Saturday, June 29, 2013

I Not A Quitter...I Keep Walking

     So, have you ever had a blister on the bottom of your foot? On your heel? On your toes? Ever had blisters on the bottom of your foot, on your heel, AND on your toes, all at the same time?
     Well, if you haven't had this misfortune, just imagine it for a moment.....would you try to take all those blisters on a ten mile hike through the woods?
      This blog is about a student we called Rebby. He was in my class of students with intellectual challenges....about 30 years ago, so he would be 45 years old now. He lived in Minneapolis and Rebby was in the Boy Scout troop at our special school. Rebby had Down Syndrome. One of the characteristics of Down Syndrome is a gait characterized by foot shuffling/scuffing .....whatever you want to call it. Rebby did not pick up his feet very well when he walked. He got all the way to fifteen years old, and this gait never caused him many problems...maybe an occasional trip on a sidewalk crack, but nothing serious....until it came to the Many Point Trail badge that Rebby made up his mind to earn at Boy Scout camp..
        Every summer, I took about a dozen of our special needs Boy Scouts to Many Point Scout Camp in northern Minnesota. During the first two week trip up there, we learned a lot about the activities and opportunities available to  the scouts. The one that all the boys wanted to do was the Many Point Trail. This badge could only be earned by walking TEN miles on their special trail, in one day. Ha! Most of my students usually walked no further than from their house to their special school bus, which was parked right out in front.
        That first year, we did not attempt the ten mile hike. We knew we had to talk to parents and doctors first. Rebby was adamant. He wanted that badge. He pestered his parents; he got clearance from his doctor; and he was eager to go back the next summer.  We usually went scouting in August, because my students had five day a week of summer school/day camp in June and July. We decided to use those two months to build up some endurance for our attempt at the Many Point Trail  Badge. Rebby was pumped!
        Sadly, after the first day of summer school, with only a one-half mile practice walk, Rebby had a blister on his heel. The next day, he came with a big smile and a box of bandaids in his backpack. We went another half-mile, and Rebby had another blister on the bottom of his big toe. After about two weeks, be had worked our way up to a full two miles, and Rebby had bandaids all over his feet. Mom and Dad had purchased some hiking boots, and those really made an enormous difference. It really helped and his blisters slowly healed. He smiled all day long. He brought his water bottle with him every day. He had a bandanna in his back pocket, which he used for all the sweat that dripped from him as we plodded along in the bright sunshine. He just kept smiling. "Gonna earn my badge!" was his mantra, as he dragged those heavy boots farther and farther every day.
        By the time the we loaded the bus with our twelve Boy Scouts and four staff members, we felt they were ready for the Many Point Trail. It was about a six hour bus trip, by Greyhound, from Minneapolis to Detroit Lakes, MN, which was the nearest town to camp. Then we took one of those old, rickety scout camp school buses to our campsite. The boys were all tuckered out, so we sorted them out in their tents, prepared a simple meal of hot dogs with "fixings", gave them their night-time medications, and zipped them into their sleeping bags.
       Rebby was the first boy out of his tent in the morning. He was already dressed in his tan Boy Scout uniform. "Gonna earn my badge!" was the first thing out of his mouth. It was difficult, but I had to explain to him that we needed to have one practice day, and then we would take on the Many Point Trail on Wednesday. I told him to go put on his hiking boots, which were quite broken in by now, very comfortable, and ready to carry him the required distance.
      "No boot in my bag. Think they at home, on bed."  Oh hiking boots for Rebby. How was he going to hike ten miles in his tennis shoes?  He had blisters after one-half mile in June!
      "Well, we will practice today in your tennis shoes and maybe Mom can send those boots up here tomorrow," was my immediate suggestion.
       That did not work out at all. Mom and Dad had left for a vacation, and were already out of town. They would not be able to send the boots. Rebby was going to hike in his tennis shoes....the ones that gave him blisters on long walks.
