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The Theory of Valerie Pepe

I was eager to meet my new students. I never know who will turn up, it is always an interesting surprise, but when I arrived at the building, I realized it was not the best building to be teaching my class; it was not accessible. And sure enough, Valerie Pepe, was waiting for me in the lobby and she was understandably incensed. She had been dropped off from work by Access-a-Ride which she has to book well in advance, they were scheduled to pick her up at 9 p.m., and until then, she wasn’t going anywhere. She had three choices: quit (never an option for Valerie), register for another section of the class in a different—accessible—building, or find some way to get upstairs, a lot of them. And, of course, this was not her responsibility, it was the university’s responsibility. They—the powers that be—are mandated by law to make such an egregious error right, immediately.

So there was I and there was Valerie, incensed but insistent on taking my class, and this wasn’t flattery, she had heard about me and wanted to experience my class, she said. So I began a discussion with the security guard and the other building staff on duty and we decided, all of us, that we’d get Valerie upstairs even if she had to be carried. More students arrived and every one, to a person, also offered to help.

I need to explain here that Valerie has a congenital orthopedic deformity called Athrogryposis Multiplex Congenita (AMC). She has had numerous surgeries and is on crutches. In addition to having a disability, she has a Masters Degree in Social Work, a full-time job with the city, more than one thousand FB friends, a polished fashion sense, an engaging sense of humor, boyfriends now that she is no longer married, a fund-raising organization for research into this deformity which also provides support to afflicted families (http://amcmusicfestival.com/valerie-pepe/), tireless energy, and great ambition to write a memoir about her life thus far. Does any one who knows her have any doubt that she will do this? No.

During the siege that we now call 9/11, Valerie’s co-workers trundled her down the stairs and up Sixth Avenue away from the falling debris and incinerated bodies. They made it as far as 18th Street where they stopped for respite at the Hollywood Diner which forever after has become one of Valerie’s writing rooms. They let her sit as long as she likes, she can order food or not, though she usually is starving after work. And I meet her there from time to time to discuss her pages. Our relationship as mentor and student is ongoing, for which I am most grateful.

The challenge of a disability, even a mental affliction, can be a powerful motivational force. I have seen it time and time again and it is always inspiring to me and to the other students in the class. Do most of us have such obstacles? We do not. If Valerie can make it to class and work on her writing day in and day out, why shouldn’t we?
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