Stephanie Souza-Landavazo claps her hands together and keeps the beat for the Cruickshank Middle School color guard.
They stomp, march and twirl their flags during their Thursday morning practice.
"Heels together, toes apart!" she yelled from her wheelchair. More than a dozen middle school girls followed her directions as one.
The 27-year-old volunteers as a color guard instructor two or three days a week. She used to work as the school's instructor for nearly 10 years. Before that she was in color guard at Weaver Middle School and then at Golden Valley High School.
"I like that it's creative and it involves dance," she said. "I love dance -- or I loved to dance."
In May 2009, Souza-Landavazo lost the use of both of her legs because of a rare neurological condition called transverse myelitis.
The disorder is caused by an inflammation of the spinal chord, according to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders. Symptoms include loss of spinal cord function for several hours to several weeks to years.
Some people can recover their ability to move within weeks or months, but others remain paralyzed indefinitely.
Souza-Landavazo said her first symptom was excruciating back pain, followed by a tingling in her toes. A day or so later one leg went numb, then the other -- until she was left paralyzed.
After several misdiagnoses, she was finally told she had transverse myelitis at UC San Francisco.
At that point in her life, she was about to finish her bachelor's degree in sociology at California State University, Stanislaus. She worked part-time at Cruickshank Middle School as a color guard instructor and worked full-time at Best Buy.
Her husband, Paul Landavazo, had just returned from Iraq after serving a 15-month tour, and the couple planned to return to Savannah, Ga., where he had been stationed.
Instead, Souza-Landavazo spent weeks at the Santa Clara Valley Research Rehabilitation Center trying to adjust to her new life. Emotionally, she couldn't even talk about it, she said. "When this first happened I cried all the time," she said. "When I saw myself in a wheelchair, it was surreal."
For months, she battled pain and tried to regain her physical independence.
"I didn't do anything on my own until May," she said.
Richard Lewis, the Cruickshank Middle School band teacher, called Souza-Landavazo in September to ask if she'd like her old job back.
"She brings years and years of experience with her, and the kids can tell," Lewis said. "I'm a music guy, so I don't know what to do. She's as patient with me as she is the kids."
She didn't have to think long about returning.
"When Mr. Lewis asked me to come back, I was more than happy to," she said. "My high school memories are all about color guard."
Since Souza-Landavazo started working with students, Lewis said he already sees tremendous progress, which will hopefully help in future competitions.
Estefani Duran, 11, said she likes her coach because she treats her with respect and generates good ideas. "They're telling us what we're doing wrong -- nicely," she said. "It teaches you self-discipline."
Lewis said he hopes Souza-Landavazo will pursue a teaching career because kids respond to her.
Teaching is her plan, but Souza-Landavazo said she lives her life one day at a time because of the chronic pain she battles almost hour to hour.
If her pain subsides even a little, she said she'd like to eventually be a fourth- or fifth-grade teacher.
For now, Souza-Landavazo has a full plate despite her disability. She has a 16-year-old foster daughter she met through her time teaching color guard.
And although she can't join her girls on the dance floor, she's training them to win.
Reporter Jamie Oppenheim can be reached at 385-2407 or email@example.com.