Last night, I heard the news of Stephen Hawking’s passing. He and I had been corresponding these past few weeks and I knew he had been ill. As a teacher of medically fragile students, I know how even the simplest of illnesses can wear down a fragile body.
But that fragile body was home to one of the great minds in the history of this planet. And the home of one of the strongest wills you can imagine.
When I met with Dr. Hawking at his office in Cambridge I was in awe of his patience. To speak he had to use a cheek muscle to move his cursor through the alphabet. His entire ability to communicate was down to a raised eyebrow for yes and moving the cursor with his cheek.
To type a “Z” meant moving the cursor through 25 other letters. I told him I didn’t know how he did it. I would never have the patience. His eyes twinkled as he typed out a message to me, “I’ve written three books on this thing.”
He was a funny man and enjoyed a good joke. He was proud of the photos lining his office walls with presidents, first ladies, prime ministers and more—but said he was not interested in meeting our current president. He was not afraid to be political and he did not seem to suffer fools.
I met with him because of our shared interest in voice output devices. My class had nine students using them. Dr. Hawking was always my example to them of why they had to work hard to master their speaking devices. “If Dr. Hawking did not use his talker,” I would tell them, “nobody would know he was the smartest man in the world.”
I recently told the story of Louise, one of my students who uses a talking machine and loved Justin Bieber. When I told Dr. Hawking about that amazing student he was incredibly impressed—so impressed that he actually made a video for her. Using his cheek to type he sent a personal message to Louise that she should keep using her talker.
The smartest man in the world understood. There are quiet people with special needs all over this planet of ours. Inside them are hidden talents and immense intelligence that can be difficult to see, and even harder for them to share.
Stephen Hawking is my example of how you can never know what gifts hide inside a body that might hold its owner trapped. The video he made for my student is my example of how you can be a shining light to others even in your darkest times.
The world is mourning the loss of one of our great minds today.
But there is something else we have lost, the great example that every special education teacher holds dear in their hearts. Great things dwell inside of our students. Give us the technology and the funding we need to reach every student. Every person has value. Every person is worthy of investment.
Every person can be a hero. And every person needs a hero, but yesterday I lost mine.