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Through Eyes of Faith
Christianity Oasis Ministry has provided you with this
Through Eyes of Faith book. It is the true story of one man's fight against a crippling disability and his undying faith in God. It details his life of living with cerebral palsy and telling how God worked in his life to take him through college and into a career as a journalist and to where he is today living in a nursing home. He gives God all the glory and wants to use his writing to encourage others in their walk with Christ.


 

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Through Eyes of Faith

By Chris Ely
 

 

TABLE OF CONTENTS

First Steps
Suspicions
Learning the Truth
True Test
School Days
Growing Pains
Valuable Resources
Summer Camp
Lessons in Life
Friends
Making the Grade
Father and Son
Search for Acceptance
Speaking Out
Sister's Big Day
So Little Patience
Sticks and Stones
Schoolboy Crush
Driving
My Calling
A Budding Reporter
The Competition
Meaning of Friendship

Part 2

 

       The purpose of this book is not to boast of any accomplishments I have made, for it is only through the constant support and encouragement of my family, teachers and friends that I have achieved. Rather, I write this to illustrate that individuals with disabilities can succeed and live productive lives in a world not fully prepared for them. It is my hope that it will serve as an encouragement to others with disabilities as well as all those without disabilities.
       I wish to dedicate this book in memory of my parents, Charles and Annette, for their love and unselfish sacrifices in giving me every opportunity to go beyond what anyone thought possible. All the glory goes to God, our Father, without whom I could do nothing.


 


First Steps

       “You can do anything you set your mind to.” Words that were planted firmly in my thinking from the time I was a small boy growing up in the flat, open country of West Texas. Mom and Dad embedded those words into my young, impressionable mind early. It didn’t matter that I was different. If I tried hard enough, I could do anything.
       My parents never set anything out of sight for me, even though I was born with a body I couldn’t control. Growing up with cerebral palsy, I learned to work hard to get what came naturally for everybody else.
       “You cannot do that” were words I never heard my parents say even though they knew there would be things I’d never get to do. They knew I’d never get to swim in the deep end of the pool. They knew I’d never get to chase a football. They weren’t even sure if I’d ever walk, but they never kept me from trying. They only believed.
       The day I took my first unbalanced step at 17 months, my parents were overjoyed. Mom ran to the telephone to call Grandmother Altman. “He did it! Chris can walk!” she proudly announced. She called Grandma and Granddad Ely, Aunt Norma. She called everyone. She thanked God that I took that first step, convinced if I took one step, I’d take 100.
       In time, I proved I could do things the doctors, my parents, and even I, never thought possible. It’s because my parents had the faith to let me try despite all odds.
       I saw what God made in me as part of a plan. I knew God had a purpose in everything, and everything that happened was part of God’s plan for making me who I would become. God never promised an easy road, but he gave me the assurance that he would never leave me.

       My family lived a quiet life in a small town in the Texas Panhandle. The Panhandle was about as far north as you could go and still be in Texas. It was a dull, uninteresting part of the country. Nothing but flatlands for miles in any direction. Sparsely spread trees and few hills or valleys, only the wind howling across the open fields.
       Mom had lived in the sleepy, little town of Pampa, Texas, all her life! Annette was the oldest of four Altman girls. Grandmother and Granddad worked hard to send their children to school in long, frilly dresses with ruffles and lace that Grandma stitched by hand.
       Money was scarce with four kids, and the family didn’t have a lot. But they had a wealth of love. Mom was brought up in the old ways, taught to revere God and respect others. She knew the value of hard, honest work and tried to instill the same values in me.
       Dad came to Texas as a boy. Granddad Ely brought the family to Pampa from Oklahoma when he worked for an oil company. They led a quiet, peaceful life, kept to themselves mostly.
       They lived in a small house in a camp they shared with other oil workers just outside of town. Dad learned early on the value of a dollar and not to squander it on frivolous things.
       Granddad bought a house and moved the family to town during Dad’s last year in high school. My mother and father went to the same high school in the 1950s, but it was only after Dad returned from college and a stint in the Army that        Annette met young Charles Ely.
       A buddy of Dad’s told him about the pretty, young girl working down at the electric company. He got up the courage to ask her out on Easter 1961. He took her to Caldwell’s drive-in for a Coke on a sunny, Sunday afternoon. They dated weekends, while Dad worked at the ice plant in town. A year and a half later, they were married. They moved into a little house on Hamilton Street when my sister, Karen, was born a year and a half later.
       It was situated in a quiet neighborhood, with a big back yard and a sagging Weeping Willow in the comer of the yard. It was a modest house, but love abounded in every tiny crevice.
       I was a late comer into this world, about three weeks late to be exact. Mom and Dad had expected my arrival in early fall of 1968.
       It was a joyous time for the new parents. Karen was nearly 3 and growing more every day. She was learning to take more steps and saying new words each day. Watching her sprout from a rosy-cheeked, wrinkly baby into a happy, healthy little girl, and now with a new baby on the way, my parents were filled with anticipation.
       They weren’t too worried that I didn’t arrive right on time. After all, Karen was a late baby. It was natural, they thought.
       Mom got up with expectancy every day, thinking, “Surely this would be the day.” She made the painstaking effort of making sure she was dressed and ready to go to the hospital each day, despite the strain of getting clothes on in her frail condition.
       The days and weeks passed until at last October came. Still, there was no sign of a baby. Finally, on a blustery day in late October, the time came.
       Mom arrived at the hospital shortly before midnight. The nurses assured her there was plenty of time before the baby arrived. The doctor didn’t even see my mother until the next morning. Mom always said if the doctor had only come to the hospital that night, things might have turned out different. If he had only come a little sooner . . .


Suspicions


       When the doctor came into Mom’s room before dawn the next morning, he knew something was wrong the minute he looked at her. The baby was in the wrong position. They quickly began getting her ready and rushed her to the delivery room.
       I was born at 8:48 in the morning on October 19,1968. Mom was groggy when she came to, but she could hear the doctor faintly in the distance. He was giving instructions to the nurses, telling them to call another doctor. His brother had a practice across the street from the hospital.
       “Get him on the phone and tell him to get over here,” he ordered the nurses. Mom, still queasy, could hear the bustle in the delivery room. They whisked me off to the nursery, while the doctor went out to talk to Dad.
       He told him the umbilical cord had wrapped around my neck, cutting off the oxygen to my brain for a short time. There were no signs of injury to my body and brain, but the doctor was unsure about the damage.
       Dad’s first reaction was fear. “Is there any brain damage?” Dad asked.
       “He’s down in the nursery; you can go and see for yourself,” the doctor said sharply.
       He assured Dad that I was all right. Truth was, he didn’t know if I was all right. No one did.
       Mom and Dad suspected something was wrong when they brought their new bundle of joy home from the hospital. As the days turned into weeks, and I began to grow, the bliss of having a new baby in the house quickly faded and their suspicions grew.
       At five months, even though I was growing, I could not sit up on my own. A frantic call to the doctor brought a reassuring, “Don’t worry.” The doctor said some children develop slower than others, and that I would catch up.
       My parents were frightened. Mom spent hours on her knees with tear-stained cheeks praying. She refused to let her fears make her faith grow weak. She believed I would be all right. I was showered with prayers. Grandmother Altman prayed. The church prayed. Mom even had the preacher say a prayer for me. He held me one Sunday morning and raised up my taut body and asked God to make me well.
       My parents wanted to believe everything was going to be all right, but their hope was dwindling when at six months I was still unable to sit up alone. They propped pillows behind my back, in hopes that I would sit up on my own.
       Grandmother Ely had noticed my slowness in development, too. One day, Mom had carried Karen and me over to Grandma’s house. Grandmother Ely held me tightly in her arms and looked down at my clenched fists.
       “There’s something wrong with him,” she said. “He can’t straighten out his hands.”
       Mom tried to dismiss Grandmother’s warning. “Your mother worries too much,” she told Dad on the way home. By the time we got home, Mom was practically in tears. She couldn’t help but remember Grandmother’s words and wonder if she was right.
       I showed little progress after nine months. I seemed alert and tried to sit up, but I lacked the balance to support myself.
       One day, out of desperation, my parents sat me on the bed to see if I could sit by myself. I toppled over on the bed. Their hearts sank as they realized their greatest fears were true. It was obvious that something was not right.
       More and more, my parents feared something was wrong. I wasn’t crawling like a normal baby. I’d reach for a toy and drop it. I couldn’t grasp a bottle to feed myself.
       By my first birthday, Mom and Dad were frantic. All they had to do was look at me to know something was wrong. When Mom took me back to the doctor, she kept asking him if something was wrong.
       He finally told them to take me to a specialist, hoping to relieve their growing fears. Mom and Dad made the appointment, praying for a miracle but fearing the worst. Either way, they had to know. They wouldn’t be able to rest until they knew the truth.


Learning the Truth


       I was a year old when my parents took me to a neurologist. The doctor only had to look at me to know what was wrong. He had seen it before.
After looking me over from head to toe, the doctor turned to my parents and told them frankly, “Your son has a nervous condition known as cerebral palsy.”
       Dad knew immediately what the doctor was telling them. He had heard of this crippling disease, and even seen others who had the disease. Mom, however, still didn’t realize how serious my condition was. A tear streaked down Dad’s cheek as he listened intently to the doctor.
       The doctor said the condition was caused by a brain defect when the umbilical cord damaged the area of the brain that controls coordination and balance.
       “How handicapped will he be?” Dad asked.
       “He could live a happy, normal life or he could be severely disabled. Time will tell how severe the condition is and what he’ll be able to do,” the doctor told them.
       The truth was out. Finally, my parents could admit to themselves that I would not grow up like a normal child. The question now was why. Mom was brought up to believe that anything was possible to those who have faith. Now, her faith was being tried.
       My parents had prayed for a miracle. Had all their prayers gone unanswered? Mom wondered if she had done something wrong and now was having to pay for it — or that I was having to pay for something she had done. She couldn’t understand why this was happening.
       My parents shed many tears, but they knew they had to trust God and go on. It wasn’t the answer they had hoped for, but God had given them an answer. My parents accepted my disability, and they were determined to do everything they could to give me a normal life.
       They never gave up on me and never once looked back. My mother’s prayers never ceased. She still believed a miracle was possible. Anything was possible.
       They learned more about my disability in the weeks and months that followed. They started taking me to the Children’s Rehabilitation Center for treatment.
       The therapists exercised my stilted legs to strengthen the muscles. They stretched and bent my limbs like elastic bands, all in hopes my legs would become nimble enough that I would one day walk. The center’s director said I probably would walk but would have a limp.
       Physical therapists put me through my weekly dose of calisthenics, gently pushing and stretching my arms and legs, and they taught Mom to do the exercises at home. They offered encouraging words to my mother, telling her I probably would walk if my muscles became strong enough. It was a thought Mom held in her heart. I had to walk.
       Mom and Dad diligently continued the exercises at home. They tackled the exercises with stringent determination. Morning, noon and evening, they put me through workouts. Mom practiced the exercises every morning, and Dad rubbed my legs with oil at night when he got home.
       With patience and persistence, they followed this routine. They never gave up. I began to sit up on my own when I was 16 months old. I took my first unbalanced step a month later. It was the glimmer of hope my parents had waited for.
       Other signs of growth followed slowly. The biggest obstacle was in learning to talk. Only garbled sounds poured from my mouth.
       As soon as I showed signs of trying to talk, I was put under the close watch of Miss Appleby, a speech therapist at the Children’s center. Miss Appleby was intent on starting the training early. She knew the importance of teaching a child early on to enunciate clearly, for she had the same malady as many of those whom she taught. She, too, had cerebral palsy.
       At first, my parents were hesitant, even angry, that they would let someone like Miss Appleby treat me. “How could someone with a speech problem teach others?” Mom asked. They didn’t understand, but after watching Miss Appleby, they saw that she had a better understanding than the most fluent speakers. They saw how determined she was to teach her students to speak clearly.
       Her speech was affected slightly, though it was hardly noticeable by listening to her speak. Miss Appleby had worked hard to tame her tense, uncontrolled tongue. Her words were as distinct as a drill sergeant. She refused to let her words be slurred, and she demanded the same of her students.
       When I got older, I got no sympathy from Miss Appleby when the words didn’t come easily She accepted no excuses for my mutterings. If I didn’t say each word so she could understand it, she made me repeat it over and over after her. “You can do better,” she said. “I know you can.”
       It took years before I could be easily understood. I could only say a few, simple words by 21 months, and they were only understandable to my family, but even then Miss Appleby tried to shape my speech patterns.
       Speech therapy brought a whole new regimen of exercises for Mom and Dad to try at home. Miss Appleby told Mom to give me an empty bottle and let me start sucking on it.
       It seemed like a mean trick to play on a little baby, but Miss Appleby insisted it would help loosen my tongue. It worked for a while, until I discovered the bottle was empty and refused to take it.
       Miss Appleby tried more appetizing exercises as I got older. She spread peanut butter on a tongue depressor and positioned it at the top of my mouth. I had to swish my tongue to the roof of my mouth and sweep the peanut butter off the stick. It would get my tongue in the habit of naturally going to the top of my mouth when I made ‘L sounds.
       I didn’t mind the effort it took to wipe the stick clean. Sometimes, I got lucky and retrieved all of the sweet treat with one clean sweep, but usually it came off a little at a time.
       After my speech lesson came my leg exercises. My walking had improved drastically by my second birthday. Mom would put me in my walker, and I’d take off scooting across the floor.
       I was older than most children when I learned to walk, but the process was much the same. Dad stood a few feet away, coaching me to take those first unstable steps into his outstretched arms. Each week at the center, they worked to make my muscles limber, forcing me to stretch my legs.
       My parents took the walker away when the seat broke. I cried for it at first, but after a couple of days I didn’t miss it at all. After a few days, I was walking almost anywhere I wanted without support. From then on, it was all they could do to keep me out of everything.


