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Rising above it all

Rising above it all
Rising above it all
Dr. Wayne Willis

“No pessimist ever discovered the secret of the stars, or sailed to an uncharted land, or opened a new doorway for the human spirit.” —Helen Keller

Thirty years ago, Karen Northcraft, a psychiatric social worker in Evansville, taped 20 hours of interviews with a West Virginia girl named Elizabeth. The subject of Northcraft’s doctoral dissertation, Elizabeth became a widely-known case study in beating the odds and exceeding expectations.

Elizabeth was abandoned by her mother and reared by an abusive aunt and uncle. The aunt administered bone-breaking beatings. The uncle, when she was 8, began five years of nightly sexual assaults.

Elizabeth’s main source of self-respect was her long, blonde curls. In the fourth grade, when her aunt shaved her head, Elizabeth reached a kind of tipping point. Something inside her said, “Enough! I can do better than this.”

When the school counselor told her she was dirty, having no bathtub at home, she went out for the swimming team so she could get a daily shower. Too impoverished to hope ever to own a clarinet, she joined the school band, ready to learn to play whatever spare instrument the school had available.

Northcraft named children like Elizabeth “transcenders,” children who do well in spite of conditions that crush many at-risk children. Transcenders think for themselves, reject behaviors and expectations of the negative people around them and determine to find or create a more excellent path forward.

I hurt with students who were cheated out of their senior prom or pomp-and-circumstance graduation and especially athletes cheated out of their field hockey or football senior season by the pandemic.

Transcenders smart and mope for a time. Then, they suck it up and start picking up the pieces. They rise above it (what transcend means) and begin again, wiser and more empathic.