Osteogenesis Imperfecta is the medical term for “brittle bone” disease — and every class I teach begins with a story of a former student of mine who was always on time for my classes — and who never once complained about the deformation in her legs and her arms and her spine that caused her to walk, stooped, over two wooden canes as she shuffled her way across campus with a massive backpack of books strapped to her tiny torso.
I tell my students I do my best to be transparent and fair: They’ll never have to guess with me about how to get a good grade.
I spell it all out and give them options and opportunities to do extra work if they wish. An “A” grade is within everyone’s reach — but some students might have to work harder to get that grade based on their previous experience and ability to adapt on the fly.
The most important thing I tell my new students is that they must be on time. A 10:00am class starts at 10:00am and not 10:01am. Late students make noise and they get left out and yet they always have an excuse for being late and yet they always expect you to make time for each of them to help them get caught up.
“If you miss the first minute of class,” I tell them, “You miss out on what we’re doing for the day and you will be lost. Always be on time to preserve your good grade.”
There are, and will always be, excuses for being tardy — and late students are forever running and hurrying and gasping for breath:
“I couldn’t find a parking space.”
“I had to feed the meter.”
“My other class wouldn’t let us leave on time.”
“The elevator didn’t work. I had to take the stairs.”
“I have class on the other side of campus.”
“The train/bus/subway was late.”
None of the excuses matter because being late is always avoidable and being late is rude to me and the other students who are on time. Being late wastes our time and irreversibly makes us late, too.
Then I tell them the story of one of my former students from Africa who had Osteogenesis Imperfecta. She was in her home village when bombs were shattering her house in gang warlord fighting.
One bomb landed near her bedroom and the roof fell on her and crushed her already brittle legs. Her family pulled her from the rubble and they did the best they could to keep her safe and comfortable.
The fighting was so intense around her village that she could not seek medical help for her broken legs — for three weeks.
When her family were finally able to get her to a hospital, her legs had to be re-broken and re-set by surgeons because they had started to heal in opposite directions.
After several intensive surgeries, the doctors cobbled her legs back together — but they were bowed and disangular — and she would have to walk with crutches or a cane for the rest of her life and she would one day be wheelchair-bound.
My student was able to leave Africa to study engineering in the USA and the first time I saw her, I was looking out my classroom window at the campus green below, and there she was, all three feet of her, limping her way along on two canes. She was the human definition of courage and the dictionary definition of contempt for the ordinary. She walked slowly, but methodically, and with intention. She would not be barred or denied.
She had to climb a set of stairs to reach my classroom and she didn’t want any help with the stairs — she felt help from others was pity. She lugged her own books and dragged herself up each step with her arms hugging the railing to steady her balance.
She was always on time. She never missed a class.
I use her fine example of “no excuses, no apologies” as a template for other students to imitate. I end my opening day remarks with this reminder for my able-bodied students: “If a woman with brittle bone disease and legs shattered by a bomb can find a way to make it to class on time, so can you.”