The November 4, 2011, edition of the Saint Charles Herald Guide features a photo of Merlyna Valentine proudly accepting the principal of the year award for St. Charles Parish, Louisiana. It’s just one in a long list of honors the 30-year educator’s peers have bestowed on her.
But the problem with photos is that they only capture moments in a life journey, not the tragedies—and triumphs—that preceded them.
For Merlyna, there was the moment in 2007 when she was placed in a medically induced coma and given a 10 percent chance of surviving sepsis. And then there was the moment nine months later when doctors told her they would have to amputate both hands and her legs below the knees. Finally, there was the triumphant moment in 2009 when Merlyna, joined by her supportive staff, literally danced through the doors of St. Rose Elementary on her prosthetic legs.
Tying all those moments together is an outlook on life many of us struggle to embrace as faithfully as we would like. “I consider every day special, even in adversity,” Merlyna said. “I’m honored to share my story and inspire others.”
That’s exactly what Merlyna will do as the keynote speaker for Members’ Conference 2019, the Fund’s premier training event. As a primer, Merlyna graciously agreed to tell us about her journey from long-time educator to in-demand speaker.
When did you know you wanted to be a teacher?
I knew as a child growing up in Louisiana. My mother taught high school for more than 44 years, so it’s in my DNA. When I played school with neighborhood kids, it didn’t matter if they were older than me; I was always the teacher.
What kept you passionate about educating young minds for more than 30 years?
It was the kids and the opportunity to help them grow into knowledgeable, productive adults. This Valentine’s Day, my husband and I ran into a former student. He was with his beautiful wife and four kids. I recognized him instantly and remembered that he always hated English, but he was a math superstar. I said, “Please tell me you’re using your gift for numbers.” When he told me he’s an accountant, I couldn’t have been prouder.
Do you remember your first thought when doctors said they would have to amputate?
I was relieved because it meant I could finally start the next phase of my life. Doctors had spent the past nine months trying to save as much of my limbs as possible. When they broke the news, I actually smiled. I guess that concerned them because one doctor asked if I wanted to see a therapist! All they wanted to talk about was what I might have to give up, including my career. But so many people believed in me, and I was determined to prove them right.
How did the tragedy test your positive outlook on life?
I’ve always been a positive person, but I’d never experienced anything like this. Being an educator helped because I’d seen kids transform their lives in the wake of tragedy. As teachers, we encourage kids to never give up. Now, I get to be a role model for them.
Can you talk about your special entrance on the first day back at school?
I loved dancing, but doctors told me I might never be able to do it again. I joked with our staff that I would be so excited the first day back that I’d probably dance through the front doors. That’s exactly what I did. I got there before the kids, so we put on music and danced together. Being back with the team and the students was the best therapy.
Were those first few months on the job difficult?
Not as difficult as you might think. I was concerned the kids wouldn’t see me as the strong, confident principal I used to be. But our wonderful staff did a great job preparing them for my return. At first, the younger kids would ask me to tie their shoes or open their milk. I reminded them I didn’t have hands like theirs anymore. I invited them to touch my prostheses and ask questions. I think being appropriately transparent made the transition smoother.
What inspired you to become a full-time speaker, and how does it feed your soul?
After I returned to teaching, I had the opportunity to share my story with groups in my community. I told my husband how I loved connecting and making an impact in their lives. As a full-time speaker, I get to do that with people all over the country. After every event, at least one person shares how my words will help them move through a difficulty they’re experiencing.
You’ve earned many awards as an educator, written a children’s book, been featured on The Today Show, and grown into an in-demand speaker. Is there one thing you’re most proud of?
I’m most proud that I turned my tragedy into triumph. Many people who met me during that painful two-year journey expected it to break me. But I refused to be bitter about what could have been. Now, I get to inspire others to conquer adversity and live life to the fullest.
What does living life to the fullest look like for you on a day-in, day-out basis?
Everything I’ve been through has reminded me that my plans won’t always go as expected. So I got rid of my to-do lists and shifted my focus to how I can serve others. When I’m not working, I volunteer as a mentor to school children and recent amputees who struggle to accept their new lives. I also spend more time taking care of myself. Our house backs up to a lake. I love sitting on the patio, detaching from electronics, reading fiction, and watching the ducks.
What advice do you have for anyone who wants to see life through a brighter lens?
It’s all about choices. I’ll give you an example. Yesterday was super busy. I could have complained about being stressed and exhausted. Instead of focusing on the negative, I chose to focus on how much I accomplished. I also choose every morning to remember what I have, not what I’m missing. Being given a 10 percent chance of survival increased my enthusiasm for life.
What should Fund members expect from your Members’ Conference 2019 presentation?
I hope they come prepared to laugh, cry, and most of all be inspired. I want everyone to take something from my presentation that will impact them for the rest of their lives.
Fund members heard more of Merlyna’s story, networked with their peers, and got expert advice on managing the unique risks educational organizations face during Members’ Conference 2019.