       The older I got, the more determined my parents were to treat me like any other child, showing no special treatment to me than to my sister, Karen. But each day they realized that we could not be raised in the same way. I was learning what I could not do; Karen was discovering all that she could do.
       Mom and Dad spent time with both children equally, gave to both equally and scolded both equally. After spending all day at the center with me, Mom spent time alone with Karen at night. They played house, baking little cakes in a miniature oven. Or Mom would help Karen dress her dolls in new frocks.
       Still, Karen had to realize that I took up more of Mom’s time than she. It took more time to take care of me, more money for special shoes and more worries, but if Karen ever harbored a grudge against me, she never showed it.
       She waited patiently while Mom was busy dressing me or as Dad gave me my exercises. As the older sister, Karen had a motherly touch and wanted to help Mom take care of me.
       Karen was patient with me, even when I insisted on tagging along when she went out to play. She’d sometimes become angry when I burst into her room uninvited and would try to shove me down, but it was normal brother and-sister strife. Karen never mistreated me.
       If anything, I took my frustrations out on her. I was jealous because she got to do more than I did. I was left standing, staring out the front room picture window while Karen ran off to play with her friends. I wanted to be out in the middle of them, but I knew I couldn’t.
       “You might get hurt,” Mom said. She was always afraid I’d get hurt among the romping of the other children.
       Karen sometimes took me with her when she went out to play, even though I often slowed her down. It was hard for her to watch all the neighborhood children run and play and not be able to go with them because she had to watch after me.
       I was furious when she left me behind. I would try to scream at her, but my tongue would get tied in knots and I wouldn’t be able to get the words out.
       I was left all alone and had no one to play with me. There was no one to pull me in the little, red wagon that I loved so much.
       I was enraged when Karen left me. I went into her room when she wasn’t there and threw her things around the room. I wanted to be like the other children. I couldn’t stand it that my clumsy feet wouldn’t carry me everywhere I wanted.
       My parents saw my frustrations. They surprised me with a shiny new tricycle on my fourth birthday. It was purple and had brightly colored streamers dangling from the handlebars. The neighborhood children laughed at it because they all had two-wheelers, but to me it was the best bike on the block. Even though Dad wouldn’t let me take it past the neighbor’s driveway, I found a new freedom. Now, I could keep up with the other children. At last, I was one of them.


True Test


       If I was slower learning to walk and developing physically, my parents were afraid I would be slower at learning mentally, too. The doctors comforted them by assuring them the area of my brain needed for learning remained unscathed. They believed I could learn the same as any other child.
       My aunt ran a school for retarded children, and she suggested that my parents have me tested to be in her school. Aunt Ruth was a boisterous and plainspoken woman. She shared the same unyielding faith as my mother. She encouraged my mom in the days after I was diagnosed with cerebral palsy.
       Aunt Ruth urged Mom to bring me to the sheltered workshop, where she taught mentally retarded and handicapped children. She said it could only help me to get out among other children and have playmates my own age. There, at least, I could get training to live a normal, independent life.
       Mom and Dad were uneasy about taking me to a school for the mentally handicapped. Like all parents, they wanted to believe their little boy was a little smarter than any other child. They hoped, at least, I would go to regular school.
       Still, they had to consider the possibility that I might not be able to attend school with regular children, so one afternoon Mom took me to visit Aunt Ruth’s school.
       From the outside, the school was impressive. It was in a beautiful old church. Lush, green lawns stretched across the landscape under the shade of beautiful old trees. The inside told a different story.
       A sea of far-off stares met us. I clenched Mom’s hand tightly as we walked around the room. The older children greeted us with broad smiles and proudly led us across the room to the projects they were working on. Many of them were more handicapped than I was. They were sitting in wheelchairs and strollers. Many didn’t talk as well as I did; some not at all.
       Mom’s eyes became moist with tears as she looked around the room, hoping she wouldn’t have to leave me in that place. Aunt Ruth encouraged her, saying if I came to the school, she could work with me and teach me to read and write and do all the things normal children do. Her words were little consolation, however, to a mother who hoped her child would attend regular classes. But my parents agreed to an IQ test.
       A few weeks later, they took me to the State Center for Mental Health and Mental Retardation in Amarillo for an intelligence test. Mom took great pains getting me ready for my evaluation. She dressed me in a brand-new jumpsuit and warned me to do exactly what the doctor said. Both she and Dad were intent on making a good impression on the doctor.
       The psychologist watched as I played with the toys in the small office. The tests requiring the use of my hands — counting out small, wooden blocks or placing tiny pegs in holes — were impossible. I sent the blocks flying off the table and across the room when I tried.
       The doctor went on to the psychological tests. Mom always said I had a remarkable memory. I could count to 10 and recite Aunt Norma’s telephone number from memory by the time I was 4. The doctor seemed impressed when I repeated a series of numbers back to her without hesitation.
       The psychologist sat scribbling on a note pad as Mom and Dad waited patiently. They were relieved when the tests were over and they could take me home. The tests concluded I had average intelligence and that my disability was not severe enough to require special schooling.
       My parents were quite relieved. Now, they could concentrate on getting me ready for school — regular school.
       My birthday fell late, so I couldn’t start kindergarten with the other children when I turned 5. I had to wait until the fall, almost a full year after all the other kids started school. Still, Mom and Dad wanted me to learn so I didn’t fall too far behind.
       Dad arranged to get me in Head Start kindergarten. My parents thought it would give me that extra boost to get me ready to start regular school. It helped that Dad was a schoolteacher and knew the right people to talk to to get me in the program.
       I was glad when I started to school. I had watched Karen head off to school every day, and I wanted to go, too. I’d ask Mom, “When can I go to school?”
       “You’ll go someday,” she said. “Someday.”
       When I finally started to Head Start kindergarten, I was excited. I knew the sacrifices that had been made to get me in school. Even at an early age, I knew I was different from other children, so I knew it was a miracle that I was even there.
       From the first day, I was treated as any other student. The class was small and methods of teaching advanced. A small cluster of caring teachers and aides catered to each student’s needs to give him that extra boost.
       All the mothers took turns coming to school to help with crafts or storytelling. Mom came to class once a week. She helped with crafts and went with us on field trips. I loved when Mom came. I clung to her and wouldn’t let her out of my sight.
       She also came every day at mealtime. I couldn’t feed myself without making a mess of the floor and myself, so Mom came and fed me my lunch. Mealtime was an ordeal at home. Mom thought I should be feeding myself. She tried to get me to rely less on her help and more on using my ability to help myself, but I refused to cooperate.
       I tried to feed myself, but it was too hard. Once I got a bite on the spoon and hoisted it up to my mouth, the spoon would tip over and I would spill the contents. It would be so much easier if I could pick up the food with my hands and stuff it in my mouth. I used my hands until Mom told me I had to be neater with my food.
       She put the spoon back in my hand and told me to try again. I fought her every step of the way. Finally, she’d say, “All right, I’m going to give you a bite, then you’re going to get a bite,” hoping that I would at least take a few bites on my own. It went back and forth. Mom would feed me a bite, then I would force a small morsel onto the spoon and edge it up to my mouth.
       We stayed at the dinner table long after everyone else had finished — until every bite was cleared from my plate.
       Mom had a tender heart, and it hurt her to see me struggle, so at school she gave in and did it for me. She didn’t want to start a fight, and it was just easier that way.
       It was different at school. I cooperated with my teachers. I was expected to do all the things the other children did, even coloring and writing. I didn’t argue with the teachers when they gave me an order. I just did it.
       The hardest thing was learning to print my name. My hands shook so that my writing was almost illegible. With a tight grip on my thick pencil and perspiration pouring down my forehead, I tensed my arm so it wouldn’t shake when I wrote. Soon, I began to show progress and learned to print my first name.
       I made many new playmates at school. The other children saw that I was different, and they were naturally curious about me. Most were nice to me, but some were cruel. I’d see them point at me and ask their parents why I walked funny.
       The parents, rather than try to explain that I was handicapped, just told them to hush. “It’s not nice to stare,” they would say. They wouldn’t tell them why I was different, so many grew up not knowing about the handicapped. They didn’t know that I was just like them in many ways.
       They saw me as that poor crippled boy whom they should pity. Many carried their prejudices through life and never took the time to get to know me.


       I was content to stay at school, except when Mom came to class. Mom made the mistake of letting me go home with her one day, and from then on I wanted to go with her every time.
       Mom came to school one day, and I begged to go home with her. We were going to the cafeteria, and I started begging to go with her. She told me I couldn’t go with her, but I kept on. I started crying and screaming. I threw a fit in front of the whole class, but Mom didn’t give in this time and insisted that I stay at school.
       I threw such a tantrum that Mom just had to walk away and leave me. I yelled all the louder, but she kept walking.
       Mom was never quite sure what to do with me when I had one of my outbursts. Wanting to be a good mother but still learning how to raise a handicapped child, she was afraid to be too harsh with me, but she couldn’t give in to me every time I had a tantrum either.
       It wasn’t the first time I had raised such a ruckus. One day, Mom took me with her to the grocery store. I loved to get in the basket as she pushed me around the store. As we passed the toy aisle, I spotted a little truck on the shelf and begged to get down and play with it.
      “Only for a few minutes,” Mom said. “Then, we have to finish our shopping.”
       I made zooming sounds as I scampered up and down the aisle pushing the truck. Round and round it went. I loved watching the little truck. Finally, Mom was ready to go.
       “Put the truck back now. We have to go.” But I wasn’t ready to leave yet. I kept pushing the truck.
       “We have to go now,” she said, taking the truck and putting it back on the shelf. I let out an earsplitting squeal and started bawling. People started peeking around the corner to see what was happening. Mom was terribly embarrassed that her son was behaving that way. There was nothing she could do to get me to quiet down. I was howling.
       Finally, she picked me up and carried me screaming from the store. She had to take me home to Dad, then go back and get her groceries.
       The next week when we went to the center, Mom asked the director, Mr. Balke, if she had done the right thing or if she should have given in to my tantrum and let me play with the truck.
       Mr. Balke assured her she had handled the situation as any good mother would. “It’s bad to have a child who’s handicapped, but it’s worse to have a child who’s handicapped and spoiled,” he told her.
       Mom learned that if she didn’t discipline me I would be completely unbearable. From then on, she made it clear that “no” meant “no,” and when she told me I had to stay at school, I had to learn to do as she said.
       As the year went on, I made some progress in learning. Even the Head Start teacher said I was advanced for my age, and by the end of the year, they felt I was ready to start regular kindergarten.
       Mom and Dad were proud of each accomplishment I made, no matter how small. When I wrote my name for the first time, the letters were barely distinguishable because my writing was so shaky. Still, they raved over it. They took nothing for granted because they knew each accomplishment came at a price.


School Days


       I had no fears about starting kindergarten the next fall despite being forced out of my safety zone of Head Start, where the pressure to compete was lessened. I was thrust in among 25 able-bodied children who could run and play freely with no thought to trying to keep their balance.
       Kindergarten saw many firsts. Not only was it a new experience for me, it was a first for the teacher, too. It was Mrs. Gross’s first year to teach, her first day in the classroom, and I had been foisted upon her. She must have been terrified. No training for becoming a teacher could have prepared her for that day. Mrs. Gross never had been taught how to work with a student with a disability.
       Mrs. Gross was kind and patient and did her best to help the other children understand and educate herself about my disability.
       We all learned a lot those first few weeks. I knew I wasn’t like the other children. Like ducks in a row, I sat alongside my classmates on mats in the floor while Mrs. Gross read the class a story. I gazed strangely around the room at the other children, and I saw that I was different. It felt strange being with them, like I shouldn’t even be there.
       Growing up with cerebral palsy, I knew there would be things I couldn’t do. Like running and chasing after the other kids in a game of freeze tag or ducking a speeding ball in dodge ball. I couldn’t join in their games, so I had to be content to watch.
       I sat at the side of the playground and watched the sports. I was quick to chase any runaway balls that came my way and toss them back onto the court. Like the others, I raced for the swings and fought for a turn on the slide, even though I often lagged behind the rest of the group. If I got too far behind, one of my classmates ran back and grabbed my arm, and with a gentle tug, would lead me to the rest of the class.
       Sometimes, just climbing the steps to go into the building was a struggle, but the children lined up to help. They all wanted to help me when I needed it.
       I took tumbles as I fought to keep my balance on my wobbly feet. I wore a helmet to soften the landing when I fell. The helmet was quite strange looking. It looked like the headgear of an early football team. A chin strap kept the helmet firmly planted on my head, and a soft, thin padding lined the inside. It protected my head from the knocks and bumps I took every day. But it also brought some curious stares.
       The first time our principal, Mr. Jones, saw me wearing it, he asked, “What in the world has that kid got on his head?”
       The teacher explained that I had to wear it because I lost my balance and fell a lot.
       At first, he felt sorry for me. He would see me coming down the hall. He’d watch until I passed and just shake his head. So did a lot of other people when they saw me for the first time. They wanted to help, but they didn’t know how.
       It didn’t take long to see why I needed the helmet. One trip through the halls usually would end with a spill.
       When I did fall, everyone rushed over to see if I was all right and to help me up. Everyone except for one boy in the class. Derrick Smith. Derrick was sort of a self-appointed bodyguard. He’d see the kids all milling around me in the hall, and he would push his way through the crowd.
       “Leave him alone,” he would tell the others.
Then, he’d come over to me and say something like, “Quit lying in the floor, Chris. You’re holding up traffic. Get up from there.”
       People who didn’t know thought he was being mean, but Derrick knew that’s how I wanted to be treated. The last thing I wanted was people feeling sorry for me. “You won’t get anywhere from people feeling sorry for you all the time,” Mom and Dad always told me. I had to make it on my own.
       With an outstretched hand, Derrick would reach down and pull me to my feet. Sometimes, I got only a few feet before I fell again. To make things worse, I wore leg braces. They were called twisters because they turned my feet outward to help me walk straight.
       I wore them on the inside of my pant legs. A strap fastened around my waist, and the braces ran down my pant legs and attached to my shoes.
       I had high top shoes. They were heavy and made quite a clatter when I walked down the hall. Clip-clopping down the hall in my high-top shoes and braces, a helmet planted on my head, I was quite a sight.
       The extra weight of the shoes pulled me down. It usually didn’t hurt anything except my ego when I fell because I had trained myself how to fall. After many bumps and bruises on the noggin, I learned to keep my head up when I took a tumble. And the helmet helped to soften the blow. Of course, Derrick was always there, too, if I needed help. He was always there to gently pick me up.
       “You put another hole in the floor?” he’d quip. Then, he’d lift me up, and I would be on my way again. The rest of the class hurried on ahead, but Derrick stayed with me until I got where I was going.
       I lagged behind the others, partly because of my heavy shoes, but the delay wasn’t entirely because of my feet.
       The teachers knew it took me longer, so Derrick and I dallied in the hall. We lingered in the hall as long as we could — or as long as we could get by with. If we stayed too long, though, the teacher came looking for us.
       “Chris fell again,” Derrick would tell her. “We’re coming.”
       As the year went by, I made still more progress. I was getting used to being away from home all day and felt more sure of taking care of myself. I started to do more for myself and lost some of my self-consciousness over being around the other children. I wanted to do more things myself. I wanted to be independent.
       Mom still came to class occasionally, but I was learning to make it on my own. Of course, Mom was thrilled that I was becoming more independent, but she had to learn to let go.
       One day, we had an assembly, and all the students had to carry their chairs to the gym. Mom was going to carry mine, but I didn’t want help. I wanted to carry the chair along with my classmates.
       “No! I can do it,” I told her.
I pushed her away because I was determined to carry the chair. And I did. Mom had to let go and let me try to make it on my own. But she was right there if I needed help.


