The referee’s whistle rang out, the grappling began and before he knew what was happening, Marty Wittman was dropped on his head.
On the day he’d waited for so long, the day he’d trained for so hard, Marty Wittman had broken his neck.
He lay sprawled on the wrestling mat, gasping for air, paralyzed from the waist down.
It would have taken many people years to adjust mentally and physically to life without the use of their legs. But not Wittman.
Tired of lying idle in a hospital bed agonizing over an uncertain future, he set a goal for himself for inspiration:
He vowed to graduate on time with his class at Curtis High School.
“I wasn’t going to sit back and do nothing,” he said. “I was determined to keep going, no matter what.”
And keep going he did. Teachers from the Puyallup School District tutored him during his six months in Good Samaritan Hospital, and he received academic credits that his high school accepted. Even physical rehabilitation earned him physical education credits.
Though most would call it exceptional under the circumstances, Wittman’s 3.2 grade-point average at the end of his sophomore year was disappointing to him. Before the accident, the modest, soft-spoken Wittman remembered with a shy smile, he was carrying about a 3.7.
“I’d worked so hard to keep my average up,” he said. “It really hurt to have it fall.”
After that tough year, Wittman promised himself he’d do better academically. The fact he was often drowsy with painkillers and other medication during classes wasn’t going to stand in his way. And neither was the sudden, rough transition to being wheelchair-bound.
Wittman kept his promise: When he graduated with his class in 1985, his grade-point average was 3.6.
Wittman had not only survived, but he also had met his goal of graduating with high marks and had made great progress in adapting to life without the use of his legs.
Time to take a rest, right?
Marty Wittman set his sights on becoming a teacher.
“I don’t know what it was, but I just had to be like one of the great teachers I had going to school,” he said. “You know, the ones who were patient, encouraging, inspiring? To be a teacher was something else to push for.”
He didn’t know just how hard he would have to push. During the next 10 years, he got married and had a child, attended college part time, sold wheelchairs for a Kent company and was a teacher’s assistant at a grade school. In 1993, he graduated from Pierce College and in 1995 earned his bachelor’s degree in teaching from Central Washington University in Ellensburg.
After receiving the degree and flooding the market with his resume, Wittman was forced to do something he has never been good at:
Wait and do nothing.
“The whole summer I waited and the phone didn’t ring. It was so frustrating,” he said.
But on Aug. 28, two days before school started, the call came; Marty Wittman was going to be a teacher at Graham Elementary in the Bethel School District.
“I was really shocked,” he said. “The summer was over, I thought I was out of luck for the year. I can’t tell you how happy I was.”
Adjusting to life as a teacher in a wheelchair provides Wittman with plenty of new challenges every day. Some of those challenges are so subtle, he said, many might not even recognize them.
For example, he had to ask this question of a colleague during lunch in the teachers’ lounge:
“Excuse me, but can you put this (salmon loaf) in the microwave for me? They’re supposed to put it (the microwave) on a lower shelf, but they haven’t gotten around to it yet.”
“It’s the little things I used to take for granted that give me trouble sometimes,” Wittman said.
But Graham Elementary staff members have agreed to make any changes around the school that will make it easier for Wittman to get around - and to eat his lunch.
Still, one challenge he alone faces is the natural curiosity of the fifth-graders in his social studies, math, language arts, science and health classes.
Said Wittman: “When I first got here they would ask, ‘Why are you in a wheelchair? What happened to you?’ Kids don’t have any inhibitions and will ask anything.”
So he wouldn’t have to answer the questions every day, Wittman told each of his classes about the wrestling accident during the first week of school but the questions continue.
“Now they want to know how I drive,” Wittman said, laughing. “One of these days I’m going to have to take them out to my car and show them.”
How he drives isn’t as complicated as the children might think. A long lever located to the left of his steering wheel is connected to the car accelerator and the brake. To accelerate, he pulls the lever forward; to brake, he pulls the lever back. That’s it.
What goals does Wittman have as an elementary school teacher?
“These kids have so much energy. I just want to keep my head above water for now,” he said.
Wally Platt, Graham Elementary principal, has no doubt Wittman will continue to succeed.
“He has such a strong will and such a positive attitude,” he said.