By Brad Hughes
For the several hundred board members and superintendents at the Sunday closing brunch of the KSBA annual conference, Roger Crawford was the perfect bridge between the humorous life lessons of opening conference speaker Dale Henry and the somber, motivational message of plenary session speaker Wes Moore.
Born with a medical condition affecting his limbs from the elbows and knees down, Crawford roamed the conference stage on an artificial leg and punched home points with hand gestures and stories that had audience members alternating between laughter and deeper thought.
In one story, he recalled when his daughter informed him that she had agreed to have him address her third-grade class. Although delighted, he asked her if she was worried how her classmates would react to his hands. “Daddy, you were born to be an inspirational speaker. You’ve got a peace sign on one hand and a thumbs-up on the other,” she said.
Crawford said it had taken him five years to learn how to walk and he only learned how to tie his shoes at age 16 after encouragement by a teacher. “Two years after I learned to tie my shoes, someone invented Velcro,” he said to peals of laughter.
The only American with a severe disability ever to play both Division 1 NCAA college and professional tennis, Crawford told of a high school football game in which he was returning a fumble 95 yards for a touchdown when an opposing player caught up to him and grabbed his artificial leg – pulling it loose and sending him hopping into the end zone. It was that story that got Crawford featured in the first edition of the book series, Chicken Soup for the Soul.
But most of Crawford’s remarks revolved around this theme: “Part of the human experience is that all of us are going to experience adversity. Challenges are inevitable but I’m convinced that defeat is optional,” he said. “We very rarely achieve more than we believe we can.”
A series of questions by a Canadian border crossing guard has become a staple in Crawford’s speeches.
Where are you coming from? “We cannot live in the past, but I think that all of us would agree that we can be inspired by and learn from the past. I once was introduced to a teacher of 40 years, and I asked her, ‘How did you stay inspired for 40 years as a classroom teacher?’ She said, ‘Well, I was a first-year teacher 40 times.’ She went on to explain that every year she reflected on how she felt the first time her students walked into the classroom.
How long have you been there? “It’s been a challenging few years for educators. How often have you heard someone say, ‘Oh, I’ll be a lot more positive when things get back to normal?’ Our past experiences teach us that normal is ahead of us, not behind us. That’s why I believe that coming together at this conference is so vitally important because it allows us to better our best, to improve, to never stand still.”
Where are you going? “It’s important to never let our memories be more important than our future. As we look into the future as school board members, what you anticipate greatly influences who you’ll be and what your attitude will be. Schools are important and you understand goals or wouldn’t be here today. Goals require an intellectual commitment – but purpose requires an emotional commitment.”
Crawford said his hands and legs have been more blessing than burden. “This is the way I was born. This is what I was given. The truth is if there was surgery tomorrow to give me normal hands and normal legs, I wouldn’t do it.”
And Crawford told his audience of board members and superintendents that they were a blessing to children, even if they didn’t see their work that way.
“For many of the children here in Kentucky who you serve, the safest part of the day is when they walk into your schools. It’s the best part of the day as the only time they will hear an encouraging word or a pat on the back. You make that possible. Often times, the difference you make in the lives of children is something that you may not be there to see,” he said. “But as school board members, remember the thousands of students’ lives that are better because of you. That’s what I find inspiring.”