By Janet Pelz
I met Mary-Ellen Buchanan prepared for an interview with a gifted teacher of children with exceptional needs, but within moments of settling down with our coffees, the conversation took its own path.
For me this became less of a story about her professional calling than a broader story about the webs of support that we create, taking turns both doing the holding and allowing others to hold us. Committing to the idea that no one is beyond, beyond needing help, beyond being worthy of it; beyond the limitations we thought that age or mental or physical development brought with them.
This is how we started.
In a soft voice edged with reminders of Queens, Mary-Ellen tells me, “I’m a power lifter -- I’m a competitive power lifter. I’ve won a world championship and I have Washington State records.”
Mary-Ellen is 66 years old. She stands a mere 5’1”.
“It’s all age and weight,” she explains. In the 61 – 67 year-old division, she’ll compete in the 105 – 114 pound weight class for just one more year. The next division will take her to age 75. “You should see those older athletes -- unbelievable. It’s quite amazing what they do.” After that she’ll compete against every woman older than 75 in her weight class. No more divisions, just lots of opportunities to outdo herself. Again.
In 2008 she bench pressed 132 pounds, eclipsing her previous state records of 110 and 115 pounds. “Now I want a fourth state record. I would like to get the world record, which is now 165 pounds. I used to think it’s out of my range, but now I’m thinking it’s possible.”
She pushes a bar loaded with significantly more than her body weight from her chest while lying, back tightly arched against a bench. Under her wrestling singlet she wears a special shirt so tight it takes her coach several minutes to dress her. Once in it, her arms are almost immobile (she demonstrates for me with a kind of zombie walk, arms straight out ahead). The only thing they can do is press the weight. Up. The weight her coach Joe Head hands her in the meet. How many pounds Mary-Ellen doesn’t ask. She trusts Joe implicitly to know what she can do.
Mary-Ellen Buchanan competing in the World Championships, 2008, with coach Joe Head spotting
While Mary-Ellen embraces the work that’s required – three work-outs a week of between 2 – 3 hours each in the gym and running the other days – she gives the pace and flow of these work-outs completely to her coach, a former pro football player who now runs his own gym, High Performance HQ Fitness in South Seattle.
“You got a coach, you do what he says. He has the goal in mind; he’s always fine-tuning. As you get close to a meet, you start your shirt, you start working on the weight you’re going to lift. I’m trying not ask how much weight is on the bar, I’m just doing what I’m told -- he handles all the numbers. Whatever the next one is, it’s Joe’s determination.” Where’s the next meet? “I don’t know what Joe’s got in mind for me. But we’ll definitely do the World Championships in Las Vegas in the fall of 2011.”
Mary-Ellen started lifting in 1987 after suffering a running injury. Training with Joe since 2000, she didn’t start competing until 2006. What factored into her decision to go competitive? “Joe said I could do it,” she answered matter-of-factly. “He said I had the ability. I remember Joe saying, you know, the Washington State record in your age group is 75 pounds, and I thought, oh man, I can do that! That was a little tease.
“I never competed in anything, except running. I used to do marathons. But I’m not the fastest runner, by any stretch. I’m steady. And, you know, growing up, we didn’t have Title IX. I didn’t play soccer, I didn’t do any of that stuff.
“But I really love weight lifting -- neurologically, I think it suits me perfectly. It is so centering both physically and mentally. You’re holding that weight -- it’s just all that proprioception,” she exclaims, throwing out a term that requires definition. “It’s how your body feels things in space. I just feel the weight go all through me,” she says, swiping her hands down the opposite arms. “It just feels good.”
Mary-Ellen is tuned into ideas like neurological fit and proprioception. When she’s not power lifting, she works as an early childhood special educator at the Boyer Children’s Clinic, a non-profit therapy and early childhood educational facility serving children who have neuromuscular disorders such as cerebral palsy or delay in development.
The work at Boyer “is very physical, very physical. I’m lifting kids, sometimes I lift kids in their chairs. I don’t have a bad back. At work, you have to get up and down off the floor a lot. I said, Joe, I really gotta do legs, and you know what? Since we added legs, my knees do not hurt at all. It’s great because this is a job you don’t see old people doing. I thank Joe for that,” she adds, laughing. “And I always say, I have no plans for retirement -- not a thought in my mind. I tell him, Joe, you’re my old age insurance!”
Most of the kids she works with have vision impairments. “I work on their cognitive, visual and social skills. I want them to be able to look at what I show them, shift their visual intentions so they can scan their environment, and then I want them to be able to choose between options. Do you want the ball or do you want the baby?”
