Someone once said, “Teachers who inspire realize there will always be rocks in the road ahead of us. They will be stumbling blocks or stepping stones; it all depends on how we use them.”
Nothing could be closer to the truth for John Sykes, a first-grade teacher at Parmelee Elementary School in the Oklahoma City School District.
Sykes, 49, of Yukon, Okla., received a diagnosis of myotonic muscular dystrophy in 1989 before having back surgery for a ruptured disk. Although he’d experienced minor symptoms, Sykes didn’t think there was reason to be alarmed.
In high school, Sykes ran track and played other sports. In the five years before receiving his diagnosis, he was a body-builder in prime physical condition, and worked in an aircraft parts factory.
“About three to four years after the surgery, I started getting weaker, and the muscles started to atrophy,” Sykes explained. “I wasn’t able to lift weights or work out anymore. The doctor told me that any muscle tissue that would tear wouldn’t repair itself.”
When one door closes ... another opens
Because of these symptoms, Sykes was forced to quit his job. He decided to attend college fulltime — to become a teacher.
After graduating from Southern Nazarene University in Bethany, Okla., in 1994, Sykes started out teaching third grade. His classroom was on the second floor, and at first he didn’t have any trouble going up the stairs. But, after four years, he needed to move to a building without stairs.
At Parmelee since the 1998-99 school year, he teaches first grade, which has been a great fit.
“The kids are just great, and it’s so rewarding,” he said. “You may think that they’re not listening, but then later on they’ll say stuff, and you realize that they were listening after all.”
Three years ago, Sykes began using a power wheelchair for mobility. He now struggles to lift most items, but 25 first-graders are more than willing to lend a hand.
“They’re so helpful,” he added. “They just want to please Mr. Sykes.”
Sykes, who leaves his wheelchair in his classroom, uses an overhead projector because he can’t stand at the blackboard for very long. He also has arranged the students’ desks in a horseshoe configuration open at the front of the classroom, making it easier to move from desk to desk and interact with each student.
“I think the principal likes the fact that he has an employee that is physically challenged so that the kids are exposed to that in the school setting,” Sykes explained. “They’ve gotten used to seeing me in a power chair, so if they see it outside of school, it won’t faze them because they know that’s a part of life for some people.”
Rewards come in small packages
Although Sykes didn’t set out to become a teacher, he can’t think of anything he’d rather be doing right now. Because of his physical condition, though, Sykes has debated whether to continue teaching. His doctor said he needs to avoid stress, but that’s the ultimate challenge when you’re in a classroom all day with 25 energetic first-graders.
“There’s no way you can teach and not be under a lot of stress,” Sykes said. “There are so many things that you’re required to do, and it’s getting harder for me to stand up and put things on the board.”
Stress or no stress, Sykes can’t deny his loyalty to the students and his desire to help them want to learn. He’s turned life’s stumbling blocks into his own stepping stones toward fulfillment.
Now in his 12th year of teaching, Sykes thought about retiring at the end of last year, but “I had some parents that just won’t let me quit.”
At the end of the school year, “each child comes up to me one at a time and reads,” Sykes said. “That’s the most rewarding time of the year because I get to see how much they’ve improved since the beginning, and I get to see how excited they are to read.
“That’s when you feel like you’ve really accomplished something.”