Feature stories

Tragedy to triumph

Real-life wonder woman battles back after losing leg in accident

Students and paraprofessional Bernadette Riley (center) surround the honoree at Jonathan FickiesStudents and paraprofessional Bernadette Riley (center) surround the honoree at City Hall.

She was named after Wonder Woman, a fictional comic book superhero.

Thirty-four years later, Diana Wright needed the strength and resilience of a superhero to turn the tables on a tragedy.

Councilman Jumaane Williams presents Wright with a proclamation at City Hall in Jonathan FickiesCouncilman Jumaane Williams presents Wright with a proclamation at City Hall in December.

In May 2014, Wright was named Teacher of the Year at PS 109 in Flatbush, Brooklyn. In June, she was the victim of a hit-and-run driver and lost her leg.

“People talk about what they might do when tragedy strikes, but you really don’t know,” New York City Councilman Jumaane D. Williams said in December when he honored Wright with a proclamation. “I don’t know if anybody would show the amount of bravery Diana Wright showed.”

An avid runner and a rock climber, Wright endured six months of intense physical therapy and learned to walk again with a prosthesis, returning to the classroom in December 2014.

“She battled back and serves as a role model for her students,” said Williams, adding that she wears her new leg with pride.

And most days, she wears it with a skirt or a dress. “Why hide it?” Wright says.

Jadon, 10, applauds his teacher’s bravery. “She’s inspiring and she’s a leader for the class,” he said. “She’s gone through some tough times.”

Wright had a lot of support after the accident from friends, co-workers and famiWright had a lot of support after the accident from friends, co-workers and family, including her sister Martha Rodriguez-Jackson, a teacher at PS 46 in Fort Greene, Brooklyn, and her daughter, Sasha.

Wright has a long list of people who have supported her since the accident. “My husband and I call them Team Diana,” she says. “From my school family to my prosthetic leg family to my immediate family and my church family — I am surrounded by a lot of loving people who just want to see me reach my goals.”

At PS 109, room 308 is the same as any other 5th-grade classroom: The students get distracted, they shout to friends in other work groups, they beg for the bathroom pass. It’s easy to forget their teacher is different. But sometimes she reminds them.

Sometimes, Wright says, her leg becomes “a teaching tool.”

“There are themes in some stories about overcoming challenges, and when they come up and the kids have a hard time putting themselves or someone they know into that situation, I’m very frank with them,” she says. “I let them know challenges can be emotional or physical. Mine was physical. I could have given up, but I made a choice. I always tell them: You have a choice.”

Wright goes over the day’s writing task with her students.Miller PhotographyWright goes over the day’s writing task with her students. Co-teacher Deirdre Flanagan says there is an atmosphere of inclusion in the clasMiller PhotographyCo-teacher Deirdre Flanagan says there is an atmosphere of inclusion in the classes she teaches with Wright.

Her leg also teaches the students that “just because a person looks different, it doesn’t mean they’re not capable of the things you are. It just means they have to approach a task differently,” Wright says.

Special education teacher Deirdre Flanagan, Wright’s partner for social studies and ELA in an integrated co-teaching class, says there is a strong atmosphere of inclusion in the classes she teaches with Wright because she told her story. “She’s very open and answers any questions the students have, and I try to do the same,” Flanagan says.

Wright, with daugher Sasha, wears her leg proudly.Courtesy of Diana WrightWright, with daugher Sasha, wears her leg proudly. Wright says the accident has had a positive effect on her practice. “My students see that I’ve moved on,” she says. “I didn’t allow it to stop me. That’s something I like to share with them: If you have goals, you can still move forward regardless of what obstacles you face.”

Her students have taken that lesson to heart. “Sometimes I feel down,” says Tessanne. “But you have to stay motivated, even if something happens to you. You have to keep pursuing your dreams.”

Assistant Principal Marina Brown says Wright is “a living example of what you can do when you believe in yourself. I think it helps especially with students with special needs. They embrace their difficulties and they work through them” because of the example she sets.

Not only students are inspired. “Diana encourages me to be a more positive person, a person who’s willing to give, because that’s what she does,” says paraprofessional Bernadette Riley.

Wright recently got a new prosthetic leg with a computer-controlled knee that automatically adapts to her walking style and the terrain. “This is my dream leg,” she says, “because it’s waterproof. I haven’t walked in water since before the accident.”

Wright said all her medical bills have added up. “But I‘m blessed to be in a union that provides great benefits for its members, so I didn’t have to worry about that,” she said.

Plus, her colleagues launched a fundraiser and collected nearly $14,000 to help pay uncovered expenses.

“Worry adds to stress and stress takes away from our body’s ability to heal,” Wright says. “Because of the UFT, I didn’t have to worry about the medical expenses and prescription costs and getting a prosthesis. That was one reason I was able to heal and go back to work. It was truly peace of mind.”

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