This is how she met Jonah Israel, whose mother’s life was transformed by Mary-Ellen’s work. Said Joyce when I wrote about her for How Does She Do It? last May:
“I remember, we walked into her classroom and she held up these two objects in front of Jonah and she said brightly, ‘Jonah, which of these do you like, do you like the blue (pointing to one hand) or the green (pointing to the other)?’ And I thought, lady, what, are you on drugs? My kid is a vegetable, what are you doing? And do you know, within six months, Jonah was turning his head, making a decision between the blue and the green? She gave me hope. This woman changed my attitude about my child in a huge way. I came to understand that there was somebody home. And gradually, gradually, I learned how to love him.”
On Tuesday and Thursdays, she does home visits of children, some of whom may be too sick to come to school. Often, these families have come to Seattle from places far away -- Somalia, Viet Nam, Ethiopia. “I love going into any foreigner’s home because it feels like I’m traveling and I love traveling.”
For these and others, Mary-Ellen is often the person who can help an overwhelmed family learn how to decipher and attend to their children’s special needs. “What I really enjoy and I’m good at is working with the families. I mean, it’s very painful. You’re the first teacher, it’s an important time in their lives. I get that and I get the pain. Yes, my job has a sadness to it, but I am also often struck by the resiliency and strength of the families. It is a privilege when they let me into their lives.”
Mary-Ellen singing the ‘Shout and Whisper” song here and the ‘Umbrella Song’ below. The songs allow kids to make choices during music/circle time and encourage social interactions.
Advancements for these kids don’t come in a straight line. “They can do something real good one day and the next day they have a seizure and it’s all gone. But it’s still worth it to just keep plugging ahead. Because if you’re plugging ahead, the parent is so glad to have someone plugging ahead for their kid. You’re not saying, well, this child’s not going to make it, so why bother.”
Mary-Ellen and several of her colleagues are trained in Reiki, a Japanese technique for healing and stress reduction. It’s a practice she calls upon daily, at home, at work, at the gym. “There was a boy who would come to my classroom -- he has since died. He was the only one there and we would put a towel on the table, turn the lights down and I would just treat him with Reiki for the hour. It’s just something I could do. It was important not to write off that kid or his family.
“I see a lot of these kids being written off. Some would say, why are you working so hard? I’d say, we know what he can’t do, that’s pretty obvious, let’s find out what he can do.”
In her life, Joe helps Mary-Ellen find out what she can do and he’ll push her to get there. He won’t write her off because of her age, or her size. And Mary-Ellen never gives up on herself.
“I got injured once at a meet. I’ve never been one to say, ok, I got hurt, I gotta stop. I say, what do I need to do to fix it? I rehabbed that shoulder for a year. My shoulder is probably stronger now than it was.”
At this age, Mary-Ellen has already lived longer than both her parents. In addition to her exercise schedule, she eats a low fat diet, and with a husband who is a really good cook, she eats well. “I don’t want to deal with weight. Could you imagine having to compete and THEN having to lose a pound or two in 10 hours? Uh-uh. I was 20 pounds heavier at one point. I took it off and that was it.”
In addition to Boyer and the gym, Mary-Ellen’s life is full with friends, her synagogue community, and her husband Tom, who recently retired from a career with Boeing to become a full-time social activist. “I always say, you know, I have a wonderful husband, I have a coach, a Reiki master and two rabbis -- I am very supported.”
Like Joyce Israel, there are countless parents of special needs kids who would list Mary-Ellen as a critical pillar of support in their worlds.
Taking turns – doing the holding and having others hold her. Mary-Ellen and husband Tom Buchanan
Mary-Ellen Buchanan’s Not-So-Secrets for How Does She Does It:
- “When you get older you really take stock. Is there anything I have to regret? I think the only thing that sucks is that half your life is over. ‘Cause I’m stronger, I’m a much better teacher than I was even 10 years ago.
- “I couldn’t be the person I am now without Tom, without all my friends, the families I work with. I wouldn’t be as happy without Joe. The thing about growing old -- some people’s world gets smaller and smaller. The good news for Tom and me is that our community keeps getting larger and larger, stronger and stronger. The synagogue connects to it, the gym connects to it, and work. At the synagogue right away you can become friends because you have so much in common.
- “I have a good job. It’s very satisfying work. People say, oh, I just want some meaning in my life – well, my work gives me meaning. The only bad thing is you don’t make much money.”
- “You hope your life will have activity. You hope that when you compete, you have the mental toughness to get through. And you know what else? You hope you have that mental toughness throughout your life. You don’t want to grow old and decrepit; you want to grow old and strong. And you can -- I’ve seen it!”
What books has Mary-Ellen read recently?
- The Museum of Innocence, by Orhan Pamuk, Nobel Laureate
- One of my favorite authors was Octavia Butler, who won a MacArthur genius award. I was so sad to learn she had died.
Whom does Mary-Ellen want me to interview next?
- A good public school teacher is worth her weight in salt. And I have two very close friends who are teachers who have given a lot of thought to schools in general.
- Leslie Sager -- teaches 1st grade at Roxhill Elementary in Southwest Seattle
- Gladys Fox – a middle school librarian in Tukwila