Breaking Free


I was the instructor and president of the university scuba club. I had been diving for almost three years and thought I knew all there was to know about scuba diving. I think, too, that at the ripe old age of 20, I had the idea that I knew pretty much all there was to know about life as well.

There had been a drowning in the scuba club at another of the state universities, and the administration of our school was pressuring for the abolition of our club. Naturally, I had been fighting that idea with all my might. In any event, I had received the word directly from the university’s president himself. “Be careful. Any accidents of any kind will result in the immediate revocation of your student club charter.”

I was trying to be very careful when I first met Diane.

Actually, I didn’t meet Diane right away. I met, instead, her two roommates. They came to the pool one evening during a session of the scuba club and sought me out to ask if their roommate, whom they described as a very good swimmer, could join the club. I replied that she certainly could, as long as she could pass the necessary entrance tests.

They left, and when they returned the next week I was astonished to see them pushing a girl in a wheelchair. They shoved her through the door and onto the pool deck. I stared at them, aghast. She was literally tied into the wheelchair with a wide band of white cloth. Her head lolled from one shoulder to the other like a bowling ball on the end of a broom straw. Her arms and legs jerked and twitched without control. She wore a terry cloth bib tied around her neck because she drooled uncontrollably.

While I was staring, dumbfounded, trying to think what to do, her roommates pushed the chair to the edge of the pool and waited for me to tell them what to do next.

I told them.

I first motioned them to one side where I could speak with them privately, away from the unfortunate girl in the chair.

“What’s the idea?” I demanded. “I thought you said she was a good swimmer!”

“She is,” one of the girls assured me.

I looked hard at the girl tied in the chair. Her head lay propped on one shoulder, and she regarded me with a face twisted into a grimace that made my neck hairs rise. “You’re kidding,” I replied. “There’s no way in the whole green world that she could swim well enough to take scuba lessons.”

I patiently explained, over their loud protests, the situation I found myself and the club in. I recounted the instructions the president had given me only a few weeks earlier. They tried to argue, but I stood firm.

Stubbornly, I brushed aside their arguments until finally I lost my temper with their insistence. Trying to keep my voice low enough so that the girl in the wheelchair—who was staring holes through me with her twisted face—couldn’t hear, I shouted in a whisper, “Look, I’m in charge of this club. I’ve said no and I mean no. Now get her out of here!”

They left, and I resumed instructing the class. I was quite proud of myself for having stood off such an assault single-handedly.

My self-satisfaction didn’t last long however. The girl’s two roommates hounded me relentlessly for the next several days. There seemed to be no way I could get away from them—or rid of them. They ambushed me along the sidewalk on the way to classes two or three times a day. They waited for me at the end of the cafeteria line. They called me on the telephone. Their pleas were impassioned and often loud. But they fell on strong shoulders and deaf ears. I was proud of myself for resisting, and that made me even more determined than ever that such a wild idea would never find favor with me.

Then, on Wednesday, the day before the next meeting of the scuba club, the girl in the wheelchair pulled out all the stops.

The class period ended, and as the other students began to file from the room, they found their way blocked by a wheelchair occupied by a very determined young woman. She had set the brake on the chair’s wheels.

I heard the commotion by the door before I saw her. Then I heard her voice, shrill, slurred, but I could understand what she was saying. “Where’s Lee Dalton? I want to see Lee Dalton!”

Some of the other students, angry and anxious to get to their next classes, grabbed me and pushed me to the front of the little crowd. The girl stared at me for a long time while I grew more and more uncomfortable as I tried desperately to think of something—anything—to say. The other students shifted around me. They were being caught up in the drama of the confrontation, caught up, but anxious to have it ended before classes resumed.

“Uh, what do you want?” I asked lamely.

Slurred and garbled though her speech was, there was no mistaking what she said. “You know what I want!” she replied in a determined tone.

I began frantically trying to explain to her the demands of safety and the ultimatum of the president. None of it impressed her. She sat impassively, wheels locked, barring the exit of my classmates, who were becoming more and more irate as the minutes passed. Even the professor of the class just finished was breathing down my neck.

“Whatever she wants, Dalton, give it to her,” someone behind me growled.

“Yeah, and be quick about it,” added another. “My next class is clear across the campus!”

I turned desperately toward the crowd gathered behind me and tried to explain my situation. They regarded me with what I took for scorn—and growing impatience.

The girl in the wheelchair delivered the clincher. With the assembled students watching and listening she asked, “You told my friends I could learn scuba diving if I could pass the test. Right?”

“Right,” I confirmed. “But … but how could you pass a test like that? It’s very difficult.”

“How do you know I can’t pass it?” she retorted, speaking carefully and slowly so I could understand her. “You haven’t even given me a chance to take it!”

The others heard and understood her plea, and I began hearing another kind of angry muttering from behind my back. The girl in the chair spoke again. There was no hint of begging in her voice, just a tone of firm determination. “Give me a chance,” she asked. “Just give me a chance to pass the test—or fail it.”

I felt an elbow poke me in the ribs. A voice from back there someplace said, “Yeah, Dalton, what’s so bad about that idea? You afraid she might prove you’re wrong?”

