The Running Dream by Wendelin Van Draanen is an amazingly inspirational coming-of-age novel.
Jessica was in a tragic bus crash on her way home from a high school track meet. One teammate lost her life, and Jessica lost a foot.
The story begins with Jessica waking up in the hospital and trying to come to grips with the realization of her lost limb. Being that she is a runner, Jessica feels like her world is ending:
“I am a runner. That’s what I do. That’s who I am. Running is all I know, or want, or care about.”
As anybody would, at first, Jessica just feels sorry for herself. She is completely consumed with self-pity and can’t see how she can possibly go on. The only thing she has ever truly loved—running—has been cruelly yanked out of her grasp. Is life even worth living anymore? Maybe Lucy—her teammate who was killed in the crash—was the lucky one. At least she didn’t have to try to adjust to life with running as an unattainable dream.
Soon, however, Jessica has an epiphany about life:
“I fell off, but the merry-go-round keeps moving. Lucy died, but the merry-go-round keeps moving. Still. As much as thinking this upsets me, I’m starting to see that I need the merry-go-round much more than it needs me, and in the end my choice is to hop back on or get left in the dust.”
With this new attitude, and her self-loathing behind her, Jessica finally decides to get back up, battle life head-on, and get back to her “normal” life as much as possible. But of course, this is easier said than done.
Returning to school, Jessica faces a whole slew of new challenges, not only with being one-legged and having to figure out how to get around in a wheelchair or on crutches until she gets her prosthetic limb, but she is also confronted with the internal battle of her self-image.
It’s bad enough being a “normal” teenager. This is the time in life when you are the most vulnerable, trying to figure out exactly who you are. Up until now, Jessica has only had one way of defining herself—she is a runner. Plain and simple. But now, having to go back into the sea of her peers in the battleground known as high school, Jessica feels less sure of herself than she ever has before:
“I know it’s not my fault. I know I haven’t done anything wrong. I know it’s irrational. But still, I’m mortified. Mortified to be me.”
“It’s disturbing how fast weeds take root in my garden of worthiness.
They’re so hard to pull.
And grow back so easily.”
When Jessica is wheeled in to her Math class on her first day back, she gets put at the “special table” at the back of the room, with the other girl in a wheelchair who has cerebral palsy, named Rosa. Jessica realizes that she has never even thought to talk to Rosa before, simply because of her condition. It was way easier to ignore her and pretend like she wasn’t there. And when Rosa offers to tutor Jessica in Math to get her caught up, Jessica realizes what an amazing and funny person Rosa is, despite her handicap.
Working with, and befriending, Rosa humbles Jessica, and helps her to realize that life could be worse, and she should stop feeling sorry for herself. Your disability doesn’t define you—you define you.
“I suddenly really get that I am lucky. I’ll never do a fifty-five flat in the 400 again, but I will stand on my own again. This wheelchair won’t be with me every day of my life.”
With the support of her family, friends, and teammates, Jessica decides not to be a victim of circumstance, and starts to hope again. And that is a beautiful thing.
“I realize something. That wasn’t a finish line for me…This is my new starting line.”