Editor’s Note: For this week’s column, we interviewed Michael Maruzzi, a Saugus native who has become a mentor and advocate for spinal cord injured persons. He spent his early years growing up in Everett before his family moved to Saugus. Maruzzi, 54, suffered a devastating injury while playing in a hockey game for Saugus High School on Jan. 17, 1987, when he crashed into the boards head-on, leaving him paralyzed. Though confined to a wheelchair for the rest of his life as a quadriplegic, Maruzzi made the most of his opportunities to pursue a career. He is a 1987 graduate of Saugus High School. He went on to receive a bachelor’s degree in mathematics from Boston University (1992). Then he went on to spend 23 years as a math teacher at Saugus High School, retiring from teaching in 2015. He and his wife, Arlene, who was a teacher’s aide and a cheerleading coach for Saugus Public Schools when they met, have been married for eight years and live in Fort Myers, Fla. His parents – Robert and Diane Maruzzi – and his sister, Sandra Nigro, still live in Saugus. In 2015, he went to work remotely for an SAT preparation company in Florida that is headquartered out of Boston. He tutors students from all over the world. He recently helped develop a peer mentor program for teenagers who have suffered a spinal cord injury. The group discussions were designed to prepare teens for the challenges and opportunities they encounter in their journey. Maruzzi has taken up water skiing.
In one of his latest projects, Maruzzi has authored a memoir titled “Walking is Overrated: Witnessing the World from Two Perspectives,” to show how any human being has the capacity to overcome any physical obstacle. The Kowloon Restaurant will be hosting a book launch from 6 to 9 p.m. on June 27. Food, drink, music, dance, comedians and a copy of the book are included in the $75 ticket charge to the event, which will be held on the outdoor patio.
Highlights of this week’s interview, which was conducted online with Maruzzi from his Florida home, follow.
Q: What was life like as a normal, healthy and physically able kid growing up in Saugus?
A: I’m 54 years old and I was recently driving through the town of Saugus with my wife Arlene. We are up here to visit family and promote the publishing of my new book. We’ve rented an apartment building at the end of Fairmount Ave. This is part of the neighborhood where I spent most of my childhood in the town of Saugus. As we were driving down Fairmont Ave. towards Lynn and our new apartment, I kept pointing out the homes of so many of my childhood friends. It was close to a dozen houses that I was able to point out without even thinking on our short trip down the road. These were the areas where I played touch football, street hockey or chase through the different backyards. I remember skating with the Rinky Dinks at the arena in Revere behind the market basket. Many of the kids that I skated with back then are still my close friends today. Saturday at Stackpole Field to watch the high school football team – I can smell the fried dough that was served by the band parents – and listening to Mr. Mitchell and the school band play the Saugus High School fight song. Ice hockey games at Lynn Arena watching my older cousin play and eventually witnessing them playing the Boston Garden against Bobby Carpenter and Mike Barrasso, two Future NHL stars. Spending time at the age of 12 at Camp Leslie in Georgetown and thinking that was on the other side of the world so far from home. So much of my childhood was like a Norman Rockwell painting right up until January 17th, 1987 [the date of his hockey injury].
Q: As a student athlete playing hockey at Saugus High, what were your life goals and dreams after you graduated?
A: I worked hard for 12 years to get a good education. I was an honor student and looked forward to going to college to become a mechanical engineer. I loved playing sports but I was never a dedicated athlete. My social and extracurricular experience in high school was full and some of the best moments of my life. I really didn’t have exceptional dreams other than to get a good job, get married, have children and lead a normal life.
Q: Did you have plans of becoming a high school math teacher?
A: I’ve never thought of teaching mathematics. My first experience in the world was going to college at Boston University. College came with a lot of anxiety and fear for me. I was just learning to live in a wheelchair. I had absolutely no idea what I could actually do for a career. I switched to teaching just because I didn’t know what else could have been possible. Once I had my first experience in the classroom, I knew that was where I wanted to be.
Q: Please share with our readers what you remember about the serious spinal injury you suffered in 1987 while playing hockey for Saugus High School.
A: My initial feeling was shocked when I was told that I would never walk again. The thing I remember most is the way that my mother looked at me. She looked at me with such a sense of sadness and fear for my future. That was the greatest motivating factor for me. I never wanted my mother to have to look at me that way ever again.
I was overwhelmed by the support of my family and community. It was like the entire town adopted me. So much of what I was able to accomplish came as a result of family and community support. I am so grateful to have grown up in such a wonderful place.
Q: For the benefit of our readers, what is the extent of your injury? What does it mean to be a quadriplegic?
A: I have what is called a complete severed spinal cord at the level C5. What that means is that I have no feeling or function below my chest. Losing the ability to walk is the most visual consequence of my injury. For me, personally, all of the internal aspects of my life and my body that I have lost control of are far more consequential than the ability to walk. The life of a person living with SCI [spinal cord injury] is an unpredictable and fragile experience. When you don’t have control of your own body, it is a difficult mental battle every day to look beyond what could happen and live in the moment.
Q: After the reality set in that you would be confined to a wheelchair the rest of your life, how long was it before you came to peace with your situation and set new career and life goals?
A: I don’t think I will ever be completely at peace as a result of my injury. I don’t feel anybody that suffers such a life-altering event can completely be at peace with their circumstances. That does not mean that I feel bad for myself or regret the life that I lived. I have found what I’ve always been looking for: living a normal life filled with purpose and happiness.
