Struggles and Triumph
“Nobody understands. Everyone’s acting like nothing happened. I think everyone has forgotten, or they just don’t care,” expressed one student. “I am having some problems with my mom. She doesn’t listen to me,” another explained.
It was September 11, 2003. And I was at John Bowne High School in Queens, NY, where two years earlier I first provided counseling to students. I was there to listen and offer a safe place for students to express their feelings. I was helping them try to understand that day of immeasurable tragedy on September 11, 2001, when I remember feeling like the world was ending.
After the last student left, on my way home, I reflected on a past personal experience—a time when life as I knew it suddenly changed. I was finishing my senior year of high school, and planning to go to Vassar in the fall. On a sunny day at the end of May, Mike and I—two carefree teenagers—went for a motorcycle ride, without a worry in our world. But Mike turned a corner too fast, too wide. We lost our lane. Suddenly, a car appeared in our view, driving toward us. There was a huge crash. And the bike erupted in flames.
The hospital report that day read: The patient is 17 years old … brought by the rescue squad, unconscious, with bilateral decerabrate posturing after being involved in a motorcycle accident …. The patient has a very severe closed head injury with direct involvement to the brain stem and mid-brain level … the prognosis for survival is very guarded. Family members were notified.
Vassar College was informed—and responded with prayers of support.
Weeks passed. And I remained comatose. And then, suddenly, there was a return: a reemergence. Without speech, without the ability to walk, I regained consciousness. The next several months involved rehabilitation. My speech slowly returned, and I was taken in a wheelchair to physical and occupational therapy every day. I yearned to leave this unfamiliar reality that overwhelmed me, with a desire to return to my original plan: to attend Vassar.
The Vassar administration and faculty continued to express support. In an aura of uncertainty, my plan went forward. A semester late, and what felt like a lifetime later, I went to Vassar in January 1983. That first semester included all that Vassar had to offer—an intense curriculum, top-notch professors, and a deep commitment to the unique abilities and challenges of each student.
I grew up playing sports, fiercely focused on competing and deeply driven to win. I was the starting left halfback on my high-school soccer team. My interest in winning extended to verbal battlefields. I was driven to argue. Law always felt like a natural for me. And so, during my first semester, I registered for courses that included political science and psychology.
In the fall of my second year, I tried out for soccer and made the team. I also continued to focus on my studies. But when I turned in my midterms, expecting the above-average grades I had become used to, I failed all my exams. Suddenly, there was an overwhelming sense of confusion—like I wasn’t consciously processing information again. What was going on? Had I reached my limit, surpassed my cognitive abilities? Had I just taken on too much?
In despair, I turned to Tom McGlinchey, who, with his consistent sensitivity, listened and heard me. He directed me to schedule an appointment with Dean Colton Johnson. Nervously, I went to his office, worried that I’d have to drop out. I told him about my accident, my significantly valuable experiences with young children at the Vassar Child Care Cooperative, playing soccer, and, most recently, failing my midterms. When I stopped, he said, “I think you have done great. You need to drop a class … and play soccer … and work with children.”
I sat in shock. Tears began flowing down my face. Hope, it seemed, was returning. I survived that fourth semester. I passed my classes and stayed at Vassar, graduating with a B.A. incorporating child development and child psychology with an independent major entitled “Personality Formation: Biological and Social Influences.” I continued my education at Purdue University to obtain a Ph.D. in counseling. I recently graduated from law school, and as I focus on new directions, I remember it was at Vassar that I came to understand what it means to meet a person where she is, to value an individual’s strengths and be present to listen, offer help, and meet the challenges of success.
With a Ph.D. in counseling, and most recently a juris doctorate, Claudine Craig has worked with different populations of children in theraputic, educational, and advocacy settings.