       In Minneapolis, we had been walking on sidewalks and bike paths around the lakes, and they were pretty level. I had assumed that the trail at camp would be along the dirt roads that wound through the many acres of northern woods. Nope. At Many Point, I learned that we were going to be walking ten miles on paths through rugged woods, up pine tree covered inclines, along the slippery banks of the lake, across little creeks, and over rocks. The route had been set up many years ago, and was designed to be "challenging".
       We had pumped up the kids for this hike during June and July. We had to at least attempt it! The Scoutmaster who was helping us with all our other activities at camp said he planned to send two college-age Eagle Scouts with us on our hike. They would have a first aid kit, extra water, and moleskin with them.
       Moleskin? What was moleskin? It sounded creepy to me...but I was relieved to learn that it is a valuable treatment for dealing with blisters. It is sort of like a thick padded bandaid, with a hole cut in the middle. It surrounds the blister without covering it, and cushions it from further rubbing. We knew that Rebby would develop blisters and would most likely also refuse to quit until he finished the whole ten miles and earned his badge. Rebby was a pretty stubborn kid. He was otherwise cooperative and very sweet, but once he made up his mind about something, he stuck with it to the very end.
       So the day of the hike arrived. We started right after breakfast; about 8AM. Each boy had his lunch in his backpack; we expected to be finished in time for dinner, hopefully by 6PM. It was going to be a long day. Fortunately, the weather was going to be 70 degrees and overcast, neither heat nor rain were going to be a concern. Still, we estimated it would take us ten hours to walk ten miles.
      I cannot give you a blow-by-blow, mile-by-mile recollection of our hike. It was a long time ago, but I very plainly remember Rebby's statement as we reached each mile marker, "I not a quitter...I keep walking." Each mile, he repeated it. The Eagle Scouts kept a close eye on him, and at least five times they had to stop the group, remove Rebby's shoes, and apply more moleskin to newly formed blisters. Both feet, by the time we were done, were plastered with multiple patches of moleskin.
      Rebby was limping, but he never quit. Between the two final markers, Mile 9 and Mile 10, Rebby's fellow scouts cheered and sang to Rebby. They chanted and laughed; they were all dirty, exhausted, and sore, but they all marched on...every single on of them finished!
       When we got to the ten mile marker, the two Eagle Scouts picked Rebby up, using a four-handed "fireman's carry", and transported him all the way back to his tent. It was about a quarter of a miles from the finish. The camp nurse came and checked Rebby's feet. None of the blisters had broken, thanks to the moleskin.
       After dinner, we all gathered around the campfire and the Scoutmaster held a ceremony, presenting each scout with his Many Point Trail badge. Rebby cried. I cried. The Eagle Scouts cried. Rebby's friends cheered for him, and for themselves. The Eagle Scouts and I received many hugs from all the boys. Within fifteen minutes after the ceremony, however, all the boys had received their bedtime medications, and they were all asleep on their cots. I needed no medication... I just collapsed on my cot; I think I was asleep before my head hit the pillow.
       To this day, the hike on the Many Point Trail is on my life's Top Ten Moments list.
       To this day, I remember the lesson I learned from Rebby on that trail. Never give up on yourself.
       I have always had "Never Give Up On Anyone" printed on my teacher business cards. It's a tag line on my email signature. I have a poster of it hanging in my classroom. Rebby did a little change-up on my motto! He changed "anyone" to "yourself". What is the difference? Doesn't "anyone" include yourself?
        For me, I had always been focused on others; my friends, my family, my students. I had been through a divorce, my mother was very ill, and I had a stressful job (even though I loved it, it was very challenging). I was constantly going to the wine bottle in my refrigerator. That part was a little scary, but I was more worried about everyone else.
         I don't know exactly how, but going through this experience with Rebby changed my life. I felt more confident. I made mental lists of all the things I was doing right. I discovered I could manage my life and not feel twinges of panic all the time. I was able to relax, without the wine, but when things got tough for a while, I found I mentally braced myself and got strong enough to deal with it all. "I not a quitter" echoed in my brain.
        It still does. Thanks, Rebby!