‘Don’t give up’ Grad overcomes tough odds, sets sights on dreams

Kayla Beczynski talks about her recent graduation from Summerville High School, as her mother Carrie Rhymer laughs in the background.

Science teacher Tom Powell plans to hang a poster-sized photo from this year’s graduation on the wall of his classroom at Summerville High School.

When he hears students whine, complain or threaten to throw in the towel, Powell will point to the young lady in that photo and ask them to reconsider their claims of hardship.

Kayla Beczynski wasn’t given much chance of graduating high school. For a while, just living was a challenge in itself.

She was 15 years old when an all-terrain-vehicle wreck in May 2009 left her paralyzed and battling for her life. In the years that followed, she endured numerous surgeries, therapies and evaluations as she fought her way back.

Powell met Kayla 31/2 years ago and taught four of her classes. He told her up front: “You don’t give up on me and I won’t give up on you.” She took him up on that challenge.

Kayla can’t move her limbs or breathe without a ventilator. She can’t hold a book, take notes or type out term papers on a computer. The after-effects of a traumatic brain injury and strokes after the accident impede her short-term memory at times. But none of that stopped her.

With a degree of concentration that floored Powell, Kayla willed herself to memorize facts, formulas and equations so she could do the work in her head and take her exams orally.

With her unable to exchange a high-five with Powell when she did well, they decided to just raise their eyebrows in celebration, a gesture they call the “eye-five.”

With the help of teachers like Powell, who visited her at home for one-on-one sessions, Kayla made up the time lost during frequent hospital stays and completed her requirements just one year behind her original class.

“She is one of my heroes. She’s just an inspiration to me,” Powell said. “If I could teach a classroom of kids with half the courage, determination, and willingness to learn as that young lady, I would have died and gone to heaven. She never gives up.”

Late last month, Kayla traveled to the North Charleston Coliseum to graduate with the rest of the Class of 2013.

Privately, she fretted that people would stare, that her mortar board wouldn’t fit over her head brace and that her wheelchair might roll off the narrow stage. She need not have worried.

With her uncle, Chris Hewitt, by her side, she rolled up to the podium in a flowing green robe and accepted her diploma. As she did so, a crowd wave surged through the coliseum, and people jumped to their feet to give her a standing ovation.

In the stands, her mother, Carrie Rhymer, and an entourage of relatives cheered her on as well.

“I couldn’t even see straight, my eyes were so filled with tears,” Rhymer said. “I was so proud.”

Her grandmother, Ann Hewitt, swears most of Charleston County must have heard them shouting. “I thought my heart was going to explode in my chest. It was a special, special moment.”

For Kayla, the moment was a mix of joy and relief. “I was really happy,” she said. “It was good to get it over with.”

Graduation became the latest milestone Kayla has passed since the wreck in a wooded area near the Sawmill Branch Trail. She was on the back of an ATV driven by a neighbor when the vehicle plunged off a 15-foot embankment and landed in a canal.

The impact broke Kayla’s neck in two places, damaged her spine and left her unable to move from the neck down. She was hospitalized for 12 weeks before returning home. Even then, she required further treatment for breathing difficulties, infections and other problems. It took months before she regained her voice.

She’s traveled to Pennsylvania, Ohio and Florida for specialized treatment, and she’s endured at least a dozen surgeries since returning to school in 2010. Her medical issues made it impractical for her keep attending school on campus, and many of her old friends stopped coming around to visit as she faded from view and they moved on to new pursuits.

It’s been far from easy, and Kayla’s brave face falters at times. “I usually cry at night. That’s when I let my emotions spill out,” she said. “But during the day, I try to put it all behind me.”

She got a tattoo on her right arm last year, just down from where she now wears her class ring. It reads: “Every day holds the possibility of a miracle.”

As an added touch, Kayla had the artist ink a pair of pink-and-black brass knuckles. “Because I’m tough,” she said with a grin.

That, she is. In fact, she’s already set her sights on attending college and possibly majoring in forensics, a subject that’s piqued her interest after taking a course with Powell.

Kayla’s also helping to guide the renovation of her family’s garage into an apartment that will give her some privacy again. It will have space for therapy machines, a bed and a sitting area with a zebra-striped rug and curtains and — at her insistence — a chandelier as well.

But the biggest item on her agenda this summer is a trip to Project Walk, an intensive spinal cord injury recovery center in Orlando, Fla., where she has been accepted for treatment. With advanced equipment and techniques, the center could hold great promise for Kayla, who recently was able to move her right pinky and thumb.

Rhymer and her family have not given up hope that Kayla will someday walk again as well, though the odds may be long.

“It’s very hard, very challenging, but you have keep a positive attitude and stay hopeful,” Rhymer said. “Kayla is going to get better. This can’t be it. She’s young, she’s strong, she’s got the will to fight and she’s determined to get there.”

Powell, her teacher, said people would be wrong to count Kayla out once she has set her mind to something.

“She is truly an inspiration,” he said. “I’ve thanked her for making me a better teacher and a better person. I think that’s true of everyone who meets her. And if not, they really missed out. They weren’t paying attention when they encountered her.”

Reach Glenn Smith at 937-5556 or Twitter.com/glennsmith5.