Growing Pains


       Mom never stopped believing in God’s ability to give me a normal life. Even though she didn’t understand why I should be afflicted by this thorn in the flesh, Mom never lost faith. Her prayers never ceased even as I got older. She carried me to prayer meeting after prayer meeting, hoping against hope that I would be healed.
       From the time I was old enough to understand, my parents taught me to call on God to help me. Mom took my sister and me to church every Sunday. She did her best to help me understand my disability.
       Mom said I must not be bitter about it, but to accept it and trust God to help me. I couldn’t understand why I was the way I was. I was taught to look to God when I had questions.
       Mom and Dad tried to give me a normal life, even though there were things about me that were anything but normal. Mom dressed me for school every day. She saw to it that my shirt was buttoned straight, my pants were snapped and my shoes tied before I left home. It’s hard enough for a first-grader to learn to tie a shoe or button a button, but for someone with cerebral palsy, it seemed impossible.
       I simply couldn’t make my tense hands wind those shoestrings around into a neat little bow, so Mom had to tie my shoes for me.
       At school, I didn’t want to ask anyone for help. I wanted to make it on my own. I tried to wait until I got home to go to the bathroom. At home when I had to go, Mom or Dad would unfasten my pants, then I could go on and use the bathroom.
       One day, I had an emergency at school. I had to go to the bathroom. I waited as long as I could, but I had to go.
       I raised my hand and asked to be excused. Derrick usually went with me to help me or there was someone in the bathroom who could help me. But that day, there was no one else in the restroom.
       I unbuckled my belt without much problem, but I couldn’t get the snap loosened. It was the kind of hook that I had to slide over to get it undone. I struggled with it for several minutes, but I couldn’t get it loose. By then, I really had to go. I was working with it when ... it was too late. I wet my pants.
       I was so embarrassed. I was afraid to go back to class. Everyone would laugh at me. I quickly got some paper towels and tried to dry the wet spot, but it was no use.
       I went back to the room and slid behind my desk. It was about an hour until school let out. I had a jacket at my desk, so I put it over my lap hoping I could hide the stain.
       At the end of the day, Mrs. Bums, my first-grade teacher, always picked someone to help her pass out papers. I usually liked to pass out the papers, but that day I prayed she wouldn’t call on me. I sat at my desk, praying the bell would ring before she chose someone.
       “Chris, would you hand out the papers for me?” Mrs. Burns asked.
       I couldn’t hand out the papers. Everyone would see what I had done, I thought to myself.
       I got up, trying to keep the jacket over the wet spot. By then, Mrs. Burns had noticed what had happened. She called me to her desk. “Didn’t you make it to the bathroom?” she asked.
       I explained to her what happened. Mrs. Burns had compassion on me. She didn’t embarrass me. She quietly led me into the hall and helped me get dried off before anyone noticed what had happened. “Next time, if you need help, let me know. I’ll get someone to help you,” she said.
       I waited in the hall until the bell rang. No one ever knew what happened, not even Mom. Mrs. Bums said it would be our secret. I never forgot her kindness to me that day.


       I left school early one day a week, and Mom took me to the Children’s center for treatment. Besides speech and physical therapy, I went to occupational therapy, where I learned to rely on my own abilities to do the chores of everyday living.
       One room at the center was arranged like a kitchen, where I practiced feeding myself. Another was a bedroom, with a bed, dresser and a large mirror. The third room was a bathroom, and the fourth a workshop. Miss Connie took me to one of the rooms each week for my lesson.
       The weeks when we went to the kitchen were met with great anticipation. I loved the trips to the kitchen because I got to eat. But I was filled with anxiety the weeks she would lead me into the bedroom or the bathroom to practice dressing.
       Connie had a block of wood with a piece of cloth on it. The cloth was tacked to the sides of the board and had buttons in the middle.
       She showed me how to put the button in the buttonhole, then it was my turn. Even though they were the size of silver dollars, I could not make my stiff hands grab hold of one of the buttons and get it to go through the hole. I would just get the button in the hole when my hand would slip and the button would fall out.
       Connie sat patiently, encouraging me to keep trying.
       I was convinced I’d never button a shirt. It seemed so impossible. How could I manage the tiny buttons on a shirt when I couldn’t manage the giant ones? I had no desire to button a shirt, so I refused to even try. I quit. I didn’t want it bad enough.
       Mom felt sorry for me. I was relieved when she laid out a pullover shirt for me to wear to the center, so I wouldn’t have to practice buttoning it. Still, Connie made me practice pulling the shirt on and off over my head.
       I stood in front of the oversized mirror and practiced taking off my shirt and putting it on again. I had little trouble getting it off, just slip it over my head. The hard part came when I tried to get my arms back in the right holes and get it over my head.
       Connie used a stopwatch to track my progress. I had to keep doing it until I could get my shirt on in under three minutes. Once, I stuck my arms in the wrong holes and got the shirt on backward. Connie made me take it off and start again. I was furious. I didn’t want to try again. “I CAN’T!” I demanded.
       “You can, and you will,” Connie said.
I gained speed as the weeks went on. By the time we finished, I could take my shirt off and put it on again in less than three minutes.
       Socks were another seemingly impossible feat. Trying to stretch the sock wide enough to get my foot through was just too much to handle.
       I’d try to get my foot in the hole but miss the hole. Sometimes, I’d get my foot in the sock and start to pull it up, when my hand would shake and the sock fell off. My temper flared. I’d throw the sock across the room and run find Mom. I came to put my socks on in record time, but it wasn’t without much practice and determination.
       I refused to even try to tie my shoes. I had convinced myself I couldn’t do it. My stiff fingers got in the way when I tried. Instead of tying knots in my shoestrings, it was usually my fingers that got tied in knots.
       Connie tried telling me if I couldn’t tie my shoes I’d never really have the independence I wanted so desperately to achieve. I would always be depending on someone else.
       But Connie wasn’t going to force me to do something I didn’t want to do. Unlike Mom, Connie wouldn’t fight me to get me to learn. I had to want to learn, and I already had my mind made up that I couldn’t learn. So, I just gave up. I didn’t try.
       That decision will haunt me for the rest of my life. Years later, when I got out on my own, I had to humble myself and ask for help when I needed my shoes tied because I didn’t try when I was young. Even though I bought shoes that had no shoestrings to tie, I had to live with my decision. I had to admit failure over something as little as a shoestring.
       I often regretted that I didn’t try harder when I was young. I lost part of my independence because I didn’t learn to do more for myself. I resigned myself to just getting by and did not try. Mom and Dad tried to instill in me the value of hard work. “You can do anything if you try,” Dad badgered me.
       But by the time I was 8 years old, I was still as helpless as a baby around my parents. I wanted them to do everything for me. I tested my parents to see how much I could get them to do for me.
       I was at the age when I should have been dressing and feeding myself, but I still depended on Mom to do it for me. She put my socks on me in the morning and tied my shoes. She cut up my food and even spoon-fed me.
       Dad was not taken in by my helpless act. “You’ll learn to feed yourself or you’ll go without,” he said. He wasn’t being mean. He just wanted me to learn, but I’d run to Mom, hoping she would have pity on me.
       I could do more than I let on, but I was lazy. It was easier if Mom did it, and she was so goodhearted it was hard for her to say no. But even she had her limits.
       “I’m not always going to be here to do these things for you,” she’d say. “You need to learn to do it for yourself.”
       But I would keep on until she’d finally get tired of arguing with me and just do it. I wanted her to do everything for me, even help me with my bath.
       I was nearly 9 years old, the age when most boys would shutter at the thought of their mothers seeing them naked! But I was not embarrassed or ashamed to ask her to help me.
       “I might fall,” I said to try to earn her sympathy. I had lots of excuses. And it was just easier if she did it.
       I was in the bathtub one night, and Mom, under duress, was helping me with my bath. While I was in the tub, though, Mom told me she was not going to keep bathing me and that I was going to have to start dressing myself.
       “I can’t!” I declared. “You have to help me!”
“You’re too old for me to keep giving you a bath,” she insisted.
       By the time the bath was over, Mom was all upset and I was in tears. But she had made one thing clear — she wasn’t going to help me get dressed. She lifted me out of the tub and started drying me off.
       “Will you help me get dressed?” I asked.
“No. You’re going to have to put your clothes on yourself,” she said.
       “Please!” I begged her.
“I’m sorry, Chris, but I’m not going to do it for you anymore.”
       I started screaming. Finally, she just had to leave the room. I yelled for her to come back, but she ignored me.
       “I NEED YOU TO HELP ME!” I yelled.
       After about 10 minutes of this, Dad had heard enough. “Where’s the belt?” he shouted from the living room.
       I was standing in the doorway, stark naked, when I heard him starting toward my room. I hurried over to the chest and grabbed my clothes out of the drawer and started pulling them on. But by then it was too late.
       Dad turned me across the bed and laid into me. He gave me a sound spanking.
       “Your mother is not going to do it for you. Understand me?”
       I nodded a forlorn “yes.”
       I cried into my pillow that night, partly because of the blistering, but more for feeling sorry for myself. Why didn’t my parents see that it was easier to have everything done for me? Deep down, I knew they were right. I knew I was only hurting myself.


       My malingering didn’t end when I got to school. Although I had made progress, I was content to merely pass from grade to grade. I didn’t put forth my best effort. School was like a playground for me, a place where I went to see my friends and have fun. I didn’t take it as seriously as I ought. I was content simply to get by.
       When the teacher assigned class work, I would sit at my desk and pretend to study. Many times, I would be doodling or gazing out the window. I didn’t try to learn.
       In third grade, the teacher assigned a slate of vocabulary words each week and had the class write each one 10 times. I couldn’t see any sense in this. It was a strain just to write the words once, and she wanted me to write each one 10 times?
       My pencil scrawls were almost illegible, and it took me longer to write out the words than the other students. I just couldn’t see any sense in it, so I made up my mind I wasn’t going to do it.
       The first week I didn’t turn in a paper, the teacher told me I would have to make it up if I hoped to get a passing grade in spelling. After several weeks, she became concerned because it wasn’t just spelling I had fallen behind in. I had put off other assignments, too — in reading and math.
       One week, we had a substitute teacher, and I didn’t turn in any homework. The substitute thought that because I was disabled, maybe I was excused from written assignments. But my classmates quickly told her different.
       I fell further and further behind, and I found new excuses for not having my work. Finally, the teacher called me up to her desk. Stumbling to my feet, I began the long walk toward the front of the classroom.
       Tears streaking down my cheeks, I faced my teacher and pleaded that I be allowed to make up the work. The teacher looked at me for a minute and said, “Chris, you’re getting further behind.” She told me I might have to repeat the third grade.
       The thought of repeating the third grade sent a streak of terror up my spine. Out of desperation, I vowed to turn in every assignment from then on. The teacher scribbled out a note and told me to take it home to my parents.
       I knew if I showed the note to my parents I would get a spanking for sure. All my parents asked of my sister and me is that we did our best and worked hard. They wouldn’t tolerate such laziness.
       I couldn’t take the note home. When the class went to recess that day, I stood off to the side by myself. Then, when no one was looking, I hid the note in a cement slab that was overgrown in weeds. No one will find it there, I assured myself.
       When school let out, I went home relieved that I had spared my backside a sound spanking. That was Friday afternoon. By Friday night, I started to worry.
       What if someone finds the note? I’ll really be in trouble then, I told myself.
       My conscience began to bother me a little, too. That night, I had a nightmare that someone found the note. I was miserable the whole weekend. All I did was worry about the note. By the time Monday morning arrived, I couldn’t wait to get to school. I was up and dressed for school early. I had to get that note before someone found it!
       When Mom dropped me off at school, I immediately went to the playground and to the old slab where I had hid the note. I ruffled through the tall weeds and grass until — there it was. I could see it. I grabbed the note and headed for the building.
       I wrapped the note in another piece of paper and dropped the bundle in the trash can in the hall. I wasn’t worried that someone might find it in the trash. I guess I thought once they emptied the trash, it would just disappear.
       I took heed to the teacher’s warning. I turned in my spelling words that week and every week after that. I vowed to become a model student. I feared that I’d have to repeat third grade.
       I lugged books home every night, enlisting the willing help of Mom and Dad in going over and over my homework. I began studying the minute I got home in the afternoon and did not rest until my homework was finished.
       I began to apply myself more than I had in the past. I learned that when I did my best and applied myself, I could always succeed.


