In his dreams, he’s walking and running. In reality, it’s one wheel at a time.
Trevor McKay described his dreams, his reality and how “we’re all the same, we’re all different” in front of some 400 sixth graders at an anti-bullying assembly at the Hommocks Middle School on January 8.
Trevor McKay began the packed assembly at Hommocks by performing a piano piece he had learned to play in the Commons when he was a student at the middle school 17 years ago. It was only when he re-positioned himself from the piano to his wheelchair and the microphone that the 6th graders could see how getting himself up and onto his feet was not so simple.
“I have no feeling from the knees down,” explained Mr. McKay, who has suffered from spina bifida since birth. Though he’s wheelchair bound now, he used crutches and braces to make his way through elementary school, switching to a wheelchair full-time when he entered the Hommocks. “I can move my legs, but cannot move my feet or wriggle my toes.”
Sitting at the piano, his disability seemed temporarily at bay. But now, as he spoke, it was easier for the students to imagine what it would mean to be in a wheelchair and how he might have experienced bullying when he was growing up.
Anti-bullying was the theme of the assembly, and Mr. McKay had particular insights to impart.
Had he been bullied in middle school, asked Hommocks Assistant Principal Dr. Nora Mazzone, moderator for the discussion. “Of course,” he said, reflecting how one particular bully had tormented him beginning in fifth grade at Chatsworth Elementary School.
“He would say all kinds of mean things to me about being in a wheelchair, as well as other things,” recalled Mr. McKay. “When we made it to the Hommocks, I finally had enough. I was so frustrated and angry that I lashed out and said something completely inappropriate and mean to him. He ended up telling the principal, who called me down. In the end, we were both suspended.
“Fifteen years later he showed up at my doorstep to apologize,” continued Mr. McKay. “He said he had been thinking about how he treated me for many years and just wanted to say he was sorry. My brothers and I invited him to come in our home and stay for a while. He said no thanks and walked away. I haven’t seen him since.”
In telling this story, both Mr. McKay and Dr. Mazzone came to the conclusion (one that is often discussed in smaller conversations with students at the Hommocks) that bullies really don’t feel good about themselves inside. “The truth is that I think this boy felt so badly about himself that he wanted to make me feel that way as well,” Mr. McKay said.
We’re All The Same – We’re All Different
According to Dr. Mazzone, Mr. McKay was invited to the assembly to help convey the message that “We’re all the same – and we’re all different.” The assembly was a new addition to the Hommocks’ Project ABLE (Anti-Bullying Leadership Experience) program, which includes a variety of initiatives pairing eighth grade peer leaders with sixth graders to openly discuss issues and solutions around bullying.
Later, Mr. McKay visited many of the sixth grade classrooms, where the peer leaders were guiding conversations about students’ impressions of the assembly. Students discussed their definitions of bullying and whether they had experienced it themselves.
The peer leaders had been trained as facilitators in a four-hour workshop held by Hommocks Principal Dr. Seth Weitzman, Dr. Mazzone and Assistant Principal Edgar McIntosh. The eighth graders are now visiting sixth grade classrooms once a month. The training involved sessions on disabilities led by Dr. Mazzone (prior to Mr. McKay’s visit), conflict resolution skills led by Mr. McIntosh and bullying awareness and prevention led by Dr. Weitzman. Classroom sessions will alternate around these three topics for the year.
“It’s very effective because the sixth graders really look up to the eighth graders,” Dr. Weitzman said. “Bullying sometimes is considered a normal component of adolescence, but at Hommocks we make sure to establish a culture in which students know that it’s not tolerated in any way.”
Mr. McKay said he was painfully aware of his disability growing up: he had to learn how to get himself up off the floor if he fell down when no one was there to help; he was constantly visiting doctors, and they routinely had to wrap his whole body in plaster to create a mold for his brace, which needed to be replaced every time he grew the slightest bit.
Nevertheless, Mr. McKay felt he was the same as everyone else. He enjoyed skateboarding, baseball and skiing, among other things, and hanging out with the boys after school on the playground. The Hommocks students laughed when he said he didn’t worry about coming to school in his wheelchair, but rather because he felt his nose was too large for his face.
Hommocks sixth grader Alex Corbin said the assembly had a huge impact on her. She believes students benefited from realizing it’s OK to be different and that “nobody should make fun of you because of your differences.”
She added, “It was so great that he took the time to come to our school to tell us his story. It probably wasn’t easy for him. I took it very deep. It was interesting to hear what it would be like to come from where he came from. It made my friends and me feel thankful.”
Being in a wheelchair has become so natural for Mr. McKay that he sometimes forgets he’s in one until he’s wheeling around Larchmont and sees his reflection in a store window. It’s only then that his “double” comes alive.
“Because of my disability, I’m very visible,” Mr. McKay says. “So I’ve used that since I was very little to shine lights on things I believe in.”
Mr. McKay has been active in the community and has spoken in front of large groups since he was very young. At 20, he was the youngest person ever to be appointed to the Larchmont-Mamaroneck Human Rights Commission. He worked in the call room as a volunteer for the Larchmont Fire Department, has played piano at St. Augustine’s Church for more than a decade and performs throughout Larchmont.
“Music is how I express myself. I turn to it when I’m sad, angry, happy or scared.” Mr. McKay said.
No matter what he does, Mr. McKay does it with gusto.
Following the assembly, he joined classroom discussions, stayed for lunch in the cafeteria and was bombarded with questions from students wanting to talk with him in the Commons.
“My favorite questions usually are those that don’t have anything to do with my disability, ” he said. “Such as what’s your favorite TV show?, because then I know they’ve got it. They understand that in many ways we’re really not so different. It’s beautiful to see that they’ve moved on and aren’t just viewing me as the guy in the wheelchair,” he added.
“This time, after they asked me what the worst part of being in a wheelchair was, they asked me what I liked best about it. I told them, ’I always have a seat’. They got a kick out of that.”
Debbie Manetta is public information officer for the Mamaroneck School District.