WORK WITH WHAT YOU GOT: A MEMOIR
When a baby named Zion was born in 1997 to an imprisoned, drug-addicted mother, his future seemed bleak. Born without legs due to a rare condition called caudal regression syndrome, Zion was abandoned and shunted to a foster-care system ill-equipped to care for him. In this stirring memoir, readers will follow as he is bounced from home to home, subjected to abuse, neglect, and inconceivable hardship. Somehow, Zion finds supportive angels along the way: his first two foster families, who offer a haven; the wrestling coach who senses his “warrior spirit” and nurtures it; the woman of fierce faith who adopts a seventeen-year-old and cheers his every match.
When a baby named Zion was born in 1997 to an imprisoned, drug-addicted mother, his future seemed bleak. Born without legs due to a rare condition called caudal regression syndrome, Zion was abandoned and shunted to a foster-care system ill-equipped to care for him. In this stirring memoir, readers will follow as he is bounced from home to home, subjected to abuse, neglect, and inconceivable hardship. Somehow, Zion finds supportive angels along the way: his first two foster families, who offer a haven; the wrestling coach who senses his “warrior spirit” and nurtures it; the woman of fierce faith who adopts a seventeen-year-old and cheers his every match. From play-by-play narration of how Zion adapts wrestling moves to defeat able-bodied opponents, wielding phenomenal arm and hand strength, to accounts of his extraordinary work ethic, unflagging optimism, and motivational speaking, this is an inspirational story of courage that will appeal to any athlete who respects determination, any young person facing adversity, and any reader who wants to believe in the human spirit.
Elite wheelchair racer and wrestler Zion Clark joins with New York Times best-selling author James S. Hirsch for a stunning memoir—recounting childhood adversity, awe-inspiring perseverance, and self-invention.
- Candlewick Press
- April 2023
- 240 Pages
“Clark and co-author Hirsch critique the numerous challenges of life in foster care, such as instability and foster parents’ lack of training in caring for disabled children. . . . Clark feels his most important contribution is being a role model, especially to kids. . . his motivational advice is refreshingly down-to-earth, acknowledging many ways to make a difference and encouraging kids to face tough situations one step at a time. Honest and eye-opening.” –Kirkus Reviews
“Concise, honest. . . Clark’s forthright recollections of wrestling with the “dual stigma of being disabled and being Black,” and how overcoming his adversities prompted him to support others’ endeavors to face their own, presents an illuminating look at the trials of one person maneuvering the foster care system, and details his views that community support and faith are the key to navigating life.” –Publisher’s Weekly
“Renowned athlete and motivational speaker Clark describes the harrowing experiences he endured growing up as a Black boy in Ohio’s foster-care system. . . . Readers will be in awe of the author’s amazing physical and mental strength to pursue all of his dreams. This memoir will appeal to teenagers who need to hear positive affirmations on never giving up. Clark is living proof that if you put in the work, you never know where the world may take you.” –Booklist, starred review
“In this autobiography, motivational speaker and accomplished athlete Zion Clark shows readers what it looks like to overcome life’s every obstacle to find success. . . . Aside from his remarkable life, what makes Clark’s story stand out are his deep reserves of positivity and determination. . . [Clark] offers invaluable insights into living with a disability, struggling with prosthetics, and wheelchair use. . . a lively, inspirational read.” –School Library Connection
1. In the preface, Zion shares that he has many identities that intersect, such as being a Black man, being an athlete, and having a disability. He writes, “I was born without legs and faced the dual stigma of being disabled and being Black, and sometimes I’m not sure which part of me the haters hate most” (page 6). As you read, discuss Zion’s different identities. What are they? How does he perceive each identity? How might his self- perception differ from the way he is viewed by society?
2. Throughout the memoir, Zion discusses many issues within the foster care system. Describe the different caregivers Zion had while in foster care. Which caregivers supported Zion? Which caregivers caused trauma and challenges in his life? How did they do so? What systemic problems draw and keep unequipped caregivers in the foster system?
3. Think about the different children that Zion met in foster care. Using textual evidence, describe difficulties children in foster care face as they navigate the system. In chapter 2, “Who’s Going to Listen to a Ten-Year- Old?” Zion states, “This is one of the central problems of our foster care system: the only ones who really know what is happening to the foster kids are the kids themselves, but they don’t have the authority to speak on their own behalf—particularly if their words cast the powers that be in a negative light” (page 21). Why is this problematic? In your opinion, how can we improve the foster care system? What are some examples of a better system?
4. In chapter 6, “Finding My Superpowers,” which books does Zion find inspiring? Why? Describe a book that you find inspiring and explain why. Thus far, what do you find most intriguing about Zion’s story? What do you want to learn more about as you continue to read the memoir?
5. What are Zion’s interests and talents? How does he discover and use each talent? Provide an example of a time Zion was not successful on his first attempt yet kept trying. What does this example suggest about his character? Describe a time when you were not successful the first time but kept trying to improve.
