinois, Texas, South Carolina and, for many years, Maryland.

During the 1960s, Marilyn read “The Feminine Mystique,” a 1963 book by Betty Friedan which is widely credited with sparking the beginning of second-wave feminism in the U.S. It advocates that education and meaningful work can combine with marriage and motherhood as a path to personal fulfillment.

Marilyn decided to go back to school. She enrolled at the University of Maryland where she earned undergraduate and graduate degrees in psychology, including an ABD (all but dissertation) in psychology.

During the late 1970s, Marilyn went to work as a school psychologist in Prince George’s County, where she was a “circuit rider” among seven schools, providing counseling and other personal development services.

She worked into her 70s and retired “when I ran out of gas. I loved my job, but there comes a time when you can’t give 100 percent. That’s when you need to step down. And I did.”

Marilyn said, “While my formal education certainly helped me do a good job, much of my education as a counselor came during my younger days when, for nearly seven years, I was a baby sitter for a family of six children. That experience and those kids taught me everything I needed to know to be a school psychologist.”

To this day, the kids she cared for many years ago continue to invite her to annual after-Christmas reunions, and she usually attends.

Since moving from a go-go to a slow-go life, Marilyn has traveled with friends to interesting places in Europe and Africa. She stays informed by reading daily newspapers and is a frequent participant in events at her local senior center, where she attends courses in current events and takes advantage of opportunities for dialogue with speakers and other seniors.

When I asked her what is the first life lesson that comes to her mind, she responded immediately.

“First, parents need to understand that children with learning or physical disabilities can still be successful. Second, adults need to listen to their children, to engage in real conversation, to understand where they are coming from. Third, everyone — but especially the educator — needs to give young people the time and attention they need and encourage them never to settle for life that is less than the one they are capable of living.”

As we parted, I asked Marilyn for her contact information. She gave me a colorful business card. On the back it said, “A thousand years from now it will not matter what my bank account was, the sort of house I lived in, or the kind of car I drove … but the world may be different because I was important in the life of a child.”

Perspective indeed.

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