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I have learned more about myself by laughing with handicapable and special needs people than I have in any classroom. I have learned first-hand how powerful a force hope is, how wondrous optimism can be, and how to transcend all communication barriers with a simple smile. I am a lifeguard, and I work for an aquatic center.

Working in the aquatic center’s “warm springs” therapy pool has exposed me to people of all ages, races, mental capabilities, and physical abilities. I have taught swimming lessons to people more than three times my age, as well as those a third of my age. And throughout all of this, there have been certain people who have made my days brighter and my heart lighter.

Wayne can’t straighten his spine and drools if he drinks too much water at a time. But he can kick his feet to get himself from one end of the pool to the other, and every time a lifeguard arrives to rotate into the pool he waves and greets them with a smile. He and a similarly handicapable friend of his race in the pool, with one of their caregivers announcing “Swimmers, ready–take your marks–GO!”

Daisy buses to the aquatic center every Saturday and Sunday morning to swim for a few precious hours. When she arrives she lets me know what time she needs to get out in order to catch her bus, and I promise to keep an eye on the clock for her. Her body is malformed, and her brain is not fully developed, but her smile is beautiful. On her face I have seen the purest joy, over something as simple as a peanut butter and jelly sandwich with extra jelly. She can’t tell time, but she can tell stories with just a smile.

Communicating with mentally disabled people can be a challenging experience, but it is equally rewarding. Wayne can’t speak my name, but he’s excited to see me every time I walk into the pool to rotate the current guard. I always take a moment to say hello, and even though he doesn’t respond with words his eyes always greet me with a sparkle. Daisy can’t remember my name, but she is always excited to tell me what she has for lunch that day and offers to share her pretzels.

I am incredibly lucky to be physically and mentally capable, and until I worked at the aquatic center I didn’t realize it. Yet the people who are less physically capable or less mentally acute are in no way bitter or jaded by their experiences–in fact, they are more positive and more optimistic than many people I know with much more fortunate circumstances.

I used to want to be able to fix them, or make them better, but that was an immature assessment. Daisy doesn’t need fixing, and Wayne is the best he can be. Though they have had different circumstances than I, their overwhelming positivity and constant smiles have brought me through many days and made me more grateful for the small things that make life worth living.

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