6. There are many barriers in our society for individuals with visible and invisible disabilities. What types
of environmental barriers does Zion navigate each day? What assumptions do people often make about individuals with physical disabilities? Zion writes, “And thus began my war against fake legs, which I would wage well into my high school years” (page 15). Why does he dislike prosthetic legs? Why is forcing him to use them a huge problem?
7. Some disabilities are invisible, like attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). What challenges does ADHD present for Zion? Describe the solution that adults select to address his ADHD. Why is the solution problematic for Zion? What are alternative strategies or approaches that could help Zion or kids experiencing similar symptoms? As you brainstorm alternatives, be sure to consider barriers that adults might be creating in a classroom or home for an individual with ADHD. For example, a barrier might be asking a child to sit for long periods of time without moving.
8. In chapter 9, “On Top of the World,” Zion writes, “I was determined to do everything my peers did, no matter how many years it took” (page 82). How does this mindset help Zion? Why might this mindset be difficult at times? Explain how the roller coaster triumph highlights Zion’s determination. What is another example of his determination?
9. Why is wrestling important to Zion? He writes, “Wrestling does more than separate winners and losers; it defines the character of the combatants as few other sports do” (page 89). Do you agree? Why or why not? What or who changes Zion’s trajectory from losing in wrestling to building winning skills? What was the process?
10. What are Zion’s successes with music? How are the skills needed for music and those needed for sports similar? How do they differ? Why might someone be surprised about Zion’s many talents? Why might that surprise be offensive to an individual with a disability? Be specific.
11. What type of trouble does Zion get into as a teenager? Why is Zion acting out and feeling angry during these years? How do faith and family help him end his involvement in gangs?
12. As you read, discuss Zion’s most notable wrestling accomplishments, using specific examples. What are ways he excels in many different sports? How does he make his own way or show resilience? How does the phrase “Be a Zion” connect to his accomplishments? How does “Be a Zion” impact his life and goals?
13. Zion shares many examples of ableism, which is when people make negative assumptions about or discriminate against an individual with a disability. For example, Zion writes, “Other foster parents wanted me to wear my prosthetics. I’m supposed to have legs because we all have legs. That was their thinking” (pages 126–127). Why is this assumption about having legs an ableist view? What are some other examples of ableist views described in the memoir?
14. In chapter 23, “Young Voices Rising,” Zion shares information about the historical treatment of individuals with disabilities, current foster care investigations, and racism. What information did you find surprising? What related issues have you noticed recently in the media? Which issues would you like to learn more about or work to solve? Why?
15. What important details do the preface and epilogue highlight about Zion? Specifically, how does the preface set the tone for the memoir and build reader interest? How does the epilogue end the text? What key themes or takeaways are emphasized in the epilogue? Why are these themes important for the reader to understand?
I walk into a room and feel the stares. I take a few more steps, turn my head, and see it on their faces. Astonishment. Disbelief. A tinge of fear, perhaps. Some people approach me and introduce themselves. Others maintain their distance. A few others inch closer, peer, and retreat.
I am unlike anything they have ever seen.
I was born without legs, due to a rare medical condition known as caudal regression syndrome. I walk on my hands so that my arms are effectively my legs, yet I move as gracefully as anyone who has all four limbs, and with a six-foot-five wingspan, I can pull myself onto most any chair or platform and land like a hawk.
I am also young and Black.
Technically, I am disabled, and that’s how the world sees me, but I have never defined myself that way. I’m just built lower to the ground. Besides, there is a difference between not having legs and believing you are missing something, and I can’t miss what I’ve never had. So I adjust, improvise, and move on.
I used to be scrawny, but I have bulked up through weightlifting and can bench-press more than three hundred pounds—I’ve been called “Little Hercules.” I can also do one- arm pull-ups from a high bar, dips with a heavy chain around my neck, and consecutive backflips like a circus performer. In 2021, I set a Guinness world record for being the fastest human on two hands after I ran twenty meters in 4.78 seconds. When I run, my arms move like two pistons that hurtle my body forward, and my undersized feet never touch the ground. Because I walk on my hands, they are covered with calluses so thick that I can scoop hot coals from a fire, toss them, and feel nothing.
I’m a professional athlete in the sport of wheelchair racing, but I have the body of a top-notch wrestler—which, in fact, I also am. I competed against able-bodied opponents in both high school and college and was involved in one of the most memorable high school wrestling matches in the his- tory of Ohio. I continue to wrestle, and I also swim, dance, ride a bike, and drive my own car.
For me, every sport, indeed every activity, introduces unique challenges, which has led to a life of self-invention. Even simple tasks require creativity. I usually wear cutoffs, but I can’t put too much in the pockets because they will drag along the ground. So I sometimes put the bottom of my T-shirt in my mouth and create a pouch—my friends call this my kangaroo style.
Another example: If an able-bodied person is packing his Xbox in a hotel room, he walks over to the desk, unplugs the video game, and carries it to his suitcase. Me? I walk across the room on my hands and then, using my arms as springs, leap onto the desk chair. Next, I pull myself up and stand on the desk, where I unplug the Xbox. Carrying it in one arm, I hop back onto the chair, using my free hand to grab the armrest, and then I jump to the ground, landing on my feet. These motions are done swiftly, nimbly, and seamlessly.