Valuable Resources


       Watching my progress, my parents were even more determined that I should overcome my handicap. At the end of my third-grade year when they met with the teacher, school counselors and therapists, they decided to place me in a resource class for an hour each day.
       Most of the students in the resource room weren’t physically disabled, but instead had learning disabilities and needed a little extra attention. I was placed in the resource room for motor development. A teacher gave me exercises to loosen my poorly coordinated hands and give me more dexterity in my hands and arms.
       I loved going to the resource room because, for one thing, I got to leave class for an hour every day. I also was enamored by the resource teacher, Miss Stuart.
       She had flowing locks of golden curls. I thought she was far too beautiful to be a teacher. I liked to sit and stare at her. Schoolboy crush scarcely conveys the dog-like devotion I had for Miss Stuart.
       I could hardly wait for her to come get me out of class each afternoon and take me next door to the resource room. We spent a whole hour some days working a puzzle together. Another day, she had me stacking little blocks, shuffling them from one side of the table to the other. Miss Stuart praised each move with words of encouragement.
       “You’re doing so well,” she would say.
       At the time, I failed to realize how patronizing it all was. I was so thrilled by her attention and kindness, I was blind to what she was really doing. How hard is it to stack blocks?
       It wasn’t that Miss Stuart meant to patronize me, or any of the resource students for that matter. It’s just that she didn’t expect any more from us. But then, I didn’t expect any more out of myself.
       I started in the resource room late in the year, so I was in the class only about six weeks before school was out for the summer. When school began again in the fall and I went back to the resource room, I was heartbroken to find that Miss Stuart was no longer there.
       Instead, I found my former kindergarten teacher, Mrs. Gross. And although I didn’t know it at the time, that would be the year everything started changing.
       Mrs. Gross wasn’t content to let me play for an hour. I was going to have to work that year. Her job was to get me to apply myself physically, and this was no easy task.
       One reason it was called a resource room is that teachers often had to scrounge for learning material. The only thing they had for motor development were the toy blocks and a Nerf ball, and Mrs. Gross said she wasn’t going to waste her time and mine throwing a Nerf ball to me for an hour each day.
       I came along before there were computers in every classroom. All they had when I entered the fourth grade was an old Underwood typewriter that Mrs. Gross found in the teachers’ work room. She borrowed it, and it was conveniently left in her classroom for me to use.
       Mrs. Gross thought a typewriter was ideal for developing motor skills because I had to have coordination to use the typewriter keys, so she set out to teach me to type.
       I learned my own technique on the typewriter. My hands lacked the dexterity to use all my fingers to type. I started out using one finger, my thumb, and a rather crude hunt-and-peck method. I soon discovered the thumb wasn’t the best suited for typing and switched to my index finger.
       It was slow-going at first. It took me practically the entire hour to type a single page from a book, but as I learned the keyboard, I picked up speed. Mrs. Gross arranged for me to do my spelling on the typewriter. In the fourth grade, we still had to write our spelling words 10 times, but typing them made it easier.
       It took less effort to type the words than it did to hand write them. The typewriter became my second set of hands. Mom and Dad were thrilled that I was learning to type, and they got me an old typewriter to use at home.
       I typed all of my homework instead of handwriting it. I stopped dreading assignments because it took less effort, physically, to type my homework. My grades also improved.
       It was then that I started developing an interest in writing. I wrote stories about my family on the typewriter in Mrs. Gross’s classroom. The first story I wrote was about my dog, Snoopy.
       Everyone had been telling my parents that Karen and I needed a dog. Even Mrs. Gross suggested that a dog would be good company for me. So, after much persuasion and promising to be good from then on, Mom and Dad agreed to get us a dog.
       When we got him, he became part of the family right away. He was a little white poodle. He looked like a little rat when we brought him home. Snoopy seemed to find his way into just about everything. When he was a puppy, he got into the clothes hamper while I was at school and chewed holes in my socks. I wrote a story about it in the resource room the next day. Mrs. Gross liked it and encouraged me to write more.
       I used the old typewriter my parents bought me to write stories about Mom, Dad and Karen. It wasn’t exactly elegant prose, but it was something I enjoyed and something that I seemed to be good at. Before that, I hadn’t found anything that I was genuinely good at.
       Typing opened a new world to me. I had all these thoughts in my head, but because of my difficulty in talking I would give up and not talk because people simply didn’t understand me. I became frustrated when people couldn’t understand me, so I wouldn’t try to talk.
       Typing changed that. I found a way to express the words that I had kept locked inside my head. It was a way to communicate when the words didn’t come easily. Teachers would tell me, “Don’t talk. Type it,” if they couldn’t understand me.
       I started typing everything. It was easier and faster than writing, and it allowed me to get the words out. It also boosted my weak ego, and my grades improved because I was typing all my homework.
       My life was changed because someone believed in me and took the time to make a difference. Mrs. Gross saw past my disability to my ability. She focused on what I could do, not what I couldn’t do, and she worked to bring it out. That made the difference for me, and it was all because someone cared.


Summer Camp


       Summer can last an eternity when you’re young. Each day became a new adventure in frivolity and frolics. The trees came alive and spring turned to summer. The days grew longer and the sun was out longer, warming the hard ground that had been frozen all winter.
       It was a carefree time filled with the things that kids love — a day at the swimming pool, splashing in the cool water; a game of tag with neighborhood kids; and summer camp.
       I wanted to go to camp like my friends. Mom and Dad sheltered me as a child. They wanted to protect me from the harsh world and were afraid to let me go out on my own because I still couldn’t do some things for myself.
       They were reluctant to let me go away from home because I relied so much on them. So for one week each summer, the neighborhood was deserted while all the kids went off to camp. Except for me.
       Every year, I begged them to let me go and every year they said the same thing, “How could you make it at camp when you can’t do things for yourself at home?”
The spring before my 11th birthday, I heard the kids at the center talk about a camp for handicapped children. I made up my mind that, one way or another, I was going to go to camp.
       I started working on Mom first, softening her up to ask her if I could go. I knew if I wanted my parents to let me go I had to prove I could make it away from home. I started doing everything for myself — as much as I could anyway.
       Miss Connie and the therapists at the center tried to convince Mom and Dad that two weeks away from home would do me good. I would have to learn to survive without them.
       I hinted about camp every week when we went to the center. Then, on the way home one day, I came out and asked them if I could go. They didn’t answer me right away. They just said, “Well, we’ll think about it.”
       They didn’t say no, so at least I still had a chance. Mom and Dad still weren’t convinced I could make it away from home, but they agreed to think about it — on one condition. I was going to have to be more independent. That meant feeding myself and dressing myself. All the things I relied on Mom to help me with, I would have to do myself at camp.
       Connie assured Mom that camp counselors would help me if I needed help, so Mom and Dad finally consented to let me go.
       The Lions Club sponsored the camp for disabled children. Local clubs raised money to send kids to the camp in Kerrville, Texas. It started the week after school was out in June and lasted two weeks.
       The weeks leading up to camp were filled with a flurry of activity. Mom hustled around the house sewing name tags in all my clothes and gathering up enough clothes to last me two weeks. I could hardly believe I was actually going.
       Kerrville was some 500 miles from where we lived in the Texas Panhandle. Mr. Hicks was a member of the Pampa Lions’ organization, and he agreed to drive me and a girl from Pampa, Alisa Burns, to Kerrville.
       I could hardly sleep the night before we left. I woke up a half-dozen times during the night, afraid that I was going to oversleep. I was up at dawn the next morning and ready to go long before Mr. Hicks came to pick me up.
       We left early on a Saturday morning before camp started on Sunday. It was a pretty tense time in the car at first. We had barely met, and we were going to be together for the next 10 hours. No one said anything for miles.
       I was self-conscious about my speech difficulty and didn’t say much at first. I always had trouble talking to people who didn’t know me. I was afraid of what they would think.
       Mr. Hicks tried to make Alisa and me feel more comfortable. He was sort of the grandfatherly type, short and stocky with graying hair. He was quiet most of the time, too. We would drive for miles and finally he’d chime in and ask, “How are we making it back there?” directing his question to the back seat where Alisa was. Or he’d turn to me and ask, “Are we doing all right?”
       Mom had packed a care package for us to eat on the way. She made homemade chocolate chip cookies. Mr. Hicks went through those in no time and then he didn’t stop for lunch until almost 2 o’clock. I was starving.
       As the day wore on, we got a little more relaxed with each other. Once, Mr. Hicks serenaded us with a verse of “You picked a fine time to leave me, Lucille,” when a Kenny Rogers song came on the radio. It was all Alisa and I could do to keep from laughing, but it broke the tension and we started talking.
       We arrived in Kerrville a little past seven. We stayed in Kerrville that night before going up to camp the next morning. I was excited about spending the night in the motel. The only time I’d stayed in a motel was one summer when we drove to California with Grandma and Granddad Altman.
       Mr. Hicks got a room for him and me and an adjoining room for Alisa. Mr. Hicks helped Alisa get settled in her room. She had cerebral palsy, too, though hers was more severe than mine. She could walk with a walker but used a wheelchair most of the time. Mr. Hicks lifted her in and out of her chair when we stopped.
       It was my first night away from home, and I was all atwitter. I walked curiously around the motel, gazing wildly at the sites. I couldn’t believe I actually had gotten that far.
       I didn’t think I was tired when I went to bed, but the day’s activities must have taken a toll on me. I lay down and the next thing I knew I had dozed off. I guess the excitement of the day had been too much for me because during the night I became violently ill.
       I was so anxious about the trip and camp, I made myself sick. My head started swirling, and my stomach was queasy. I tried to get to the bathroom, but I couldn’t move; I just lay there. I lost it right there — all over the bed and myself.
       Poor Mr. Hicks. He was so vexed by the whole situation he didn’t know what to do for me. He helped me into the bathroom, all the while saying, “It’s going to be all right. Everything’s going to be OK.” I think he was trying to convince himself of that more than me, but neither of us was convinced.
       Mr. Hicks cleaned up the bed, then helped clean me up. I was so embarrassed. Mr. Hicks helped me change, and we finally got back to sleep, with a little bit of night left.
       Things were a lot calmer the next morning. Some of the excitement had dwindled and reality had begun to set in. I thought I might have to go back with Mr. Hicks if I was still as sick as I was the night before. But my stomach had settled and my strength was starting to come back when we got ready to leave.
       The camp site was on the outskirts of town, nestled in a clump of tall, slender Pine trees. I had never seen so many trees before, having spent all my life in the flatland area of the Panhandle. It was like being in a different country. By the time we got to the camp, I had forgotten all about being sick.
       I expected a great fanfare when we arrived: lots of people milling around, kids laughing and running all over the place. But there was none of that. We were the only ones there. There was a handful of people bustling around setting up tables in the room where we went to register.
       Two counselors came and greeted Alisa and me. They said we were just early and that other campers would be arriving soon. The counselors helped us register and took us to our cabins.
       Mr. Hicks stayed with me until I got settled. He hung around camp most of the day and said he would check on me before he left in case I had a relapse. I wasn’t about to go back with him no matter how sick I was. I had worked too hard to get there; I wasn’t going back now.
       The cabins were long, barracks-style buildings with concrete floors. It was pretty much what I expected at camp, but the floors were cold and hard, especially when I fell on them. I took several tumbles on the hard floors, and it was quite a jolt.
       The inside had three large rooms, with a row of bunks down each side. A couple of the bunks were double-deck. I could never figure out how they expected a disabled person to climb up on the upper bunks, but some did. I was the first one there, so I got first pick. I chose a single deck bed exactly half way down the row of the beds, so I could be in the center of all the activities.
       It was a little tense again before the other campers started arriving. The counselors didn’t know what to say, and I was feeling self-conscious again. I couldn’t open up and talk with people when I met them. I never could, and I missed out on a lot by not talking and not being more aggressive in starting relationships.
       My tribe counselors were Bert Randall and Mike Johnson. They tried to fill the time until the other campers began arriving. A miniature golf course sat back behind our cabin. Bert tried to teach me how to play. I never got the ball in the hole, but I came close a couple of times.
       As the day wore on, other campers slowly drifted in. They came with all kinds of disabilities. Some had only slight impairments; others were on crutches and in wheelchairs. Some were deaf, and some had lost an arm or a leg. One boy who became my closest friend at camp was paralyzed from the waist down.
       That night after everyone got settled, the camp site was converted into a carnival. The lawn between the bunk houses became an amusement park. There were game booths, rides and best of all — food! I finally saw the fanfare I had expected since I arrived.
       Campers scurried across the lawn on walkers and in wheelchairs, moving from one booth to the next. No longer did the disabilities that had stifled us most of our lives limit our activities. We were regular kids there, doing all the things kids do at camp.
       There was an excitement as most of us, for the first time, rivaled in sport and game. It didn’t matter if you couldn’t do it exactly right; you still won.
       I took my turn in the games and won a stuffed animal for tossing a hoop at a pop bottle. I missed the bottle completely, but I won a prize anyway. I was feeling great about myself and about being there.
       I passed another booth where they were having a whistling contest and decided to try it. I went up and plunked down my token. I puckered up and started blowing with everything I had.
       Nothing happened. I tried again. I took a deep breath and started blowing. Still, no sound came out.
       “That’s all right,” one of the counselors said.
“Try it again,” another said.
       I tried and tried but could make no sound. Finally, I gave up and as I walked away, I heard one counselor laugh and say to the other, “That one was a spitter.”
       He didn’t say it maliciously. I was trying so hard to force out a sound that spit came out instead. Still, I was angry.
       I didn’t play any other games the rest of the evening. I just watched. I started getting a little homesick, too. I felt better when the carnival was over and I got back to the cabin. I was exhausted and fell asleep almost as soon as the lights went off.
       The days following were planned for us almost from the minute we got up in the morning. Each tribe had activities throughout the day. My tribe started with crafts, followed by recreational sports and swimming in the morning. Then after lunch, we went back out for hiking and nature studies.
       For the first time, I didn’t have to sit on the sidelines and watch everyone else. I participated. I felt like I really fit in. At school, I was an outsider to many activities because I couldn’t do the things the other kids did. But there, I could do everything. We all did.


