Spiders are not my most favorite creatures. In fact, the daddy long-legs spider—who’s weight almost matches that of a postage stamp—is simply one such creature that I enjoy keeping my distance from. I can clearly remember a time when I was younger, taking a shower with a daddy long-legs walking up the wall next to me. Oh, the agony! You would think the only intentions that bug had was to jump out onto my face and bite me like a vampire. So, I whacked it off the wall with a big towel, sending it down the drain with ten minutes of continuous hot, steamy water. Afterwards, it dawned on me that maybe, just maybe, that was a slight overreaction.
True challenges are those that are seemingly insurmountable. They are of big issues, whether mental or physical. When you can face those challenges without fear, that is the measure of strength. When I was in 5th grade, I faced a challenge that came in the form of not just a classmate, but a girl. While she challenged me to an arm wrestling match, there was so much more to it that made me realize how small our problems are, and how we don’t even have a clue about how to face the bigger ones (and I’m talking far beyond the horrifying threat of a single daddy long-legs spider). Inspiration comes in many forms. This one came in a lunchroom.
School lunchrooms packed with 5th graders are noisy, busy, bustling places. Food has a way of being projectiled at short, random intervals. Amongst that chaos, Sherry Nevius made her way to my table and asked a simple question: “Would you like to arm wrestle?” Since when do zebras come out of the brush and ask lions if they wouldn’t mind sharing some of their warthog carcass?
I looked at Sherry and said that she must be crazy. She looked at me and said she wasn’t.
Word quickly spread throughout the lunchroom that the match was on. The sound of wooden chairs could be heard scraping over the Linoleum floor as the kids backed themselves from their tables and made their way over to Sherry and me.
“Come on, Sherry, are you sure want to go through with this?”
There was a short pause before she answered. But long enough for her to offer a slight smirk with raised eyebrows. “Are you?”
To a 5th grade boy, there is nothing worse than a girl who has nerves of steel. This was a challenge that was beyond any other. On the outside, I showed confidence and accepted the invitation. On the inside, my stomach was turning ugly knots. Still, I gritted my teeth—doing whatever I could to muster bravery. My friends gathered around me for support as I prepared to slay Sherry with an iron fist. The lunchroom was taking on the look of a “G” rated prison riot with harmless kids standing and chanting on tables and chairs. In my eyes, this was the match of the semester. The boys cheered my name; the girls, hers.
* * *
Two schools shared this packed lunchroom: Metcalf (grades K-8), and Fairchild, which was a school solely devoted to the mentally and physically handicapped. Since kindergarten I had grown up with kids who were plagued with cognitive development disorders, cystic fibrosis, cerebral palsy, and multiple sclerosis. There were also the deaf and blind. Wheelchairs, crutches, walkers, walking sticks, protective helmets, and hearing aide devices were commonplace. Some of the Fairchild students were integrated into our classes at Metcalf. Sherry Nevius was one of those.
Since birth, she had dealt with cerebral palsy. She got around with the aid of some metal crutches that were braced just above her elbows. The upside to Sherry’s disability: she had arms as tough as climbing rope and a grip that was fiercely alien.
Sherry raised her arm to ninety degrees on the lunchroom table, and rolled her fingers in the air as if to say, “Game on.”
In my mind the challenge was becoming insurmountable, because my pride was at stake. I planted my elbow on the table, locked hands with hers, took a breath, and then went for it.
We were deadlocked for what seemed minutes. Kids were going nuts. Teachers and cafeteria workers were practically placing bets. Her grip was unbelievable. Slowly, ever so slowly, I felt my arm inch over hers. My wrist got to the point of curling even more, until I had her. Down to the table I laid Sherry Nevius’s hand.
The challenge was behind me. I had slayed the dragon.
When you’re in 5th grade and you win a difficult arm wrestling match (and it doesn’t matter who you wrestle), you will walk through school for the rest of the week reliving that moment, that victory.
Today, I still relive that moment, but with a very different perspective. You see, 35 years later, I have located Sherry, and we stay in contact with each other, sharing whatever may be going on in our lives. In the years that have passed, she has not only acquired two college degrees, but has led a very self-sufficient and fulfilling life. She radiates the kind of positive energy that everyone should own. With all of the challenges that she has faced, she makes everyday living seem a breeze.
Yes, back in 5th grade I really never won the arm wrestling match, for it was Sherry who was chalking up victories right and left against all odds. It was Sherry who high-fived you at the end of the competition. It was Sherry who, at birth weighed half that of a five-pound bag of sugar, and not only spent her first six months in an incubator, but later had narrowly escaped being instutionalized.
And it was Sherry who, no matter how far she had to walk a crooked line in her cumbersome crutches, no matter how large the obstacle, she would always—and I mean always—find a way to win.
Copyright Ros Hill 2014