Appearing before a packed ballroom of 600 educators at the H-E-B Excellence in Education Awards Sunday night at the Intercontinental Hotel, former astronaut Mark Kelly held his arm in an odd position throughout a 35-minute talk. He explained that he had injured it while helping his daughter in pole-vaulting practice.
But he wasn't getting any sympathy from his wife, former Arizona Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, who continues to recover from a brain injury that occurred when she was shot in the head outside of a Tucson supermarket in January, 2011.
"I was sitting at the breakfast table complaining about my arm hurting and she looked up from her yogurt and just raised her eyebrows and said, 'Are you freaking kidding me?'," Kelly said, as the audience erupted in laughter and applause.
As the keynote speaker at the awards ceremony, which honored top teachers and their schools throughout Texas, Kelly spoke passionately without notes about his wife and their life since that fateful day 14 months ago.
"She reminds me each and every day to deny the acceptance of failure."
Kelly said Giffords continues to suffer from aphasia and has difficulty speaking sentences. She did not attend the banquet; instead she was undergoing music therapy, which has been a great help in training her mind to string words into a sentence. But Kelly said she composed a short message for the audience:
"Be passionate. Be courageous. Be strong. Be your best."
Giffords was always the classic overachiever — "she was the kid you wanted in your classroom," he told the teachers — and cared about education. "She had goals and plans on how to fix this," he said.
Kelly, on the other hand, said he was the classic underachiever as a kid growing up in New Jersey. The theme from Top Gun was blasting from his car when he arrived in Pensacola, Fla., for naval aviation training in 1986 (the year the movie came out) although he was no Maverick (the hot-shot pilot played by Tom Cruise). His initial training was rocky: After he made a less-than-sellar landing on an aircraft carrier, his instructor asked, "Are you sure you're up for this?"
But Kelly perserved, flying 39 combat missions over Iraq and Kuwait in Operation Desert Storm and four space shuttle missions (including two as commander) before retiring last year.
"I truly believe how good you are at the beginning of anything you try is not a good indicator of what you can become," he said.
"I truly believe how good you are at the beginning of anything you try is not a good indicator of what you can become," Kelly said.
While his wife "still struggles today" to carry on a conversation, Kelly said she has not lost her sense of humor — or her will to fight.
He recalled that Giffords was not able to be in Florida when his final space shuttle flight landed last May because she had to undergo brain surgery to install a prosthetic skull on the left side of her head. On the day she was shot, doctors had to remove that part of her skull, Kelly said.
"Gabby didn't want to leave that skull in the hospital in Tucson. She brought it to Houston. So if you come to my house, she will go to the freezer, pull out a piece of Tupperware, which she probably got at H-E-B, and show you the skull, along with the exit wound and entry wound.
"The power of the human spirit is an incredible thing to watch up-close and first-hand — to watch somebody fight so hard to survive and fight so hard to come back. On Friday, as she left for therapy, she said, 'Fight, fight, fight.' She reminds me each and every day to deny the acceptance of failure."
Kelly was the featured speaker at the annual awards, in which H-E-B gave out nearly $600,000 in cash prizes and matching grants to top teachers and their schools across Texas as judged by an independent panel.
Cypress-Fairbanks Independent School District was named the top large school district in the state and received a $100,000 prize. Catherine Bartlett, principal of Hamilton Elementary School, also part of the Cy-Fair School District, was named top principal in the elementary school category and received a $10,000 prize, with a $25,000 grant to the school from H-E-B.
For a full report on the teachers' big night, check back with CultureMap later on Monday.