Lessons in Life


       I came to some important realizations on my excursion away from my parents. I realized I had a lot to be thankful for and I needed to make the most of what God had given me. The reason my parents agreed to let me go to camp was that I told them I could take care of myself. But I was still depending on others to do everything for me. Except now, instead of Mom and Dad, I depended on Bert and Mike — and even other campers — to help me.
       Most campers needed some help at mealtime, serving their food or cutting it up. The counselors made sure everyone who needed help got it, but I was selfish. I wanted them to do it all for me and when they couldn’t do it all, because they had to help the others, I turned to someone else at the table.
       Scotty was one of my cabin mates. We became friends during the two weeks we were at camp. Scotty never asked for help. He had no trouble getting his food, so I started relying on him for help.
       He cut up my food; he poured the milk on my cereal; he even fed me some of my meals. Everything seemed easy for Scotty.
       Scotty only had one arm.
       He had lived his whole life with just one arm. I had two good arms, and I was asking him for help. Finally, he said something that woke me up to how fortunate I really was.
       We were eating breakfast, and I had finished a bowl of cereal. I was still hungry, so I asked Scotty to get me another bowl.
       He turned to me and said, “Why don’t you do it yourself?”
       “I can’t,” I said.
       “You can’t?” he asked in disgust. “I don’t think you realize how lucky you are to have two good arms. Stop feeling sorry for yourself and learn to do things for yourself.”
       He was right. Mom and Dad had been telling me that for a long time, but I wouldn’t listen.
“Be glad for what you have and use all that you do have, not what you don’t have,” Scotty said after a few minutes had passed.
       My attitude changed after I talked to Scotty. I started looking around and realized he was right. God had a purpose in making me the way he did. I didn’t understand it, but I knew I had a special calling on my life. I wasn’t shortchanged from what I didn’t have in life. What God takes away physically, he replaces in greater measure.
       I gained a greater understanding of what it meant to be disabled after that. I spent the next few days at camp watching the other campers. They were all unique. They each had something special to offer. There was a bond that formed between us as we learned to relate with one another.
       There was little time to get bored. Counselors hustled us from one activity to the next. I went swimming every day. I couldn’t swim a lick at first; I just sat at the edge of the pool and dangled my feet in the cool water.
       Bert urged me to come in the water. “I’ll help you,” he kept telling me. He gave me a life preserver when I went in the water. I was afraid to go in any farther. I always stayed in the shallow wading area when I went swimming at home, but Bert coaxed me in.
       He held me from underneath and cradled me on my back.
       “Kick your feet now,” he instructed. “Wave your arms.”
       By the time camp was over, I could float. I had to have someone support me to get started, but I could float! I got so excited the first time I almost sank.
       “I knew you could do it!” Bert exclaimed. “You can do anything if you want it bad enough.”
I discovered I could do a lot of things I never thought possible because of my disability. In crafts, I made a wall ornament out of a piece of tree bark, sand dollars and some pine cones. It took me nearly a week to finish it. I had to glue all the pieces together, then glue it on the bark. Some of the pieces fell off, and I had to paste them on again.
       I was so proud of what I had made. I took it home, and Mom hung it up in my room.
       At night, all the tribes came together for activities. The camp directors tried to spark some romance between the girls and boys’ units by pairing us at a dance.
       It was the Saturday after we’d been there a week. All the boys put on clean shirts; the girls wore dresses, and the gymnasium was decorated with paper streamers.
       I was reluctant to get out on the dance floor. I wanted to try it, but I couldn’t get the nerve to go over and ask anyone to dance. I stood by the wall by myself. It was hysterical to watch. Everybody twitching and shaking! It was hard not to laugh.
       About half an hour into the evening, I decided to make my move. I saw a girl on the other side of the room. She was standing alone, too. I walked slowly across the dance floor. What would I say, I thought to myself. Finally, I walked over to her, my heart thumping fiercely as I approached.
       “. . . Would you dance with me?” I asked quivering. Speaking was frustrating enough, but it was even more difficult to get those words out.
       A smile came on her face.
       “Yes,” she said.
       We stepped to the edge of the dance floor and began dancing. It was a fast song; they were all fast songs that night. I never had danced before. I don’t think she had either, because neither of us knew what to do. Do I hold her hand? How close do we stand?
       I decided not to take her hand. If I held onto her, I might fall and her with me. We stood about a foot apart and swayed back and forth to the music. The hardwood gym floor vibrated beneath us as the beat shook the building. I found a pattern and stuck to it, moving left to right, front to back. I felt silly but was starting to enjoy it when the music stopped. She looked like she enjoyed it too, so I asked her for another dance.
       We danced a couple of dances, then I had to sit down. I danced with two other girls that night. I knew I probably would never get the chance to take a regular girl to a dance or go to school dances back home, so I cherished the memories of that night.
       During the last few days of camp, the homesickness I started having earlier in the week worsened. I missed home and Mom and Dad. I even missed Karen. Time dragged. It seemed as if I’d been there a month. The longest I’d ever been away from home was overnight, and that was just to sleep over at a friend’s house.
       I had dreamed of this for such a long time. I never thought I would be homesick. Everybody else was having a good time. I’d see Alisa across the lawn, laughing and singing with the other girls. She looked like she was having the time of her life. I just wanted to go home. It got to the point where I didn’t want to do anything. I moped around the cabin all day. Mike and Bert worried about me.
       Bert tried to cheer me up by getting me involved in the games. “We’re going to play miniature golf. Come play with us,” Bert said in a desperate attempt to get me to snap out of it.
       I was determined not to play. I just sat under the tall trees by myself. Bert tried to force me to play, taking my arm and leading me over to the golf course.
       “It’ll help you to forget about missing your folks if you come out and play with us,” he said.
       I shirked him off. “I said I don’t want to play!” I said pulling away from him. He finally just gave up and left me alone. It got so bad at the end that I made myself sick again. They took me to the infirmary the day before camp ended. I was tired and sick and wanted to go home.
       We had camp Olympics that day before everybody went home. Parents were invited to come down for the competitions and an awards’ ceremony that evening. Mom and Dad didn’t make it. It was too far for them to come. Alisa’s parents came, and then I rode back to Pampa with them.
       I left the infirmary in time for the awards’ presentation. It was a majestic ceremony held in an outdoor arena. Each Olympic winner received medallions. The medals symbolized hard work and determination. It also was a great achievement.
       Each tribe presented special achievement awards. Everybody was recognized for something. I got an award for “Most Improved Camper.” I didn’t feel as if I had done anything to be rewarded. But for many of the kids there, it was the first time they had won at anything. Their faces glowed as they went to receive their awards. It was a night they will never forget.
       We left early the next morning to return to Pampa. I was relieved to get home. I grew a lot in the two weeks I was away from my parents. In the weeks following camp, I began to do more for myself.
       And when school started in the fall, I was more determined to try harder there, too. I still relied on others for help once in a while, but I saw that I could do more for myself. I began to use what God had given me. I never realized what I had until I saw what many others didn’t have. I was more determined to take what I had in life and use it for the best.


Friends


       Some of my best friends in life were the ones I made in elementary school. Kids were more accepting at that age. They knew I was different, but it didn’t matter. They accepted me and treated me like any other kid.
       Bill Luedecke was my best friend growing up. I had known Bill forever it seemed. Bill’s mom shared a hospital room with my mom when his brother and my sister were born. They were born just hours apart. Then, when I was 3, Bill’s family moved into a house across the street.
       We became best friends. We did everything together, but it didn’t start out that way. Bill was a ruffian as a boy, a brawler. He was afraid of nothing and no one. One day, Bill and some of the neighborhood kids were out in the yard when I went out to play. Bill was the new kid on the street and hadn’t been around me much.
       When I asked him if I could play, he shoved me down. “You can’t play with us. Go on home,” he said. Crushed, I ran home crying.
       Dad was watching from the window, as he often did when I went outdoors, and saw Bill push me. Not willing that anyone should pick on his little boy, Dad marched over and told Bill’s mother that her son was picking on me. From that day on, Bill and I were closer than brothers. In fact, he stuck up for me whenever other kids picked on me.
       Over the years, Bill was the one true friend who always stood by me. He accepted me despite my limitations. He always thought of me when it was time to do something, while others often left me out of their activities. Nothing stood in our way as we powered around the neighborhood on our bicycles.
       My parents bought me a three-wheel bicycle. At first, Dad wouldn’t let me take it off the block. Bill and I rode up and down the street time after time. Bill refused to leave me when I had to stop at the corner and all the other kids kept going. Bill stuck by me.
       Finally, Dad let me take it around the block. Then it was two blocks. Then three, until one day we just kept going. Soon, we were riding all over town, and nothing could stop us.
       We told Bill’s mom everywhere we went because she didn’t care what we did as long as we told her where we were going, while my mom would have had a fit if she’d known half the places we went on our bikes. So, we thought it best not to tell her most of the places we went.


       As I got older, it was harder for me to make friends like the ones I had in elementary school. Because of my speech problem, I pulled back and wouldn’t talk to people unless they spoke to me first. I wouldn’t let people get close to me. I was afraid of what they would think, afraid they wouldn’t accept me. That’s what made the memories of the times I spent with my friends in grade school so special.
       The move to junior high school was a difficult one, but one I faced head-on. The challenges of familiarity were enough for me without trying to cope with new ones. I was starting a new school, with new people and new challenges.
       I stopped going to the rehabilitation center when I got to junior high. Mom and Dad were afraid I would miss too much school and lag behind the other students if I kept going. The therapists told them there was hardly anything else they could do for me in a medical sense. My speech was as clear as it was ever going to get, and any further improvement was up to what I wanted to do for myself.
       It was only the year before that the physical therapist took me out of my braces. It wasn’t that my walking had improved so much that I didn’t need them anymore, but the muscles in my legs had grown too strong for the braces, and the shoes weren’t doing the job they were meant to.
       The only thing they hadn’t tried was surgery. The doctors said I might have a chance to improve my walking if they reset the bones in my legs. They wanted to break my legs and rejoin the bones, hoping it would straighten my walking. Dad wouldn’t hear of this. He probably would have agreed if it would help me, but there was no guarantee my walking would get any better.
       I was relieved Dad wouldn’t allow the surgery. Not to mention being quite painful, I didn’t want to think about learning how to walk all over again. Not now when I was just starting junior high.
       I was ecstatic the day at the center when Mr. Balke told me I no longer had to wear the braces, which had so conspicuously set me apart from other children. I had dreamed of the day I could wear sneakers to school. I was so excited. I nagged Mom until she took me down to the store and we bought my first pair of tennis shoes.
       I could hardly wait to get home so I could show off my new shoes to Karen and all the neighborhood kids. The shoes were softer on my feet than the heavy orthopedic oxfords. I was so proud of my new shoes. That evening, I strolled down the sidewalk in my new sneakers. A neighbor was working in her yard when I passed.
       Suddenly, she stopped and looked up at me. “Chris, you’re not making any noise!” she exclaimed.
       The neighbor noticed I wasn’t making the racket I usually made when I passed her house. With my soft soled shoes, I didn’t make the loud clatter when I clomped down the sidewalk. The neighbor shared my elation over my shoes.
       My new shoes did a lot to feed my weak ego, especially as I started junior high the next year. I didn’t stand out as I did in my twisters, but there was still enough other differences to make me not fit in. Junior high was a whole new experience.
       Things I took for granted before I had to work at in junior high. There was talk about putting me in special education classes. Classes were a little harder in junior high and the pace a little faster, and some of the teachers wondered if I would be able to keep up.
       Dad was dead set against the idea of special classes. I had made it in regular classes before; I could do it now, he insisted.
       Dad knew I would need some special training, but he didn’t want me in special education. He conceded to let them continue giving me speech therapy at school, and he agreed that I shouldn’t take gym or music. I had gone to music and gym before, but now they didn’t think I could keep up with the other students. The problem was no one knew what to do with me during those two hours every day, so they stuck me in a special ed class.
       I was separated from the rest of the class. They put me at a little desk in the corner, got me a typewriter and let me do my homework. But I didn’t belong there. I didn’t want to be there. The other students in the class had learning disabilities. I didn’t. But there was nowhere else for me to go. So I was stuck there — to be babysat.
       I watched the other students. I knew I was different from the others. They were working on basic addition and subtraction, and I was doing regular math. It wasn’t that I thought I was better than they were, but their problems were different from mine.
       I was bored in the class. I would sit in front of the typewriter and try to study, but all I could think about was the kids in the regular classes. I wondered what they were doing in music. I wanted to do what they were doing. I wanted to be with them, but instead I was in a class where the teacher was a baby sitter.
       Friday was game day. If everyone finished all their work, we got to play games while just down the hall I could hear the other students still hard at work. I would have much rather been down there still working than where I was just playing.
       There were other hurdles to cross starting a new school. The school was larger than my old school. There were nearly twice as many students, and with that many people milling, pushing and jostling their way through the halls, Mom and Dad worried I’d get trampled in the crowd.
       Instead of staying in one classroom for every subject, now I had to make my way to a different classroom and a different teacher.
       Dad was an art teacher at the school — which proved to have good and bad sides in itself — so he tried to get my classes moved closer together. He also asked the teachers to let me leave class five minutes early so I could move freely through the empty halls.
       Even with a five-minute head start, I often arrived at class late and out of breath. It was a race against the clock. If I could make it within striking distance of my next class, I had a chance. I knew that at any second the bell would sound, releasing the savages from their cages. It was every man for himself then. I plowed my way through the unmindful crowd to keep from going down for the count, dodging bodies and darting through the door before the second bell rang. That was the end of round one.
       I used a wheelchair to go to the cafeteria and for longer trips. I hated being pushed in a wheelchair. It was faster than walking, and it was certainly easier, but I had to ask someone to take me where I wanted to go and I wanted to do it, as much as I could, on my own.
       My classmates took turns pushing the wheelchair. My grade-school pal Derrick took his turn pushing me and turned the hallway into a speedway. We raced down the hall coming back from lunch. I was afraid we were going to hit somebody and hurt them.
       We’d take off down the hall, weaving in and out of traffic. I just closed my eyes and prayed we didn’t hit anyone. People scrambled to clear the way for us. We nicked a few heels with the foot rest a time or two, but no one was seriously maimed. We got through the crowd in record time. We usually made it to class just in the nick of time before the bell rang. That was the end of round two.


Making the Grade


       It was in the first year in junior high that I realized I could do more with the potential God had given me. Always before, I had looked at school as a place to go and be with my friends, and I didn’t take school as seriously as I ought.
       When I got to junior high, that all began to change. With Dad there, I had to be on my best behavior. I could no longer get by with doing the things I had done in grade school. Dad knew everything I did. When I got in trouble in class, the teacher wouldn’t send me to the principal’s office. She marched down to Dad’s room and told him what I had done.
       Mom and Dad never put any unrealistic expectations on Karen or me to get good grades. All they asked was that we did our best. But I made up my mind that I was going to work hard and get good grades that year. Having Dad at the same school was all the more reason to do well. The teachers expected me to get good grades because I was Charles Ely’s boy.
       It was nearing the end of the first quarter of the semester, six-weeks tests time. I had just gotten by all six weeks, and now it was time to get serious. Mom helped me study every night after dinner. She’d give out the questions, and I’d retort the answers. We continued this routine each night before the tests.
       The hard work paid off when I got my math test back and got my first ‘A.’ I realized then that I could be a good student if I worked at it. I felt as if I had really accomplished something — like I had really succeeded — and Mom and Dad were elated. I had a good feeling knowing I had done my best and got something for my effort.
       I knew I would never be a great athlete or set any records in sports, but I could succeed academically. Everyone is given different abilities, and it’s up to each person to use what God has given him. I never was content to just get by anymore.
       I worked harder that year than I ever had before. I hit the books as soon as I got home from school each day, and it took me all evening sometimes to finish my homework. But I couldn’t rest until I got it done. It wasn’t easy. But, anything that is worthwhile never is. I worked hard all year and was on the B-honor roll every six weeks.
       My weak point was reading. I hated reading. It was a bad trait for someone who would grow up and one day be a newspaperman and depend on reading for his livelihood, but I just didn’t like to read.
       I put off reading assignments as long as I could, and many times just skimmed over the material before class. There was one teacher who invariably would give a pop quiz over the reading. He loved to give pop tests, and he always seemed to give them on the occasions when I hadn’t read. Even when I read the assignment, I panicked when he gave a surprise test.
       I wanted so desperately to do well that I was even willing to cheat for good grades, letting my eyes wander in search of the right answers. Russ Rabel sat across the aisle from me in history class. He was the smartest boy in the class. I thought if I could peak at his paper, I could get a couple of the questions right.
       I’d drop my pencil on the floor, then when I bent over to pick it up, I’d glance at his paper. I knew it was wrong, but the desire to make good grades was stronger than any moral values that had been so sternly drilled into me.
       Trouble was, I always felt guilty afterward. Tormented by my conscience, I swore I’d never cheat again. But the next day, I found myself doing the same thing.
       Russ knew I looked at his paper. One day, he came right out and told me to stop looking at his paper.
       “It’s not going to do you any good anyway,” he said. “I don’t read it either.”
       I was so embarrassed that he saw me copying that I vowed never to do it again. I didn’t want him to think of me as a cheat. I knew it was wrong to look, and I made myself keep my eyes on my own paper, even if the result was a bad grade.
       It turned out that the teacher didn’t grade the tests most of the time. He just gave them so we would read. It was a valuable lesson any way. I had to rely on my efforts to get me through and whatever happened I had to learn to accept the consequences.