Q: What was the turning point in your life after the injury?
A: I don’t think I can pinpoint one moment that made me find peace and move past my circumstances. For me it is the anticipation of the next good moment. That gets me through all of the challenging moments that are inevitably a part of my existence and always will be.
Q: Looking back over that period of your life, what do you credit for maintaining a positive attitude and moving forward?
A: My parents raised my sister and I to be independent and work for everything that we achieved. It was easy for us to live this way because both of our parents had to live that way to make our lives better. My mother and my father worked two jobs throughout my childhood. This was on a much larger scale, but the foundation built by my family was an integral part of finding my way after my injury.
Q: Was there a person or people in your life who gave you hope and were an inspiration to you? Please talk about the people who inspired you to go on and make something of your life.
A: My mother and my father were my first inspiration and my reason for never letting my circumstances prevent me from achieving. I feel my greatest motivation came from young people. My life centers upon the fact that I need help with almost every aspect of life. That is one of the most burdensome aspects of my existence. That is why I felt such an inspiration from the students that I was able to engage with on a daily basis.
As a teacher it was about my students needing me for assistance. When I first began teaching, it was a distraction from my day-to-day existence. It wasn’t long that that distraction started to become an enjoyment and ultimately, where I found my purpose, personally and professionally.
I will always live with the hole in my heart due to my injury. I also lived with the hole in my heart due to the fact that I would never find what every human being strives for: somebody to love. It took me a long time to let somebody in, and I am blessed to have found love in the beautiful eyes of my wife Arlene.
Q: At what point did you decide you wanted to become an advocate and mentor for spinal cord injured persons?
A: In recent years the pandemic and the Internet created a new world for people living with significant disabilities. I have gained friends and contacts throughout the country. As a result I was able to develop and be the director of a mentor program for teenagers living with spinal cord injuries.
I would next like to create a nonprofit that is employing people with disabilities. I would like to create a graphic novel about a superhero In a wheelchair. I would like this to focus on the physical and mental aspects that kids face each and every day. I guess I will always be an educator now. I would like to focus on the education of life and mental health along with mathematics.
Q: When did you decide you were going to write a book? And please tell us a little bit about that book, “Walking is Overrated.”
A: The title of my book is “Walking is Overrated.” The subtitle is “Living life from two different perspectives.” As much as my physical condition changed as a result of breaking my neck, it is the mental challenges that have had the greatest influence on my existence since that fateful day. This was a personal accomplishment that I needed to achieve to get me through a very rough time in my life. It is not written for someone to feel pity for my existence, because I certainly do not! If this can motivate somebody else to find their way through the inevitable challenges of life, then it will be a worthwhile experience for me. And if the book is not that successful, then all of my family and friends will be getting copies for Christmas and birthdays for the next several years.
Q: Please talk about your book launch set for June 27 at Kowloon Restaurant. What’s the ticket price and what are some of the causes that a portion of the proceeds will go to?
A: Tuesday, June 27th at 6 p.m. at the Kowloon Restaurant. There’s no more appropriate place to have this book launch event. This restaurant has been a part of the community of Saugus for more than 70 years.
My life cannot exist without the assistance of others. This community and the people living in it have been major influences on the shape of my life – both BC and AC (before chair and after chair). My family and the community of Saugus have given me the opportunity to live a life that I never thought would have been possible 36 years ago.
This is a way for me to express my gratitude and celebrate my personal accomplishment. It is going to be an event filled with entertainment, emotion and a lot of reflecting on great times from the past and plans for the future.
Q: You are still a young man. Please tell us about your future plans and goals.
A: My goal is to make my wife happy every day and spend as much time with our beautiful grandchildren. I would like to use my experiences over the last 36 years to make the future an easier transition and open opportunities for people living with a spinal cord injury.
Q: You have said on LinkedIn that you would like to use your years of experience living as a quadriplegic to support individuals living with a spinal cord injury. Feel free to elaborate.
A: I have recently got into politics, something I never imagined. There is legislation that is much needed for people living with disabilities. In fact there are two bills in front of Congress this upcoming session.
The first involves making air travel much more accessible. More than 15,000 wheelchairs are damaged each year by airlines. This is not like misplacing somebody’s luggage that can be smoothed over with a voucher and an apology. This legislation will make airlines create accessible air travel with specific safety regulations for medical equipment.
The other bill involves caretakers and making sure that they are available and can earn a competitive salary. For most of history, people in wheelchairs or anybody with a disability were viewed as a financial burden on society that is unable to contribute much to the economy or community. That is finally starting to change and I am grateful to be able to participate in that change.
Q: Do you have any hobbies?
A: I’ve taken up waterskiing. I guess you could say that a big hobby of mine is food trucks. And that’s why I have my big belly!
Q: What is your favorite food?
A: Whatever is in front of me. A lot of it has to do with my Italian family and my Italian wife. So, I’m not picky when it comes to food.
Q: So, why did you move to Florida?
A: I lived in Saugus until I was 45. I loved the town, but I couldn’t handle the winters anymore. I wanted to be warm.
Q: Anything else that you would like to share?
A: Well, I grew up here and, basically, I was supported through my life as a teacher and student. I want to do something to give back to the community. I want to do something to help somebody else.