Written by Peter Kusnic
On the first day of school, a teacher greets returning students as they file into a classroom and find their seats. The last student to enter, a 14-year-old who speaks only Korean, is not sure where to sit. The teacher guides him to a desk and holds out his hand for a high five. The boy, who has autism, remains quiet, his face contorted with confusion. Every year comes with new challenges.
Luckily the teacher, Michael Flanigan, is not afraid of challenges. Diagnosed with epilepsy in the sixth grade, he experienced seizures that disrupted key points in his life as a young man—from a calculus final at Pitt to a supervisory job he held at a loading dock. He worried that epilepsy would prevent him from graduating college or having a career; but he also knew that many superachievers throughout history have excelled despite the condition.
So Flanigan (SIS ’85) pushed ahead. He earned a Pitt bachelor’s degree in information science and became involved in special education instruction in Maryland. He also earned a brown belt in Tae Kwan Do, which proved to him that the mind can overcome physical obstacles. He became a certified personal trainer to help others achieve their goals, too. In 2009, he wrote a motivational book, I Know I Can (Xlibris). The title references a mantra he has used to build confidence. The words also have become a mantra in Flanigan’s classroom.
Later in the school year, the Korean student smacks Flanigan’s hand. “High five,” he says as Flanigan playfully shakes the pain away. The teen is speaking some English and adapting to American culture. He’s surpassing challenges—just like his teacher.