       My greatest fear came true in the seventh grade: I got my dad for a teacher. I had dreaded this moment ever since I started to school there. It was a small school, and there was only one or two teachers for each subject.
       Dad was the only art teacher for all of the seventh grade. I didn’t have to take art that year, but I think Dad would have been a little disappointed if I hadn’t taken his class.
       Karen took his class when she went to school there, and he kind of expected me to take it, too. Besides, I was curious to see what kind of teacher he was. I never thought of him the way I thought about a teacher, so this was going to be a new experience — for both of us.
       It was hard enough having him at the same school. I couldn’t walk down the halls without seeing him. He knew every move I made.
       Now, I was going to be in his class. There ought to be a rule to keep parents from having their own children in class. I was terrified on the first day of school. What do I call him? Do I address him as Mr. Ely or Dad? What if I forgot and called him Dad by mistake?
       I walked in and sat down at a table at the back of the room. I tried to look inconspicuous. It was a large class, so I just tried to blend in.
       It was surprisingly fun the first day. Dad got up and talked about the projects we’d be working on during the semester. It was mainly drawing and painting the first semester. Then, the second half, we’d be doing some work with clay and pottery. He actually made it sound fun.
       Then, when I thought he couldn’t surprise me anymore than he already had, he did something that completely shocked me. He told a joke during class. I couldn’t believe it.
       Was this really my dad? My dad wasn’t funny. Everyone in class thought he was great. Maybe I had misjudged my dad. Maybe this wasn’t going to be as bad as I had imagined.
       It must have been as awkward for him as it was for me. I raised my hand to ask a question one day, and he said, “Yes, you in the back, did you have a question?” Everyone in class burst out laughing. Everyone knew I was Mr. Ely’s son. That’s how they referred to me. “You’re Mr. Ely’s son,” they’d say.
       Dad tried to be impartial and showed me no favors. He treated me like any other student in the class. Once, when he thought I was talking too much, he made me write “I will not talk” 25 times on a piece of paper. I couldn’t believe it. My own father.
       Sometimes, he was too impartial when it came to me. I never professed to be any good at drawing or at art in general. In fact, it was difficult for me to do many of the things we did in the class because of my poorly coordinated hands. Some tasks, like cutting and gluing, were impossible. Dad had to help me. Still, I did all of the projects and I tried.
       So, I couldn’t believe it when I got my first report card and saw he had given me a ‘B’ and kept me off the honor roll! My homeroom teacher, Mr. Wyatt, came down to Dad’s room one morning before school and said, “Mr. Ely, I think you better have a look at your son’s report card.”
       I was scared. I thought I had really done something wrong when Mr. Wyatt brought in my report card. Dad looked at the report card; then, he looked over at me.
       “Well, what do you have to say about that?” Mr. Wyatt asked.
       “I don’t know,” Dad said looking at me again.
By that time, I was really getting worried. I thought I had done pretty well in all my classes. What had I done wrong?
       “Maybe we should show your son what you’ve done to him,” Mr. Wyatt said.
       I picked up the paper and begin to study it carefully. It had all ‘As on it. All except one. A ‘B’ in art. I missed making the A-honor roll by two points.
       “How could you do that to your own son?” Mr. Wyatt asked.
       He razzed Dad about keeping me off the honor roll all semester. Mr. Wyatt wouldn’t let him forget it. Mom gave him a hard time about it, too. Dad insisted that he gave me what he thought I deserved, and I didn’t want him to give me something I hadn’t earned.
       So, the next six weeks, I worked even harder so I would make all ‘As. And Dad saw my effort. He gave me two more points to get a 90 in the class. He didn’t give it to me. I worked for it, and Dad agreed that I had earned it.


Father and Son


       Mom went back to work that year after 15 years at home. She had worked at the electric company for 10 years before Karen and I were born.
       When Karen was born, she quit to stay home and take care of her. After I was born, she couldn’t work. All of her time was consumed taking care of me, taking me to Amarillo for therapy every week and helping me with school.
       As I got older, I stopped going to the center, and Karen was out of the house more. Mom had more spare time on her hands. I’m not sure if Mom was really looking to go back to work. But when they called and asked her if she wanted to come back to work, Mom decided to do it.
       She gave 15 years of undying care to her family. Now, it was time she did something for herself. We all had to make adjustments. Dad had to help out around the house. Some days, he would have dinner started when Mom got home. Dad didn’t use cookbooks. He just sort of made up his own recipe as he went along, and some of the strange concoctions he came up with were hardly edible.
       He mixed the strangest things together — corn in the mashed potatoes, beans with eggs. “It all goes to the same place in the end,” he said.
       It was strange coming home from school and not finding Mom there. Mom and I shared a special bond. We spent a lot of time together, when it was just her and me. She spent countless hours doing so much for me and helping me. She gave so much love to her family.
       It was different being home alone with Dad. Karen worked after school, and Mom didn’t get off until after 5. That left about an hour that Dad and I were there by ourselves.
       I had a different kind of relationship with my dad than I had with Mom. Dad showed his affection in a different way. He didn’t pacify me the way Mom did. Dad was a strong man but very private.
       Dad kept to himself most of the time. He had a lot of health problems and didn’t like to go out much. He preferred a quiet night at home to going out. Mom said he would have stayed home from his own wedding if he had the choice. I could never understand his wanting to stay home all the time, and he thought if he didn’t go out, Mom and us kids shouldn’t go anywhere either. He was happy if we never went anywhere.
       When Mom tried to get him to go to a restaurant, Dad practically refused.
       “Why don’t you go and bring me something back,” he would say.
       We went without him some, but Mom didn’t feel right leaving him home alone. It created a strain between them, so most of the time we stayed home.
       It was worse when Mom started working, and I stayed home with Dad, especially with summer coming on. Mom and I could always find things to do together. It wasn’t like that with Dad. We couldn’t go out and toss the football around in the yard. We couldn’t throw the baseball back and forth to each other. We couldn’t do many of the things fathers and sons do together.
       Dad did take me fishing. We would drive down to the lake for a day of trout fishing. But there was always a strife that existed between my father and me that distanced us and kept us from drawing closer.
       I don’t know if, subconsciously, I blamed him for my infirmity. Or maybe I felt inadequate, like I couldn’t be the kind of son he wanted. Whatever it was, it drove a wedge between us.
       It was never a matter of love. I loved my father deeply, and I know he loved me. He provided for me in ways I knew nothing about until years later. He supported everything I strived to do. And even when I failed, Dad was there to pick me up and tell me to keep going.
       Yet, there was still that division that kept us from bonding as father and son. Maybe it was just a rebellious period that many teenagers go through where they must test authority to prove their own security.
       I hurt my dad deeply. It wasn’t something that he had done. I had to deal with my insecurity about my disability, and he became the target. Over time, I was able to expel the feelings of doubt, and I realized how much his love meant to me.
       It took time for the wounds to heal. I regret it took so long for me to see how strong his love was. We had a chance to share time together when it was just him and me in the house, and I let it slip away.
       That time was lost forever. I can never take back the things I did. Fortunately, time and love brought us closer together. I was never able to talk to Dad the way I talked to my mom, but Dad and I came to have a special relationship, too.
       Although it was difficult for both of us to reveal our feelings, I cherished what we had together and what our love was able to endure.


Search for Acceptance


       From the time I started school, there had been no other students with disabilities in school when I was. It was lonely as I tried to find acceptance among my classmates. Although they were gracious and wanted to help, they didn’t welcome me into their groups with outstretched arms. I often found myself standing alone on the playground at lunch.
       I was an outsider, looking for someone who would give me a chance for who I was. I felt like I was the only one who had ever tried to survive in a world of able-bodied people. Of course, I wasn’t the only one nor was I the first one to ever go to regular school.
       There were those who came before me, but schools were only just beginning to realize the potential of disabled students to lead normal lives.
       It hadn’t been too many years before that the disabled didn’t have the opportunity to go to school. They were kept at home and weren’t allowed to try. In the early part of this century, when someone was born with a crippling disease, they were hidden away in a room somewhere, often out of sight.
       It was considered a part of nature, and people didn’t talk about it outside the family. Families took care of their own. People didn’t have the resources to take care of the disabled, so they put them in a back room somewhere, where they had to be content to stay all their lives.
       It wasn’t meant to be cruel. People didn’t realize that disabled people could lead normal, productive lives. Gradually, times began to change, and people came to see that the disabled could be productive.
       I realized how fortunate I was to be getting an education. I was one of the lucky ones. I had been around many disabled kids at the center, but I had never gone to school with one. Then, in my last year in junior high, for the first time, I encountered one of my own: another CP student.
       Tim looked like any other student. It was the first day back after the long summer vacation, and he stumbled into my last period class and sat down on the front row.
       He arrived late, carrying a briefcase stuffed full of wrinkled papers; his hair was ruffled, he looked tired and confused. It looked like the first day of school had been too much for him.
       Tim was small for his age. Everyone else in the room towered over him by a head. He didn’t look like an eighth-grader, nor did he look like he was supposed to be in that class.
       I didn’t realize he was disabled at first. He had a milder form of cerebral palsy than mine. He had a slight limp, but it was hardly noticeable as he walked into the room.
       As class got under way, it became clear that he was in the right place after all, and I soon realized that he had cerebral palsy.
       His speech was slurred to a degree that made it a little hard to understand when he answered the roll, and he seemed to have difficulty writing.
       He noticed me right away. He kept looking over his shoulder at me during class. He apparently was just as curious about me as I was about him.
       “Finally, someone I can relate to,” I thought to myself. “Someone who’s going through the same thing I am.”
       After class, he came over and talked to me. Trouble was I couldn’t understand him, and he couldn’t understand me. Suddenly, I realized how others must have felt trying to talk to me.
       This time, I was the one not understanding. I’d ask Timmy to repeat things; then I still didn’t understand all he was saying. I shook my head in agreement as if I had understood.
       I hated it when people did that to me. I’d try to say something or ask them a question, and they’d have no idea what I had said. But they would just nod their heads because they were too embarrassed or too afraid to ask me to repeat it.
       It was harder to communicate with Tim than I had imagined. We both stumbled over words and struggled to understand each other. But after we talked awhile, he was easy to understand. I had to learn to listen, which is what others had to do with me.
       Tim hadn’t lived the sheltered life I had. His life was exciting compared to mine. His parents were missionaries to Mexico when he was a boy. His family moved around a lot, and he saw a different culture as they traveled throughout Central America. Timmy learned the language and could speak Spanish fluently. In fact, Spanish was easier for him than English.
       Tim went to a private, Christian school for much of his early schooling. He started eighth grade in the public school system. What a cultural shock it must have been coming into the public schools. He had gone to private school most of his life, where there was more acceptance. There were a lot of adjustments, and over the school year we learned to help each other.
       It helped having a friend who faced the same toils and trials. I no longer felt as if I was all alone. I felt a closeness with Tim. I was no longer singled out in class because I was different and had to use different methods for completing assignments.
       I had only one class with Timmy that semester. It was a life science class. We learned about the different kinds of little creeping critters. We studied crustaceans and all the life forms. We had to dissect insects — and a frog. It was the only class I’d been in where we were graded for playing with bugs.
       In one experiment, we cut an inch worm in half and watched it every day until it regenerated itself by growing back its lost parts. It was a simple experiment that didn’t require a lot of effort. But for Tim and me, the simplest experiments were difficult when you have trouble managing a dissecting knife.
       One day, the teacher paired the class in teams of two for the experiment. She left out Timmy and me when she divided the class. She directed each team to a lab table and began explaining the procedure. Meanwhile, Tim and I were left sitting at our desks. I couldn’t figure out why we weren’t being included in the experiment. I was angry because I thought she was leaving us out.
       She finished explaining the experiment to the rest of the class, then she turned to us. “Chris and Tim, would you come up here please,” she said as she returned to her tall lab desk.
       I still didn’t know what was going on. Tim and I looked at each other with confusion. We thought we had done something wrong. I didn’t think I had done anything. Why had she singled us out? We nervously made our way to the front.
       Finally, the teacher cleared up the mystery. “Would you two like to work together on this experiment?” she asked. “I know it’s kind of hard for you to do some of the experiments, but I think you can do this one.”
       I looked at Tim. He looked pleased with the idea, and I was definitely intrigued by it. Always before when we had lab, we had to watch while someone else did the actual operation.
       “All right,” we said in unison.
       “You two will make a good team, and you can work and help each other,” she said.
       Tim and I joined the rest of the class at the lab tables, and the teacher gave each set of partners a worm. It created a stir among some girls in the class who became squeamish when she put one of the squiggly little creatures on the dissection pan.
       It was an easy procedure. All we had to do was to take the knife and slice the worm in two. Tim pinned down the worm on the pan, then I made the cut. Then, we placed a cover over the pan to protect the worm, and that was it.
       There was nothing hard about it, but it meant a lot more to me because I got to participate in the experiment. I didn’t have to stand aside and watch while someone else did everything. I actually took part in the experiment.
       And it helped having someone in the class who was my peer, an equal in every way. Tim and I became close friends over the next few months. Our infirmity put us on common ground. We found that we shared many of the same dreams and aspirations, experienced the same heartaches.
       “I’m the same as anybody else,” he once told me. “I can do the same as any other student, or at least should have the chance to try.”
       That’s all I ever wanted. That’s all most disabled people want — the chance to make their dreams come true. All they ask is that they have the same opportunities in life as anybody else.


Speaking Out


       Talking was a real frustration to me in school because most teachers were never around me enough to learn my speech pattern. If there was ever a time when I was relieved people couldn’t comprehend my parlance, it was when I cut up in class.
       I got by with things that otherwise would have gotten me an instant trip to the principal’s office, because the teacher didn’t understand me. Wisecracks and pearls of sarcasm dripped from my lips during class, only to be dismissed because the teacher didn’t know what I had said. I had a quick response if the teacher asked me to repeat.
       A friend of mine, Mike Ballard, sat behind me in English class. He always started laughing when I made one of my wisecracks. My classmates who were around me all day understood me better than the teacher who only saw me for an hour once a day. Everyone in class knew exactly what I said and laughed at my cracks, which is the real reason I did it. I wanted them to like me and accept me.
       The teacher hardly thought my interruptions were funny. She would give me a piercing look. Thankfully, she never knew what I was whispering about, but she constantly had to tell me to be quiet.
       One six weeks I was especially disruptive. Mike and I talked constantly during class, chatting when we should have been paying attention. When report cards came out that quarter, Mike and I received unsatisfactory conduct grades.
       I never had been afraid to take a report card home, but that six weeks I didn’t want my parents to see my report card. Mom and Dad didn’t get too upset over grades, as long as I had done my best, but they were furious if I brought home a bad conduct grade.
       All day I had worried about showing them my report card. I had done pretty well that six weeks, but it was the first time I had gotten a “U.” I wasn’t sure how they’d react, so I prepared for the worse. Finally, I decided to come right out and show it to Dad.
       I went straight to Dad’s room after school. “Did you get your report card?” was the first thing he asked me.
       I thought maybe he wouldn’t notice it when I handed him the card. I thought he might be so pleased with my grades that he wouldn’t notice my conduct grade. Then, a serious, sullen look came over Dad’s face. He had seen it — the big “U” in the right column.
       “What’s this?” Dad demanded.
       “What?” I asked innocently.
       “You know what. Why did you get an unsatisfactory in English class?” Dad knew all my teachers of course. He saw them every day, so it was embarrassing for Dad when his own son got in trouble.
       “I guess I talked too much.” I said. I didn’t tell Dad I had been making wisecracks, too.
       “Well, do you want your spanking now or when we get home?”
       I burst out crying right there. “I’m sorry. I won’t talk in class anymore,” I said sobbing.
       Dad blistered my bottom when we got home. The next day, he had a long talk with my English teacher. He assured her that she would have no more trouble out of me and told her to let him know if I started talking again.
       I learned my lesson. I didn’t say another word during class the entire semester.


