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One of Life's Lessons

Story ID:258
Written by:Nancy J. Kopp (bio, link, contact, other stories)
Story type:Period Piece
Location:Oak Park IL USA
Year:1950
Person:Rochelle
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One of Life’s Lessons

By Nancy Julien Kopp

Life has a way of tapping us on the shoulder, beckoning a finger, and whispering, “Pay attention to this.” It happens when we least expect it. One such lesson presented itself to me at the tender age of eleven.

In 1950 I spent my days as a sixth grader in a K-8 suburban school. One particular day, classes changed with the usual noise made by voices and feet as students moved down the hall and up or down staircases. I proceeded through the hallway at a rapid pace toward a large double stairway, which led to the second and third floor of the new section of our building. Suddenly, I noticed a new sound added to those already surrounding me.

The harshness of cleats hitting the floor, metal creaking, and heavy footsteps caught my attention. The sound caused me to raise my head and search the area as I neared the bottom of the stairway. A girl, who wore full leg braces and heavy orthopedic shoes with tap cleats on the toes, made her way across a wooden-floored room that connected the old and new parts of our school. Wherever she went, Rochelle carried the reminders of her serious bout with polio a few years earlier. Despite the passage of more than fifty years, I see her clearly.

Rochelle’s hair was cut in a wavy bob and a big red hair-bow perched on the top. Her fair ivory skin glowed, and her eyes were such a deep blue, they almost looked black. She had a small, upturned nose and a wide mouth that smiled more often than not. The full steel braces supported the wasted muscles in her legs.

As Rochelle moved faster and faster, like a snowball going downhill, her feet tangled, and she landed face down at the top of the wide stairway. A wave of humanity flowed toward her, arms outstretched to help. One word from the prostrate girl stopped them. “No!” she said, as she lay face down on the hard floor. I remained rooted in my vantage point at the bottom of the stairway, frozen in place, holding my breath. Rochelle lifted her head. Her eyes glistened with unshed tears as she gazed straight at me.

This amazing girl pushed herself up to a kneeling position, and with a Herculean effort, made it to her feet. This was not the first time her crippled, twisted legs betrayed her. She held her head high, accepted the dropped book a boy cautiously held out to her, and made her way up the stairway to the second floor, triumph flashing in those dark eyes. The noise level and student movement returned to normal.

The whole episode took no more than a couple minutes, but that day I learned about dignity and strength of character. I found out the meaning of determination and persistence. If Rochelle is alive today, she probably still wears her braces or may even spend her days in a wheelchair, but I feel certain her spirit is unchanged. She more than likely continues to teach life’s little lessons to a great many others, in her own quiet way.