Bonnie Bing

This teacher is someone we all can learn from

Isn't it great when you talk with someone and end up being truly inspired? Tiffany Nickel is one of those people. She is genuine and interesting, and you reflect on what she says for a long time.

I received a call from a reader who said on my voice mail that I should call Tiffany because "she's a remarkable woman and a wonderful teacher."

I also should talk to her, the caller said, because Tiffany had a recent first-time experience — the Ms. Wheelchair America Pageant. She was second runner-up out of 38 contestants.

"The owners of Kansas Truck Mobility wanted to sponsor me for the Ms. Wheelchair Kansas Pageant," she said. "I was very hesitant but decided to give it a try, and I won."

The sponsorship came about because Rita Linnens of Kansas Truck Mobility says she knew Tiffany, a long-time customer, would be a good contestant and representative of our state. "She is always positive and willing to open up and talk," she said. "She gently educates people without disabilities to have a much better understanding of those who do."

Winning the pageant that was held in Topeka in March qualified her for the Ms. Wheelchair America Pageant in Grand Rapids, Mich., in August.

She missed a couple of in-service days at Chisholm Trail Elementary at the start of this school year but says it was worth it.

"It wasn't just a pageant. It also was a learning experience," she said, explaining there were workshops on subjects such as public speaking, self-defense and mental toughness.

After hearing her story, I think she could have taught the one on mental toughness.

In 1996, she was 23 years old, had finished her degree in teaching and had taught for eight days. Her life changed dramatically when she had a diving accident, which broke her neck. Her spinal cord was damaged. She is a quadriplegic.

This came 14 months after her mother and brother were killed in a car accident.

"It became clear to me very quickly that a person should never take anything for granted," she said.

At the pageant, each contestant has a platform. Hers is twofold, and she has stressed both long before she took part in pageants.

Tiffany wants everyone to look at the capabilities a person with disabilities has. But she also wants to make sure people in wheelchairs have unconditional access to wherever they want to go.

"I want people to look at me, not my disability," she said.

Her students look at her, and while they know she will need help that other teachers might not, they don't doubt they'll learn a lot.

Tiffany teaches fourth- and fifth-grade interrelated special education. She told her students she was in the pageants and says they were excited when they saw the publicity that followed.

"The first thing we do at the beginning of the year is get acquainted," Tiffany said. "I explain what happened to me. I tell them that I will need their help and they'll need my help, and it will be a good year of helping each other."