       You have to laugh at your shortcomings. It’s the only way you can survive sometimes, but I went about it the wrong way, trying to get others to like me by using my speech impediment to gain acceptance. I felt guilty about using my handicap to trick others into liking me.
       I knew if I was ever going to achieve anything in life, hard work and determination would carry me a long way toward success. As I prepared to say goodbye to Pampa Middle School, I started looking to the future. It was disheartening to think I’d soon be leaving that place, where I shared so many good times. I had made giant strides there.
       As hard as it was starting junior high, it was harder to leave. The Friday before school was out, the entire class gathered in the auditorium for the honors assembly. It was like a graduation ceremony. Students who had excelled during the year were recognized at the assembly with awards for achievements in sports, music and academics.
       The top students in the class received special commendations. They were the ones who had the highest grades. I knew I had a ways to go before I reached that point, so it came as a surprise to me when the principal called my name during the assembly.
       I was shocked. I hadn’t expected to win an award. I knew my grades weren’t high enough to make the top cut in the class. I didn’t know why I would be getting an award. They honored me as the student who showed the most potential.
       Dad came to the assembly and stood at the back of the auditorium. He didn’t know about the award, only that he needed to be there. The award came as a surprise to him, too. He was standing in the back of the auditorium and got to see me walk down and receive the award.
       I was ecstatic. All my hard work had paid off. I had a great feeling of accomplishment when I left school that day.
       As I walked home, I thanked God for what he had allowed me to do. I remembered that verse I learned in Sunday school. In Philippians, it says “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.” God was my strength. I had to ask for his help daily, and he went with me and provided the way.
       I felt privileged to be able to do everything I did. It was truly a gift from God. I soon would be leaving junior high, and I was uncertain what the future held for me. I didn’t know if I’d be able to succeed in high school as I had in junior high, but I just trusted the Lord to help me. I knew with his help, I would succeed in everything I did.


Sister’s Big Day


       As I prepared to leave junior high and looked to high school looming on the horizon, a new day also was dawning on my sister. Karen was nearing her final days in school and soon would be out on her own.
       With Karen gone, I stood to get all the attention. I’d have Mom and Dad all to myself. Not that I didn’t get plenty of attention already. Growing up, I took up more of Mom and Dad’s time. Karen may have felt a little left out with my parents rushing around taking me to the center and doctors’ appointments, but she never complained. She unselfishly sacrificed for me.
       Karen was looking to her graduation now, a big day in anybody’s life. It’s the culmination of 12 years of hard work and determination, all for the moment when you step across the stage and receive a diploma.
       And Karen was poised to take her place on that stage. She would cross the stage and into a whole new world. It was an exciting time around our house as we celebrated Karen’s joy. My sister’s graduation put our whole household in a dither.
       I always figured Karen would get married after graduation. Karen was a popular girl and had a lot of friends in school, but it wasn’t until her sophomore year that she started to discover the opposite sex. Then, she fell head over heels. Karen took an instant liking to Dean Linder.
       Dean was a stocky fellow. He had coal-black hair and a dark complexion. He was a year older than Karen.
       Dad was very protective of both me and Karen. We thought he was overly protective. When Karen started seeing Dean, Dad insisted that she wait until she was 16 before she began dating.
       Karen, of course, was furious. She thought Dad was a tyrant. It was still a year and a half until her 16th birthday, and to her, that seemed like an eternity.
       That didn’t keep her from seeing Dean, though. They couldn’t go out, so Dean came over to the house every day after school and stayed until nearly supper. Then, after dinner he called her, and they spent another hour on the phone. Nothing could keep them apart.
       They dated all through high school and always talked about getting married when Karen finished school. But no one was ready for the conversation Karen sprang on us one spring day at the dinner table.
       “How soon before a wedding do you ask the preacher to marry you?” she asked.
Mom nearly dropped her fork. She was so surprised. “Well . . . it’s usually a couple of months before,” Mom said, trying to contain herself.
       “I guess we need to talk to the pastor now, then.”
       Karen shocked us all with the news. She and Dean planned to get married right after graduation. Mom and Dad had hoped they would wait awhile after she finished school, at least until June and her 18th birthday, but they couldn’t wait.
       Dean had finished school the year before and was living in Amarillo, taking classes at the college and working at night. He wanted Karen to join him as soon as she got out of school.
       I don’t think anyone was prepared for what happened next. Karen informed us they had set the date for May 28. Mom and Dad were completely put back.
       They tried to talk her into waiting a little while so they would have time to plan. But Karen and Dean were in love; they couldn’t wait until they could be together.
       So, it was set. The wedding would take place May 28, two days after Karen’s high school graduation. That didn’t leave much time.
       It turned our household upside down as Mom scurried to put together a wedding in a little less than two months. Karen and Dean said they didn’t want a big wedding. They wanted a simple ceremony with just the family and a few friends.
       There was still much to do to get ready for the wedding. Invitations had to be mailed out; the church had to be booked and, of course, Karen had to find her dress.
       I never fully realized that my sister would be leaving until a couple of weeks before the wedding. Karen and I fought like any normal brother and sister growing up, but deep down I loved her, and I think she cared about me. It was hard to imagine what it would be like when she left.
       I told everyone I wouldn’t miss her. After all, I had a lot to gain. With her leaving, I stood to inherit a larger bedroom. Karen’s room was the corner room. A big closet stretched across one end of the room. I always said I wanted that room when Karen left.
       As the day of the big event got closer, it hit me that she really was leaving. She would no longer be there to boss me around. I wouldn’t have anybody to tease. One thing was for sure — our lives would never be the same again.
       There was a bustle of activity as graduation day approached. It seemed a shame that Karen’s graduation was somewhat overshadowed by plans for the wedding. It was still a big occasion for Karen. It just seemed like she was rushing it, instead of taking time to revel in the moment.
       In some ways, Karen was doubly blessed. It’s not too many people who find true happiness and know exactly what they want right out of school. She knew exactly what she wanted out of life and followed her heart. I was always a little jealous of her. All our lives, I had watched as she discovered all that she could do with her life, while I fought to keep control of mine.
       Mom and Karen were both exhausted by the time her graduation finally arrived. It was a hot, sultry evening as we packed into the high school fieldhouse to watch my sister graduate. It was an emotional night. Everyone was all teary-eyed. Mom had been crying for weeks. She couldn’t bear the thought of her only daughter leaving home. Dad was taking it all in stride. And I think Karen was a little nervous that night, too.
       I was proud of her as she got her diploma — proud that she was my sister and proud of what she’d achieved. I couldn’t help but think, however, of the day that I would walk across that stage. I saw how happy Karen was, and I wanted to have that same happiness, too, someday.
       The next day and a half were a blur. Karen and Mom were up at dawn the next morning making last-minute preparations at the church. They planned to have the wedding in the vestibule, just off the main sanctuary. It was a cozy, little room, but large enough to seat about 60.
       Dean and Karen insisted that they didn’t want a big ceremony, so this was the next best thing. They had magnificent sprays of flowers strategically placed about the room. It was beautiful. It looked like something out of a fairy tale.
       I barely had a chance to see Karen the day before the wedding. That evening, everyone met for the rehearsal ceremony. Dad was so nervous. For his part in the ceremony, he had to escort Karen down the aisle. Then, when the preacher asked who gives this woman, Dad was supposed to say, “Her mother and I.”
       He must have practiced saying it 10 different ways before he decided how to say it. He first tried saying it in a deep, scraggly voice. Then, he said it in his natural voice. It was quite funny really.


       I didn’t think I got any sleep that night, but I must have dozed off some time because when I woke up it was morning. I felt the way you do on Christmas morning, with that feeling of excitement and suspense knotted up in the pit of my stomach. It was a joyous feeling. I was genuinely happy for my sister.
       Karen was already hustling around the house. It was like a circus. Mom was running around helping Karen get ready. It was mass confusion in the house. Dad was a nervous wreck. He had to get out of there. He finally decided to go to the church. Someone had to be there to meet the flowers when they arrived.
       Mom told me to go with Dad. She said he would help me get ready when we got back. Actually, I think she just wanted me out from under foot. She had enough to do without having to watch after me every minute. I was relieved to get out of there for a while. Maybe things would be calmer when we returned.
       I didn’t see Karen again until the wedding. By the time Dad and I returned from the church, they were on their way there. Dad helped me put on my blue suit. I got a new pair of shoes just for the occasion. I thought I looked sleek.
       The guests had started to arrive when Dad and I got back to the church. It was mostly family and some of Karen and Dean’s friends. I never realized how emotional weddings were. Mom choked back tears throughout the whole ceremony. She was losing her little girl. It was hard for her to let go.
       It was a joyous occasion. People were running around hugging each other. Some were laughing; Mom was crying. Finally, it was time for the newlyweds to be on their way.
       Dean, fearful that some of our more deviant cousins might try to camouflage his pickup, had stowed the truck in a safe place. He kept the truck out of sight until it was time to leave. When it was time, Dean spun around to pick up Karen.
       They jumped in the car and sped away, but not before we had a chance to shower them in rice. A couple of cousins tried to slip a string of tin cans on the back bumper before they got away, but they weren’t quick enough. Dean helped Karen in the truck, and they were off.
       There was a strange void in the house that night. It felt so empty. It felt as if Karen should come walking in any minute. Once, I turned to Mom and asked, “What time is Karen getting home tonight?” But she wasn’t coming home. She was gone. She was really gone. It was just the three of us now.
       Mom said it seemed as if Karen grew up and left too soon. “There are so many things I didn’t get to tell her, so many things I didn’t get to teach her,” Mom said. “Who’s going to show her these things?”
       It took some getting used to her being gone. For days after the wedding, Mom found herself trying to remember to set only three plates at the dinner table instead of four. She would go into Karen’s room, which was my room now, to tell her something, only to remember that she wasn’t there. It was strange for all of us, but it was especially tough for Mom.
       Mothers are like that. They don’t want to let go. Thank God they never do.


So Little Patience


       I had little patience as a young boy, and what little patience I had only seemed to dwindle the older I got. I hated waiting. I wanted to have everything right then, immediately.
       The summer before I started high school seemed to last an eternity. Karen was out of the house and on her own now. Mom worked all day, and Dad was preoccupied with his new found interest in a backyard vegetable garden. I found myself searching for things to fill the wearisome days of summer.
       The sizzling, summer sun stayed out longer and longer, making the days drag by. One day ran into the next. I didn’t know what to do with myself and began to long for school to start.
       I was anxious about starting high school. It was a big step. Like my first staggering steps across the kitchen linoleum, high school was one step Mom and Dad weren’t sure I’d ever take. They had watched my progress cautiously. They hoped I would go on and graduate but still took nothing for granted. Each tiny step was a giant leap toward achieving independence.
       I was especially nervous about starting high school. No longer would I be under Dad’s watchful eye as I was in junior high. Dad wouldn’t be there to catch me when I fell either. I had to stand on my own.
       I could hardly wait for school to begin. Every day for two weeks I watched and waited for the mail, anticipating the arrival of my class schedule. I sat in the sweltering heat for hours at a time until I saw the postman inching his way up the street. My eyes traced his steps as he wound his way up the other side of the street, then crossed over and doubled back toward our house.
       The excitement mounted the closer he got. Every day, I knew that would be the day. And each day my hopes were dashed as he brought bills, a department store circular or a Ladies Home Journal but no class schedule.
       Then, one day in early August, it came. A bright yellow envelope. I knew what it was the minute I saw it. The mailman barely had laid loose of the envelope before I snatched it up. “It’s here!” I screamed grabbing it and running into the house.
       I ripped open the envelope, my heart pounding as my eyes ran down the slate of courses. It was all the usual freshman classes — history, science, math and English. Still, there was something about starting high school that made it more exciting.
       That night, my best friend Bill came over, and we compared schedules. It was hard to tell who was more excited, Bill or me. I had hoped that we would have at least one class together. Although, it was probably better that we weren’t in the same classes. After comparing schedules, we could hardly wait until the first day of school. We had to go look over the campus and find our classes.
       Bill’s mom thought we were silly. “It’s not that big,” she said. “You can’t possibly get lost.” But we had to see for ourselves. Bright and early the next day, we set out on our bicycles, Bill on his 10-speed and me on my three-wheeler.
       It was the hottest day of summer as we rode to the high school. Or it seemed like it, anyway. It wasn’t far, only eight blocks, but in 90degree heat and the sweltering Texas south wind, we were sweating profusely when we arrived.
       The building was empty, except for a handful of teachers preparing for the opening day of school. It was hauntingly eerie standing in the halls of the timeworn old building. It was a three-story building that stretched three city blocks. Standing at one end of the hall, I could hardly make out the insignia of the school mascot emblazoned above the entrance at the other end.
       The building’s multilevel design made it difficult for me to get around. As Bill and I roamed the halls searching for our classes, we had to climb the stairs several times. It was a struggle getting up the steep stairs.
       Mom and Dad had worried about me climbing the stairs. They thought I might fall and tumble down the stairs or that someone would knock me over. Dad had thought a lot about it and tried to do something about it before I even got to high school.
       Dad took on the school board in hopes of getting an elevator installed. He simply couldn’t believe they had gone that long without an elevator. There were other students who needed it far worse than I did.
       I was one of the lucky ones. At least I could climb the steps. Some couldn’t use the stairs at all and had to attend classes in another part of the building. It made no sense at all to Dad. There had to be something he could do, he swore.
       But the wheels of progress turn slowly, and it would be two more years before we would see an elevator become a reality. In the meantime, I had to battle the stairs.
       The counselors knew it was hard for me to go up and down the stairs between classes, so they scheduled all my morning classes on the second floor and my afternoon classes on the first floor. It saved a lot of steps and precious energy only having to climb the stairs once a day.
       I had no trouble with the steps that day with Bill. We wandered around the building nearly an hour, locating all of our classrooms and went up the stairs several times.
       I never admitted it to anyone, but deep down, I was nervous about starting a new school and not knowing what the future held for me in high school.
       The closer it got to the opening bell, the more anxious I became. Despite my achievements in junior high, I still had doubts, secretly wondering if I could really make it in high school. Low self-confidence haunted me and kept me from believing I could have a normal life. I was terrified. By the time the first day of school rolled around, I was so nervous I had a knot in the pit of my stomach.
       A hundred questions ran through my mind when I thought about starting school. What if I can’t handle it? What if I fail? It was only natural to have doubts. But it was that inept fear that made me more determined than ever to succeed.
       It was strange the first day. Dad walked me to my first class and helped me up the stairs, still afraid I would fall climbing the steep steps. Then, he headed back to his school, and I was on my own.
       Even though I had been there with Bill just the week before, I felt lost. The grades weren’t divided as they were in junior high. The students all mixed in together in the halls, and there were some big kids in the halls, huge kids. I felt out of place but believed God would help me. He had brought me this far. Through faith, I would make it.
       The first day, a bulky football player bumped into me in the hall. I dropped my books when he brushed me with his shoulder. He must have been a senior because he towered over me by a head.
       I left class five minutes early but didn’t make it to my next class before the bell rang and everyone started pouring into the hall. I tried to move to the side when he bumped me. I swerved to catch my balance and managed to keep from falling. It was only a slight nudge, but enough of a jolt to make me drop my books. He never even saw little me. He just plowed through and never looked back.
       It was a long walk to some of my classes, and I couldn’t always make it in the five minutes between classes. The school nurse loaned me a wheelchair, and I used it for the first few days, but once again it wasn’t long before I abandoned the wheelchair and walked everywhere.
       It was little things like walking and carrying my books that were the biggest hindrances. I had two lockers, one on each floor. It saved time, and I didn’t have to lug books up the stairs.
       Dad coerced one of the teachers into walking me down the stairs at noon. I was embarrassed having a teacher walk me down the stairs. I thought I could do it by myself, but Dad felt better if someone was with me. The stairways were always packed at noon. Most students were gracious and let me pass, but there were a few who tried to block my path.
       With my inflexible muscles and stiff joints, I still couldn’t do the rigorous activities of a gym class. I felt incomplete by never having gym. Besides the physical training that goes on, there’s also the bonding and growing that takes place in the locker room as boys turn into men.
       There’s something about walking around a locker room with a bunch of sweaty guys in towels. And the talk that goes on. I missed all that.
       While all the boys were in gym, I spent the last hour of each day studying in the library. The library was one of the few rooms that was air-conditioned. The cooled air hit me across the face as I walked into the library, and I melted into a chair and didn’t move from that spot.
       It had been a tiring first day, but a triumphant one. I had done something many thought I’d never do. I made it through my first day of high school, and even though I had lingering doubts, I was determined that I was going to make it.


