Saturday, September 20th, 2008
By Shelley Grieshop
A new song
Music teacher makes comeback after Grand Lake diving accident
NEW KNOXVILLE - A large, aerial photo of the 2004 Ohio Northern University marching band hangs on the west wall of Cory Canan's small office in the music department at New Knoxville Local School.
Canan, a college junior at the time, is among the line of percussionists. He walked off the campus two years later with a music degree and a dream to inspire young musicians.
"I was one of those people - I had everything, I was at the tip top," says the now 24-year-old. "I couldn't get any higher."
Like icing on the cake, he was tapped to become band and choir director for fourth- through 12th-graders at New Knoxville. But two days before he was to meet his students at band camp, his dream was shattered.
During an outing with friends on Grand Lake he dove into the murky water and hit his head on the hard lake floor. In an instant, his body betrayed him; he was paralyzed from the chest down.
"After the accident I told myself I was never going to teach," he says, looking down at the legs that used to chase his nieces and nephews.
He recalls his options: go home and feel sorry for himself or learn to adjust. He chose the latter - eventually.
The school held his job for two years while he toughed it out in therapy five days a week.
"One day it just clicked," Canan says. "Having my own band, being with the kids, that's what I'd always wanted. It was time to move on."
Last week, on the first day of school, Canan nervously navigated his wheelchair through the double doors near his room. He says the reception by students and staff was amazing.
"One parent even took the day off work to stay with me," he says.
Each day dozens of his 161 students stream in and out of the music room before heading home. Some stay behind for extra practice with Canan, while others do little more than tease him about the cookies they stole off his desk while he was away.
"The kids here ... they're good kids, very caring," he says.
He's managed to bypass most obstacles but is still learning to overcome others.
"I was a drummer and I can't even hold drumsticks now. It's frustrating not being able to show kids what to do," he says, adding he calls on aides and upperclassmen for some tasks.
His new "wheels" allow him to accompany his marching band just about anywhere and travel from student to student inside the music room. He has gained control of his biceps but not his triceps, and although he can now raise his arms in the air, his fingers are limp. Keyboard skills are conquered by wearing a taylor-made glove to steady his index finger.
"At first, it was all I could do just to raise a fork to my mouth," he says.
Canan currently lives in Covington with his parents who drive him to work daily. He hopes to get a handicap vehicle to relieve them of the 35-minute drive twice a day.
School Superintendent Kim Waterman says a few "kinks" are still being addressed in the building, like narrow doorways. A current school construction project includes handicap-accessibility upgrades and a few design modifications just for Canan, she adds.
"We are thrilled to be able to give Cory this opportunity. He deserves to get a chance to live his dream," Waterman says.
Canan lost much more than his mobility in the lake water two summers ago. Watching movies and TV shows with swimming and water scenes "gets me real anxious," he says. He admits he has nightmares.
"In my dreams, though, I'm never in a chair. I'm on my feet, moving around," he says.
He's been told many paralysis victims have such experiences.
Canan knows he's come a long way and remains optimistic about what lies ahead. His spinal cord is damaged but not severed, leaving him hopeful that someday medical science will get him back on his feet, he says.
"I always hope but I don't anticipate," he adds.
He is the eighth music director at the school in 10 years and knows how hard change like that can be on students. He wants to give his budding musicians every opportunity possible and is ready to make a commitment to them and himself.
"I told them I don't plan on going anywhere," he says. "Before the accident I found something that I loved doing, and this is it. I'm here to stay."
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