Who We Are – No Hurdle Too High
Carriage Green author chronicles a life of self-discovery, challenges overcome
Like many people, Leigh Gray’s retirement plan included writing a book. Unlike most people, he actually accomplished the undertaking.
His memoir collection, Tales of Woe and Whoa!: True Stories That Will Make You Laugh, Cry, and Sigh, delivers on its promise and more. It offers a glimpse into a truly unique world of adventure and triumph.
Leigh was born with cerebral palsy, which gave him a distinctive limp and some balance issues. But it didn’t diminish his persistence or thirst for life.
“I had two choices,” he said. “I could fit in as best I could, or wall myself off.”
Leigh is not someone to let obstacles slow his pursuit of excellence. If he had difficulty playing baseball or running, he made up for it with academic achievements and a blossoming talent for writing.
He didn’t just fit in, he stood out.
But even as a child he knew there was something else that made him different. Something beyond his muscular challenges and unusual gait. But what it was would remain a mystery for the first three decades of his life.
Sharing his gifts
After earning his undergraduate degree in international affairs — which included an exchange program in Mexico where he became fluent in Spanish — Leigh won a federal grant to study multicultural and bilingual education at Fairfield University.
He finished his master’s in 1985 and began teaching English as a Second Language (ESL) at Franklin K. Lane High School in Queens. He never looked back.
He put aside his dream of writing a book, and for two decades turned his focus on becoming the best teacher he could be for his students. He traveled for conferences, enrolled in teaching workshops and brought everything he learned into the classroom.
At the same time, he was learning more about himself and his own unique gifts.
Solving the mystery
As a young man, Leigh was becoming an adept and creative teacher. But he still had a nagging sense of some fundamental difference between himself and many other people.
“When I realized I wasn’t fitting in,” he said, “it made me even more determined to fit in.”
Eventually, he learned about Asperger’s syndrome online and the more he learned about it, the more he needed to know. He made an appointment with an Asperger’s specialist in New York who ran a series of tests.
He writes about the experience in the first story of his collection:
“[The doctor’s] report confirmed what I suspected. I had already connected the dots. I have Asperger’s. There is no medication or cure. I felt relieved to have a positive diagnosis. I was 30 at the time and there couldn’t be a better way to embrace a new decade. It all made sense. The puzzle finally came together.”
It explained his difficulty making eye contact and his ability to pick up on social cues. It also explained his doggedness, a trait he channeled into his teaching and learning.
Knowing that a diagnosis is only as good as the action plan that follows, Leigh signed up for Kelly Kimball’s acting class for non-actors to learn how to make eye contact and watch for body language cues.
Acting helped him get out of his head and learn how to role-play.
“It also helped me be more spontaneous and creative and alive in the classroom,” he says.
Overall, he says, Asperger’s has taught him more about his capabilities than what challenges him.
Never stop learning
As soon as he retired, Leigh returned to his lifelong dream of writing a book. He signed up for a creative writing class through the United Federation of Teachers Retiree Program and workshopped his stories with a room full of English teachers.
Those stories became the basis for Tales of Woe and Whoa! published in 2016, just 23 months after he retired from teaching.
He writes with candor about his struggles, but they’re stories of resilience that are laced with keen self-awareness and playful humor.
A plan for the future
He always had difficulty walking, but a few years after retiring he developed arthritis in both hips and wound up having one replaced in August 2020.
Casting his eye once again into the future, he decided it was time to look for a retirement community near his brother, while he could still take care of himself and enjoy his life. That way he’d have ready access to services before he needed them.
He did his homework and read the reviews and visited Carriage Green at Milford unannounced — three times — to see the residents and staff in their true daily experiences. And he liked what he saw. He got to know the staff and chose a studio apartment in the independent living complex at the beginning of 2021. Another auspicious way to start a new decade.
After years of practice, Leigh managed to fit in right away with the Carriage Green community. After a couple of months, he joined the Residents’ Council as its secretary.
In February he hosted a book signing in the common room and read from his story A Childhood with a Mysterious Twist, before taking questions from the audience.
He signed a stack of books and gave them away as gifts to his neighbors. The purpose was never profit, he says. He wrote it to fulfill a dream and to let people into his unique world and hopefully jostle some emotions.
He’s thinking about what to write next.
“Maybe a young adult novel,” he muses. “Or a magazine piece. I’m not sure yet. I’ll see where the creative muse takes me.”
Carriage Green at Milford