What does it take to become extraordinary?
Extraordinary circumstances? Gifts? Character?
Are many people extraordinarily something or other—graceful, funny, wise, determined? And if so, do they all discover this, or does it take some enormous challenge to bring the “extraordinariness” out?
Maybe you have the answer. I don’t. All I know is that each year, I attend the Hunter College commencement ceremonies—even the one that happened just this week for midyear graduates. The event requires hankies and big lungs, because there is so much crying and cheering as we hear the stories of the most extraordinary students. And the one I must share with you here is Isamar Tamayo’s.
Isamar grew up in the New York City borough of Queens, the daughter of immigrants from Puebla, Mexico. In her sophomore year of high school, she started to complain of feeling sick and exhausted. What she thought was the ordinary flu turned out to be leukemia.
For a year and a half, Isamar valiantly battled the disease, which, for a while, paralyzed her. She couldn’t speak, and she couldn’t write. The only way she could answer a question was by blinking: one blink for yes; two for no. Then, one day, when she was trying to call out for her mom—the words came out. Gradually, Isamar recovered the use of her voice—and her arms, legs, fingers and toes. But she never forgot how it felt to be locked in and disabled.
At Mount Sinai Hospital, as she was learning to walk and write again, a teacher named Elise Clement encouraged her to keep up with her studies and not give up on her dream to become the first in her family to go to college. Defying all odds, Isamar graduated high school on time, 15th in her class of 300. And she was accepted at Hunter.
Isamar threw herself into her studies there. But she was still suffering from the side effects of the intense cancer treatment, and her bones were deteriorating. Soon she found herself unable to walk, and the only answer was to replace both hips.
She was back on her feet when tragedy struck again and her leukemia returned. The best treatment was a bone marrow transplant. Fortunately, her cousin was a bone marrow match. The transplant required more hospitalization, of course, and Isamar had to put her studies on hold. This time, Ms. Clement, the hospital teacher, helped her fill out her school withdrawal forms.
But nothing was going to stop Isamar from getting her education. She got back her strength, she worked hard, and now she is not only walking around Hunter but also walks to Hunter, crossing the 59th Street Bridge into Manhattan. That’s the same bridge Simon & Garfunkel sang about in “Feelin’ Groovy.” Which is exactly what Isamar was feeling.
This past Thursday, with the support of her amazing family, Isamar graduated with a very lovely grade-point average (3.3!) and a commitment to helping disabled kids just like Ms. Clement helped her in the hospital. And as a special surprise for her, as she stood in her cap and gown on the graduation stage, Hunter College President Jennifer Raab invited someone from behind the curtains to come out and congratulate her.
It was Ms. Clement, the hospital teacher. She walked over and gave Isamar a huge bouquet of flowers.
That’s why you need Kleenex at these Hunter graduations. And strong lungs so you can cheer and cheer and cheer. Because some people, faced with extraordinary circumstances, reveal how extraordinary they are.