I tried once more to argue with the mob but was shouted down. They were surging against me, pushing me out of the room. I was caught between them and the girl in the wheelchair with the locked brakes.

“All right,” I heard myself whispering. “Be there tomorrow night. But remember, you’ll have to pass the test just the same as everybody else. No breaks!”

She nodded silently and unlocked the brake.

I was as jumpy as a trout all the next day, and when time for the club meeting finally arrived, I had worked myself into a fair dither. I had discussed the problem with the other club officers, and we had finally agreed that we really had no choice but to let her take the test. But we’d be ready with all the available rescue equipment to pull her out before she drowned completely.

The door to the women’s dressing rooms opened, and the two girls who had visited me the previous week and who helped make my last week so miserable pushed the chair with its tied-in occupant onto the pool deck.

They shoved the chair to the very edge of the pool and paused. “Ready?” one of them asked.

I looked around. Several of the other club members had taken up stations around the pool. Two of them grasped the long lifesaving poles with the shepherd’s crooks on the ends that usually hung in the brackets on the wall. A couple of others were pulling off their T-shirts getting ready to go in after her if necessary.

I nodded, and one of them reached down and untied the cloth that held the girl imprisoned in her chair. Then they tipped the chair forward over the edge until she splashed unceremoniously into the water.

We all stared, jaws slack, at the miracle in the pool.

Freed from the pull of gravity against her body, the girl was immediately transformed into a thing of beauty and grace. She didn’t just swim through the water. She glided and surged with a precision that few of the rest of us could match.

She swam to the side, executed a flip turn and swam back to stop at the edge of the pool at my feet. Looking up at me, she asked, “What do you want me to do first?” I noticed then for the first time how much effort it took for her to speak. Her entire body seemed to enter the effort of forming words, and her face twisted and creased as she fought to get the sounds out.

“Swim five laps using a crawl stroke,” I said. And as I watched her sliding through the water, I suddenly found myself feeling terribly ashamed of myself. Ashamed because I had been secretly planning to rig the test against her by demanding far more of her than I would normally require of any new member. I knew then that I couldn’t do such a thing.

She swam eight laps instead of five. And when I asked her to swim across the pool underwater, she not only swam across, she also swam back without stopping. Instead of bringing up one five-pound weight from the deepest part of the pool, she brought up two. In fact, in every task I required of her, she did more than I asked.

When finally she swam to the edge of the pool and looked up at me to ask, “Well, did I pass?” there was only one answer I could give.

Diane became one of the best divers in the club. She took part in all our outside dives including some difficult open water dives in the cold, murky waters of Lake Erie. She swam with us when we cut holes through the ice of our favorite limestone quarry to dive beneath it. She even helped us a couple of times n the unpleasant task of recovering the bodies of drowning victims.

We learned to ignore the grotesqueness and learned to understand her garbled speech. And it seemed only natural that as we all grew to know Diane, we also grew to love her.

She was a prisoner. Imprisoned not in a prison of stone and steel, but in a prison of skin and bone—and a somehow scrambled nervous system that shot random signals throughout her body. But in spite of all that, her spirit remained free, and about her radiated an infectious happiness and enthusiasm that lightened even the darkest days.

We soon understood why her two roommates—friends of Diane since grade school—could sacrifice so much to give her the constant care she needed away from home.

And, as we came to know Diane, we also learned of her dream.

Like all of us, Diane had a dream she held close to her heart. It wasn’t a very spectacular dream like most of us carried in our youthful enthusiasm. Her dream was really rather simple.

She wanted to teach.

Diane wanted to teach other children like the child she had been, children held prisoners by their bodies or their minds, children twisted and deformed as she was. She wanted to help them find their places in the world. She wanted to help them grow to become all that they could become.

And as we learned of Diane’s dream, we learned, too, of another obstacle she had to face—the same obstacle she’d had to face with me when she dreamed of learning to scuba dive. Even among those who worked as educators of the “special” children of the world, Diane found a wall of skepticism and doubt that prevented them from giving her the chance to show how well she could swim.

She had finished her bachelor’s degree and had found all the job doors closed to her. Now, she was finishing her master’s degree, but still the doors were slammed and locked.

The last time I saw Diane, she was in the swimming pool surrounded by a flock of laughing, splashing children. They paddled around her, shouting their happiness until it rattled off the rafters. Only the halting slurring of their speech gave away the fact that all of them, like Diane, were prisoners within their bodies.

As I watched them splashing and laughing, I found myself praying silently for Diane—for all of them for that matter. I found myself praying that she—that they—would someday find the opportunity needed to reach the fullest potential they could reach.

I never saw Diane again, never heard from her or of her. But even today, some 20 years later, I find myself praying that someone else, someplace, gave her another chance to show how well she could swim.

And for those who didn’t, I can only feel sadness, sadness for those who deprived themselves of a great blessing. For we were all blessed in our opportunity, blessed because we gave ourselves a chance to come to know and to love a twisted, drooling, jerking girl named Diane.

Now, too, I wonder how often we—all of us—have turned aside the opportunity to be blessed in a friendship with another person who, at first appearance, seems to be different in some way.

[illustration] Illustrated by Dick Brown