What is, for anyone else, a chair, a desk, or a bed is for me a series of navigational platforms. The physical world is my jungle gym.
Every disabled athlete has a story. To get on any field, court, or mat requires courage, perseverance, and the capacity to over- come self-doubt and defeat. Trust me; I know. I was so bad at wrestling for so many years that I could barely beat the wrestling dummies in practice. Disabled athletes make sacrifices that able-bodied athletes can only imagine, and that’s okay. All anyone really needs to know about us is that we want to win just as badly as anyone else.
And we want to defy expectations. That’s what motivates me. Tell me something I can’t do, and I will do it, or die trying.
Or, as I tell kids:
NEVER GIVE UP, DREAM BIG,
AND BE THE PERSON YOU WERE BORN TO BE
My story, however, is a little bit different than most “handicapped narratives.” Actually, it’s a lot different. Yes, I was born without legs and faced the dual stigma of being disabled and being Black, and sometimes I’m not sure which part of me the haters hate most. In another era, someone like me would have been isolated, abandoned, or discarded. That’s what they did with “deformed kids.” Eugenicists called people like me “subhuman.”
But my disability and my race have not been the biggest challenges.
I was given up at birth by my mother, and I never met my father. I was put into the Ohio foster care system as a newborn, even though the system was never designed for a child like me. A foster home is supposed to be temporary until the child can reunite with family members, but I had no family. As a result, I spent my youth ricocheting from foster home to foster home, few of which seemed to really want me.
There are, to be sure, exceptional foster parents in Ohio and across the country, but overall, neglect is common. For years, I was so undernourished that my ribs protruded. For years, I was overmedicated on prescription drugs that were supposed to increase my focus but left me feeling dazed. I was often bullied and at times physically and emotionally abused, but even those assaults don’t capture the full trauma of foster care. For the children, the system breeds a feeling of separation and detachment, of conditional acceptance. I always felt as if I were on trial. If I behaved well, I got to stay in the home. If I messed up, I was moved out. Spoiler alert: I was often moved out. At my lowest points, I considered suicide and even made some half-hearted attempts at it.
I found solace through books and music. I’m an accomplished trumpeter, keyboard player, and drummer, all self-taught, and I can play the ukulele, saxophone, and tuba. I was the lead trumpet in our marching band in high school. I’m a good artist as well. While I often struggled in school, I usually liked going because I knew I would be fed there. I feared going home because I didn’t know what awaited me or whether I would be moved again.
What I know is that foster parents receive government money for each child they foster. In Ohio, it’s about twenty-two dollars a day per child, but foster parents receive more money for a child with special needs—anywhere from forty to nearly two hundred dollars a day.
Strictly speaking, I was good business for the system.
I’ve received my share of media attention over the years. I was the subject of a short Netflix documentary, and I’ve been featured on ESPN and appeared on The Ellen DeGeneres Show. But all the media coverage glossed over the real story of my life. In the real story, I was labeled a “problem child,” and for good reason. I was a problem child. But that’s what happens when you grow up in a violent, unstable world.
I spent much of my youth in Massillon, Ohio, about sixty miles south of Cleveland. If the town is known for anything, it would be high school football, as it typically fields one of the best teams in the state. Football is the perfect identity for a community that was once part of a thriving industrial belt that produced coal, glass, and steel. Those days are gone, but the ethos of physical toughness remains, your character tested each day in the factories, sandlots, and streets. Those bare-knuckle expectations shaped me as a youth.
In my early teens, I lived in a bad part of town, and I ran with thugs who stole, brawled, broke into buildings, sold drugs, and flipped off cops. I did the same. Talk about an oddity: I was part of a street gang, which is pretty unusual for someone without legs, but it did have its advantages (we smuggled stolen goods from Walmart under my wheelchair seat). By seventeen, I had been arrested twice, once for assault. I’ve been cut with a switchblade and have had a gun pointed right in my face, but I never used a weapon to fight. I preferred my bare hands.
I got my life back on track thanks to a loving, pious woman who adopted me at seventeen and gave me what I never had before: a home, a mother, and a family. I also had a high school wrestling coach who never gave up on me and who pushed me to be the best wrestler, and man, I could be. Without my mom and my coach—and many others who refused to give up on me—I would have been another grim statistic of our nation’s failed foster care system: homeless, incarcerated, or dead.
Finally, I give credit to God. Some of my earliest memories are of going to church—that’s where I learned to play the drums—but I wasn’t always a man of strong faith. However, watching my mom put faith into action had a huge influence on me, and I now carry a Bible wherever I go and recognize that every challenge has a purpose. Or as my mom often tells me, “God wouldn’t take you through troubled waters if He knew you couldn’t swim.”
I’m still young, still a work in progress, but I’ve written this book with the hope that it will inform and inspire all who read it. I’ve learned that our greatest barriers are not physical. Our greatest barriers are those we impose on our own imaginations, ambitions, and dreams. Or, as a friend once told me,
IF YOUR DREAMS DON’T SCARE YOU,
YOU AREN’T DREAMING BIG ENOUGH.