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Christine Gordillo, Harding Middle School
Mary Gannon, 24, teaches math using her feet. She was born in a Mexican orphanage with no arms, and now she tutors at a middle school in Ohio.
TODAY contributor
updated 10/1/2012 12:04:55 PM ET 2012-10-01T16:04:55

It’s a new school year and students are getting to know their teachers – but one special teacher is receiving attention for her fancy footwork.

Mary Gannon, a 24-year-old math tutor, was born without arms and teaches with her toes, amazing and inspiring students and staff at Harding Middle School in Lakewood, Ohio. She’s become a living example that anything is possible.

Gannon drives, dresses, cooks, types emails and writes math problems on the board – all with her toes. Gannon is right-footed and jokes that she can’t read her writing with her left foot.

She applies her personal experience with overcoming adversity in the classroom with students who need added help in math. Missing arms means a calculated compensation in everything she does. Gannon’s a problem solver in – and out – of the classroom.

“I’m not saying I don’t get frustrated,” she admitted to TODAY.com. “Watching a normal person carry something heavy, I wish it would take me two seconds to carry groceries.”

Christine Gordillo, Harding Middle School
Gannon grades papers with her right foot — because she can't read her writing with her left foot.

Quotations she lives by fill a bulletin board in her classroom. One reads, “Life has no limitations except the ones you make.” Students threatening to give up on a seemingly impossible math problem are directed to look at the board. Gannon herself finds the word “handicap” limiting for someone who dreams so big.

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“I have a bunch of goals for myself: Being a full-time math teacher and having one grade to focus on,” said Gannon, an ambitious recent college graduate who started as a substitute teacher at Harding Middle School before becoming a math tutor.

As far as her students, Gannon told TODAY.com, “I personally go out of my way to explain.”

Her spiel? “You probably noticed there’s something different about me. You’ll see me writing on the board with my feet. I do everything with my feet. If you have questions, you’re more than welcome to ask me.”

A lone, brave hand may shoot up, but most of her students spanning the sixth, seventh and eighth grades hold back until they’re a few weeks into Gannon’s class. Her students have been very respectful, she said, calling it “cute” when they do get the nerve to ask her.

“I waited and then asked her how she does it … and how she drives,” shares 11-year-old Giovanni Tillery a sixth-grader who was curious from Day 1.

Giovanni tells TODAY.com that he’s been raving to his mom, Elizabeth Reyes, about his teacher: Miss Gannon uses her feet as hands! She gets to go barefoot at school!

Courtesy of Mary Gannon
May Gannon can even play instruments with her feet.

Giovanni thought it was so cool, he attempted the feat of gripping with his toes, but unfortunately, “It didn’t work,” he said.

Gannon’s a natural because she’s been using her feet for hands her whole life. She doesn’t know why she was born this way. Gannon spent her early childhood in a Mexican orphanage and lacks early medical records.

The young teacher draws her enormous inner strength from the large, loving Ohio family who adopted her when she was 7 years old.

“They never gave up on me. They’re encouraging me to this day. They’re very supportive, especially my mom,” she gushed. “She’s a doctor and just watching her raise her kids and go back to school and get her master’s — if she can do it, so can I.”

Being different works in Gannon’s favor, explained Giovanni’s mom. Reyes stresses with her kids that they should accept people who are different for who they are. Giovanni did just that – but other students are just as enamored with Gannon as her son.

“I don’t think it’s a disadvantage for her,” Reyes said, calling the teacher “really nice and caring” after meeting her. “It makes her more interesting. A lot of kids get bored easily because they’re 11.”

Gannon was hired on her merit – she can teach and knows math, said Keith Ahearn, principal at Harding Middle School. Turns out, the parents and students love her. And later, the principal noticed she has something “intangible” – that X factor.

“Miss Gannon is an excellent role model and she’s amazing,” Ahearn told TODAY.com. “She’s an excellent teacher anyway, but she does it despite her disability.”

Students don’t treat Gannon any different from other teachers, he said.

“The thing that’s so remarkable is that once you know her, her disability goes away in your eyes,” Ahearn said.

Gannon underlines the importance of acceptance in her classroom. She wants to create a safe place where her students can build their self-esteem so they can succeed. Mocking a student who missed an easy math problem is just not acceptable. Gannon also takes issue with the word “can’t.”

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“I just want you to try. We’re not going to judge you. You’re allowed to make mistakes and not get it right first,” she tells her students. “Do your best in order for you to get somewhere in life – construction worker or doctor.”

Gannon embraces being different. Her license plate says it all: an abbreviation of “Happy Feet.”

“I feel like I’m very outgoing, friendly and always try to be positive,” she explained.

Gannon adores the Academy Award-winning animated movie because the penguin everybody laughed at for doing something different, Mumble, uses his talented feet to win over the other penguins in the end.

And so has Ms. Gannon.

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