September 25, 2003
New Haven Register
Christina Ferraro reached into a plastic aquarium and pulled out a small white shell.
As she placed it in her palm, two tiny claws poked through from inside.
Class, say good morning to Jacques, the hermit crab.
"Heís our class pet," said Ferraro, as her group of sixth-graders took turns handling the crustacean.
Ferraro promised the students they can bring Jacques home as a reward for good grades and behavior.
But only after they finish taking the Connecticut Mastery Test this month.
"We canít wait until CMTs are over. Then the real fun starts," she said with a smile.
Ferraro, 35, who has multiple sclerosis and teaches from her wheelchair, savors every moment she spends as a teacher at Nathan Hale K-8 School, where up until last year she worked as a teacherís aide.
She navigates the handicapped-accessible hallways with speed and precision, but her journey to the classroom has been anything but smooth.
Nearly five years ago, Ferraro returned to college to finish her bachelorís degree, despite debilitating symptoms that sometimes robbed her vision and made it difficult to move. When her condition worsened during her studies, doctors advised her to quit. Ferraro refused and worked harder, overcoming a missed semester and later, discrimination when she tried to get a job.
"I didnít want to die without a bachelorís degree, or without becoming a teacher," said Ferraro, who suffers from a severe form of the disease.
Ferraro will be honored today with the MS Achievement Award by the National MS Society, Greater Connecticut Chapter. Her stepdaughter and sister-in-law nominated her. The award recognizes "what people with MS can and do accomplish in their personal and professional lives," according to the organizationís literature.
MS is a progressive disease that affects the central nervous system.
"I think a lot of people hide (after being diagnosed) and itís sad," said Ferraro, who was diagnosed at age 22.
Getting her teaching credentials was only the first hurdle. Last fall, the schoolís former administration initially passed her over for a teaching job, questioning whether her condition and demanding treatment would interfere with her performance.
"I had recommendation after recommendation and wonderful reviews. (The staff) at Nathan Hale couldnít believe it," she said.
While continuing to work as an aide, she took her case to the associate superintendentís office, citing the Americans with Disabilities Act. Last December, she was hired to teach small group remedial classes at Nathan Hale, where her daughters, Jocelyn, 11, and Jessica, 13, attend school.
"I got a letter from (Associate Superintendent of Schools Eleanor) Osborne saying that they wanted paraprofessionals to get their (teaching) degrees. I got so angry that I called her," she said. She was hired that day.
"She basically asked me ĎWhere do you want to work?í "
Ferraro, whose mother died of complications from MS in 1986 (although the disease typically is not fatal), said she watched MS sap her motherís spirit and force her out of a long career in teaching. She was diagnosed at a time when public buildings rarely accommodated people with disabilities.
"My mother never left the house. Seeing what happened to her, I go everywhere," she said.
When she could no longer manage the 120-mile drive to Springfield College for two weekends each month to attend her teaching courses, co-workers took turns with Ferraroís family shuttling her back and forth.
Her colleaguesí husbands also built a wheelchair ramp at her house, located half a block from the school, so she could continue to get around her neighborhood.
During treatments, she attended classes while hooked up to an IV.
Today, Ferraro is by many accounts one of Nathan Haleís most popular teachers.
Kids think her wheelchair is "cool," and she often regales them with stories ó like the time her chair motor malfunctioned in New York City and she got stuck spinning circles on 57th Street. She answers their questions about her disability directly.
"I have MS and my legs are very weak so I have a lot more fun if Iím in a wheelchair," she responded to one studentís inquiry this week.
She said she has faced more intolerance from adults than she ever has witnessed from children.
"She makes everything fun,íí said student Isaac Wilson. "She feeds us. You can go in her desk and sheís got cookies for us later."
Margaret Mary Gethings, a staff developer at the school, said few who truly know Ferraro ever doubted her success.
"Everyone just thinks, ĎCan we keep up with her?í " Gethings said.
Ferraro, too, is confident she has proven her worth and said the new administration at the school is supportive.
"Itís just amazing here," she said.
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