Not even five minutes into the interview, Danielle is cracking jokes and has me laughing out loud. It's readily apparent that this 14-year-old high school “fresh[wo]man” (her word) is wise beyond her years!
Meet Danielle Pruitt, a charming, confident, and wicked smart teenager who has spinal muscular atrophy - a condition that keeps her confined to a pad on the floor most of her day, as she is unable to walk or sit independently. Danielle has to go to school each day with her mom, but quickly assures me that it's “not as bad as it sounds!”
A lifelong love of academics
On February 1 in Indianapolis, Danielle will be the recipient of the 2019 Yes I Can Award for Academics. Her love for learning was kindled at the early age of 5, when Danielle would attend preschool just two hours per day - and cry all the way home because she didn't want to leave! She continued this pattern every day until fifth grade, by which time she had progressed to attending school four days per week and 80% of the day. By middle school Danielle had progressed to full time attendance.
According to her mom, Beth, Danielle experienced a transformation during middle school. Although she'd always had phenomenal, nurturing teachers, Danielle’s sixth grade teacher, Sandra Whitt, held her to very high standards and challenged her in a very unique way. Even though Ms. Whitt had extremely high expectations, Danielle met them. This fueled Danielle's personal mantra - to be treated like everyone else, to do school like everyone else, and to be held to the same expectations as everyone else. Throughout her school career, it's been those teachers who’ve held her accountable to such high standards that have made such a lasting impression on Danielle.
In 8th grade, Danielle was fortunate to have another teacher who challenged her - her social studies teacher Michelle Parsons. According to Danielle, Ms. Parsons did not give praise unless you truly deserved it. It was for this very reason that Ms. Parsons’ nomination of Danielle for the 2019 Yes I Can Award for Academics was that much more meaningful.
Throughout my conversation with Danielle, I had to remind myself that I am speaking with a 14-year-old. When asked what’s it like to be in the spotlight at such a young age, Danielle quipped “Very rewarding. When I approach a test and I am thinking in my head ‘Oh I don’t want to be doing this anymore’, I think about all the hard work that I’ve put in to receive this award, and then I feel more motivated.”
Beth is extremely proud of Danielle, and stressed how hard Danielle has worked to achieve the Academics award. She was quick to explain that Danielle is very intelligent, and that the work doesn’t come easy for her. “She puts in the time and effort to be successful," she noted. Beth is also very thankful of the “radical problem solvers” they’ve been surrounded by during Danielle’s academic career. She goes on to explain that there have been no “we’ve never done that before” comments - they’ve always been met with problem solvers, which has not only been a huge help over the years, but also a great source of motivation.
Toward the end of our conversation, I asked Danielle if she wanted to share any final thoughts. After a brief pause, she stressed that it’s important for everyone to understand how crucial it is to “use what you have and not let what you don’t have destroy who you are.”
Danielle, I think I speak for everyone when I say thank you for being such an incredible inspiration!