Greenville student, mother, team up to defy physical limitations

By Cory Smith • Last Updated 11:44 pm on Monday, October 28, 2013

Greenville High School sophomore. Mary McDonough, 16, who has cerebral palsy, stands under her own power before she takes a few steps to perform the final song of the band’s “Wicked” themed show on the sideline in a wicker wheelchair prop Oct. 16. — Daily News/Cory Smith

GREENVILLE — Greenville High School sophomore Mary McDonough has long possessed a love and passion for music that, quite literally, has helped to transcend her physical limitations.

At 16 years old, Mary has overcome obstacles that your average teenager couldn’t imagine.

She was born with cerebral palsy, a condition that has her bound to a wheelchair due to shortened and tightened muscles in her legs.

Until surgery five years ago gave her more control of her leg muscles, Mary’s future was very much controlled by her condition. The simple notions of one day being able to drive her own car or simply walking from class to class with fellow students in school were essentially nonexistent.

So, in sixth grade, Mary took up a hobby that is expressed quite frequently within her family — music.

She learned to play the clarinet, an instrument she could manage to play while in a wheelchair, because it was light enough for her to hold.

However, by the time she reached high school, her core muscles weren’t strong enough to keep her upright while playing the instrument.

But giving up when facing an obstacle is one trait that Mary doesn’t demonstrate often.

At the suggestion of Greenville High School Band Director Susan Gould, Mary switched to the alto saxophone, an instrument that produces immediately with less resistance and less difficulty in reaching and maneuvering the keys.

After a full year on the instrument, Mary saw herself again performing on the same level as her peers, kicking her cerebral palsy aside.

But another impasse would present itself in the form of a music class: Marching Band.

Thirty-five years ago, Mary’s mother Katy marched playing the trumpet at Grand Ledge High School. Mary’s brother Ian recently marched playing the trombone before graduating from Greenville in 2010.

Mary, limited by her condition, in which she can only take a few steps at a time without any assistance, did not want the streak to stop with her. She approached Gould with a question that wouldn’t appear to have an easy answer.

“I went to her and asked her, ‘Would it be OK?,’” Mary asked. “’Would it be OK if I marched?’”

Gould, who has taught at Greenville High School for 23 years and known Mary since the day she was born, had but one answer.


At left, Katy McDonough, left, pushes her daughter Mary McDonough, who has cerebral palsy, in a wheelchair as she plays the alto saxophone during the Greenville High School marching band’s performance of its “Wicked” themed show Oct. 16. — Daily News/Cory Smith.

Including Mary

The idea of having Mary march along with her peers was one that Gould had long been pondering. So long, in fact, that she had a show routine already in mind for when Mary’s question was asked.

The show in question? An adaptation from the broadway musical, “Wicked,” which serves as a prequel to the classic novel, “The Wizard of Oz.”

Gould chose the show for a love of the show’s music, but also its message.

“You don’t judge people by their appearances,” Gould said. “I’ve wanted to do wicked for a while because of that message.”

Nessarose, a central character in the play, is paralyzed from birth and bound to a whicker wheelchair. It only made sense to have Mary portray her in the show.

Not long after choosing the theme for the show, the routine didn’t just include Mary as a member, it began to revolve around her.

“I tried to do this show five years ago, but the students didn’t know it, they didn’t buy into it,” Gould said. “I wanted to do it for a lot of reasons, and this time around, Mary was a logical tie-in.”

According to Gould, Mary has a deep passion for theatre and knew that the “Wicked” themed show would bring out the best in her and all of her students.

But she needed someone who could literally give Mary the push that she needed to participate in the show.

That person, as it turns out, would be Gould’s close friend and colleague — and Mary’s mother — Katy McDonough.

Katy has taught as an elementary music teacher in Greenville throughout its four elementary schools for 30 years.

Greenville High School Band Director Susan Gould smiles as her band performs Oct. 16 on Legacy Field in Greenville. — Daily News/Cory Smith

It had been a long time since she herself had strapped into a band uniform and marched on a field playing her trumpet, but when the idea was proposed to have her help her daughter have the chance to experience the same activity that she also had in high school, she immediately jumped forward.

“Our family really values band,” Katy said. “It’s not that everybody can do this, you almost have to have a background in marching band of some sort and be musical enough. I just had the right set of skills.”

Back in high school

Before long, Katy saw herself arriving together with Mary at the band’s preseason band camp in August.

As Mary and her fellow students began to learn the show and practice their marching skills, Katy practiced along with them.

“I was a band student at Grand Ledge under a really strict band director,” Katy recalled. “So I came to band camp and the kids were really surprised that I could actually march. I could do this in my sleep.”

Together, Mary and Katy learned the show, Mary playing the tunes on her saxophone with Katy pushing her along in her wheelchair from one formation to the next, reading the instructions on the back of Mary’s cap.

After a few weeks, the idea of having a parent push their child in a wheelchair mixed in with more than 60 other students became a reality.

“It was weird and cool,” Gould said. “It’s one of my favorite marching seasons ever. The students that I have are just awesome and I think they even forgot that Mary was moving around out there with her mom pushing her. I think it became fun seeing an adult doing what they were doing. It validated their efforts.”

For Mary, it was an experience that she has truly come to appreciate.

In the final song of the performance, in inspirational fashion, Mary walks out of her wheelchair, takes a few steps, and sits down with her instrument in a wicker wheelchair, nearly identical to the one in the musical used by Nessarose.

For that last song, Mary is front and center where everyone can see her.

“She incorporated me into the show and it just made sense to people as to why I was out there,” Mary said. “It feels really great to know that I could be included in that kind of way, or included at all, at least once in a while.”

Greenville High School sophomore Mary McDonough, 16, who has cerebral palsy, performs on the alto saxophone during the final song of the band’s “Wicked” themed show Oct. 16. — Daily News/Cory Smith

Inspiring others

Gould said she hopes and believes that this year’s marching season will be one to look back on to help inspire her students.

“As a teacher you hope that you can inspire all of your kids,” she said. “You only see them for an hour a day so trying to get every student to do that, it takes a lot of the student’s commitment. But if something is worth doing, it’s worth doing well. It becomes a challenge to keep quality going on all levels, but it’s every teachers hope for a child.”

Gould said the help that Katy provided in making marching become a reality for Mary is also an effort that goes beyond words.

“To have a parent give up that time and energy for their child, it’s amazing,” she said. “To have that kind of commitment so your child can be out there, there are a lot of times we have students where their parent’s just can’t be that involved, but moments like this raise you up.”

For Mary, marching this year was a chance to yet again defy the odds and participate on the same level as her peers.

“I find this as more of an outlet because I can put everything of myself into it, just like others put into sports,” Mary said. “Without Mrs. Gould and everything she’s done, none of this would have happened. It’s all because of her.”

Mary said she now has her hopes on marching in the upcoming Christmas parade this December.

Using her walker, she has exercised by walking and sometimes running laps around Legacy Field as the band would practice various formations.

“When I’m out there it’s great, because really, you cant tell,” she said. “Everything blends and you just feel united as one band.”

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