       High school was everything I expected it to be. There was greater freedom to discover my own beliefs and test my values. And along with freedom came more responsibility. Teachers didn’t coddle students. They were there to teach, and it was up to the students to learn.
       Teachers didn’t pamper students by constantly reminding them to turn in their homework. It was expected. Certainly, they had to do some coaxing from time to time. But, ultimately, it was the student’s decision to study and do the work.
       High school was harder than junior high. I had to spend more time studying just to make a ‘B’ in high school. I knew grades were my only hope for making a life for myself when I finished school, for getting a job and for realizing my dream — to make it on my own.
       I spent hours at a time studying, hoping the hard work would pay off. That’s something Dad tried to instill in me: “If you work hard and always do your best, the extra effort will pay off in the end.”
       My parents pushed me to move beyond what I knew I could do and be the best I could be. One teacher especially encouraged me to take tougher courses that forced me to think and to grow. Beth Shannon taught freshman science. She took a special interest in me that year. She took an interest in all her students. That’s the kind of teacher she was.
       I knew Beth from church. I had grown up around her practically, so I was thrilled when I got in her class.
       Beth was a devout Christian woman, and she continually looked for ways to share her faith. She always tried to inlay something about God into her lessons.
       She had a sign on the door of her room. At the top it gave a long, scientific formula for creating light, and then underneath it simply read: “And God said let there be light.” Even if it was just a phrase or a word, she tried to inject something every day to let God come through. It was always very subtle. She never forced her beliefs on anyone.
       Our science class that year studied the theory of evolution, the belief that species can change over a long period of time so that their descendants become less like their ancestors.
       Beth craftfully included her belief in creationism, the story of man’s origin as told in Genesis which says God created the heavens and the earth. She took a real chance by bringing religion into the lesson at a time when people were trying to expel God from the classroom. But she couldn’t let the opportunity pass without sharing her belief in God.
       I admired her for her strong beliefs. It was an inspiration to me at a time when I was testing my own faith. In those years as a confused, muddled-headed teenager, I fought with my faith. I wondered who is God? Where is God?
       Mom had made me sit in church and listen to sermon after sermon from the time I was big enough to see over the pew. I was taught that God was a kind god, a caring god. Still, I couldn’t help but wonder how such a loving god could allow such suffering.
       Mom told me if I prayed to God, someday he would make me like everyone else. I believed that he would hear me, so for months on end I diligently prayed, “God, make me like other children so I am not different.” Then, I waited patiently for him to answer my prayers.
       I believed there was a purpose, though I didn’t understand it for a long time. I continued to go to church and pray, but I wasn’t living a godly life. I rebelled against God for a time as I searched to find answers about my life.
       Seeing Beth share her love for others inspired me to look deeper within myself to find who God wanted me to be. It was in that science class that I found God again.
       Besides strengthening my faith, Beth encouraged me to work hard and apply myself. She helped me to see that God only helps those who help themselves.
       When Beth found out I was taking a basic math class instead of regular algebra, she tried to get me to take a more challenging class. She tried to get me to switch to regular algebra, but I was afraid to try. I took the easy way out. I was afraid to set higher stakes, afraid I would fail. Math was my worst subject. I could never see where algebra would ever help me in life.
       Beth was disappointed I didn’t challenge myself by taking the tougher class. It was the only time I remember a teacher telling me she was disappointed in me. Beth said something once that stuck with me: “A lot of people have the ability. But many never use it.” I never forgot those words.
       I discovered the truth in her words when I found myself in a remedial history class later that year. Basic classes taught the same material, but at a slower pace. They were meant to help students who needed a little extra time to learn. I got into the class quite by accident.
       I had to take a health class the second half of my freshman year. That meant changing my schedule. The counselors tried to keep all my morning classes on the second floor, but the only open health class in the morning was on the third floor.
       They tried to keep me off the third floor completely, so the only way around it was to put me in a basic history class. Dad was vehemently opposed to the idea. He agreed with Beth that I should take more advanced courses, but there was no other way.
       The class wasn’t much different from my regular history class. The same teacher taught both courses and covered the same material. It was actually more interesting because we spent more time talking about the events that shaped our country’s history. It made history come to life. It became more than just names and dates.
       I couldn’t see that the class was that much easier until it came time for the first test. The exam consisted of 10 multiple choice questions, and that was it. I got my test and finished it in less than five minutes. I was the first one finished.
       I was usually the last one to turn in my test. It wasn’t that I didn’t know the answers, but it just took more time to write the answers on tests that were usually essay questions. On a multiple-choice test, I finished in no time.
       After I turned in my paper, I looked around the room at the other students in the class. They were struggling over those simple questions. It was then that I realized I didn’t belong in that class. It was like in junior high when they put me in special ed. It was easier, but I didn’t belong there.
       I made an ‘A’ in the class, but it didn’t mean as much as ‘As I made in other classes. The class wasn’t a challenge. I realized what Beth meant when she said a lot of people have a special gift, but they don’t use it for good. It is wasted.
       That was my first and only basic class because I knew I could do better. It was then I decided that I was going to take tougher classes, take a risk, challenge myself, even if it meant working harder, because in the end, I knew it would all be worth it.


Sticks and Stones


       I always felt sheltered in school, safe from the chiding by other kids. My friends, some who had been around me since grade school, helped me when I needed it. They had been around me. They knew me and accepted me.
       When I got to high school, I encountered a new group. I was afraid they wouldn’t accept me. Something happens as people get older that makes them less trusting and less approving of others.
       Most of the students I met were kind and tried to get to know me. But there were always the few people who never would accept me. They would never like me because I was different. They didn’t say they didn’t like me. They didn’t have to. I knew the jokes they whispered as I passed in the hall, the snickers they made, and it hurt. If they would only take the time to see that I’m not all that different.
       I was in the cafeteria one day, and a group of boys was talking and laughing at a table behind me.
       It must have been the reporter’s instinct in me that made me strain to hear their conversation. I had a habit of sticking my nose in places it didn’t belong. But this time, I was sorry I did.
       I was sitting with my back to the boys, and they hadn’t noticed me sitting there. I couldn’t make out everything they said, but I heard them talking about the freaks they let in school here.
       “They can’t even walk straight,” one of them snarled.
       My heart sank as I realized they were talking about me and Tim, my friend from junior high who also had cerebral palsy. Two of the boys in the group were in the same geography class that Timmy and I were in. I remember them looking at me kind of strange, but I never gave it much thought until then.
       All this time, they had been making fun of me and I didn’t even realize it. How could I not have known they were talking about me? How could I have been so naive? I was getting angrier the longer I sat there. I didn’t want to believe they were talking about me.
       Finally, I had heard enough. I couldn’t remain silent any longer. I whipped around in my chair and looked straight at them. My stare pierced them, silencing their conversation. They quickly got up and left without saying a word. They only snickered as they passed my table.
       I just sat there, unable to move. I knew people made fun of me, but I never had encountered the chiding directly and it caught me off guard. I wondered how anyone could be so cruel. They didn’t know me. They didn’t know anything about me.
       After that, whenever I saw those boys in class, they never said a word about that day in the cafeteria. They just turned their heads and looked away. I don’t know if they ever realized what they had done. I like to think they realized what they did was wrong and tried to make it right.
       I knew there always would be people like that in the world. It’s ignorance that keeps people from understanding. I felt sorry for them. I really did. They would never have the chance to know someone like Tim or me.


Schoolboy Crush


       Like any other 15-year-old, I was growing more, both physically and emotionally. My voice started cracking. As if my speech wasn’t already garbled enough, now my voice squeaked every time I said anything. I sounded like I had a whistle stuck in my throat. My face started sprouting hair, and I had to start shaving once a week, which created quite another problem.
       I had entered the confusing age of puberty.
       I noticed girls were changing, too. They were different. They weren’t different in the way I was different from able bodied people, but they were definitely different. There were curves in places where there had been none.
       Biology class and studying the reproductive system only helped to pique my interest in the opposite sex. We had biology lab twice a week. The teacher split the class into teams of four people each. I was in a group with three girls: Sonya West, Karen Anderson and Bonita Rogers.
       They were all a year younger than me. Even though it was a sophomore class, there was a mix of freshmen and sophomores in the class.
       I had a huge crush on Sonya. Sonya was the brightest girl in the class, and one of the prettiest I thought. She had wavy curves in all the right places. I couldn’t help notice them when she leaned in to look at a slide under the microscope. But that wasn’t what attracted me to her. It was the way she made me feel whenever she was around.
       Sonya made me feel special, like I mattered. It was the little things she said and did to show she cared about me. On Valentine’s Day that year, she sent me a Kissogram. It was a card decorated with paper hearts, brightly colored ribbons and a chocolate candy Kiss placed in one comer.
       The home economics classes made the cards and sold them after school. All the boys got one for their sweethearts and inscribed a love note on the card.
       Those who were too timid to reveal their true intentions sent cards anonymously. I never paid much attention to them because I didn’t have a girlfriend, and I never expected anyone to send me one. It came as quite a shock when they came around in homeroom delivering the notes.
       Several girls in my homeroom received one, then they called my name. It caught me so by surprise. I couldn’t imagine who would be sending me a Kissogram. Sonya was a friend, but I never really professed her as my girlfriend. I would have gladly admitted I was crazy about her, but I didn’t know if she felt the same about me.
       I got a warm feeling inside when I read the card and saw Sonya’s name. I felt my heart doing flips. “Hope your heart is full of love. Happy Valentine’s Day. Sonya,” she inscribed on the card.
       My heart was full of love that day because someone cared enough about me to send me a card. I felt bad I didn’t have anything for her. When I saw Sonya later that afternoon in biology class and thanked her for the card, I apologized for not giving her anything.
       “But you have given me something,” she said warmly.
       I thought for a minute. I couldn’t remember ever giving her anything.
       “You gave me your friendship,” she said.
That’s when I discovered the true meaning of Valentine’s Day. It’s about friendship and showing those you care about how much they mean. Sonya had done that. She had shown me she cared.
       Sonya and I became closer friends after that. We never were actually a couple. I had accepted the fact that I probably wouldn’t have many girlfriends. That was all right. It was all right just being friends. Friendships can be the most special relationships.
       I cherished the time we had together. Sonya played in the school band. I loved to go listen to her play. The band performed at halftime at home basketball games. I never was a sports fan. Most of the time I didn’t know what the score was, but I could sit and listen to Sonya play for hours.
       I could pick out Sonya’s horn above everybody else in the band. She made that horn sing. I went to so many band performances people thought I was part of the band. I felt like I was part of the band.
       At the end of the year, Sonya asked me to the band’s end of school banquet. It was a gala event every year. The boys rented tuxedos, and the girls got new formal dresses. It was almost as big as the prom, and Sonya asked me to be her escort.
       I was thrilled when Sonya asked me. I couldn’t believe she wanted me to take her. But I turned her down. It’s not that I didn’t want to go. I wanted more than anything to take her, but I just couldn’t. I had only danced once in my life, and that was at the Lions Club’s camp. I felt silly then, and I was certain I’d look silly if I tried to dance now.
       No one understood why I didn’t want to go. Mom said we could rent a tuxedo for the dance. I told Sonya I couldn’t go because we were having company and my parents wouldn’t let me go.
       I couldn’t tell her the real reason I wouldn’t go. The truth was I liked Sonya too much to go with her. I didn’t want to embarrass her in front of her friends. I was afraid if I went and tried to dance, I’d trip and look like a clumsy fool. Sonya still didn’t understand why I wouldn’t go. She sensed there was another reason, but she didn’t force me.
       The closer the night of the dance got, the more I wanted to call Sonya and tell her I changed my mind. I wanted to tell her I’d go, but I couldn’t. It just wasn’t right.
       The night of the banquet I sat home alone. I was miserable. I kept thinking about Sonya. After I told her I couldn’t go, she asked someone else. I thought about them all night. I wondered what they were doing, if they were having a good time. It was the longest night of my life — and the loneliest.
       I knew it didn’t matter to Sonya that I couldn’t dance. She didn’t care if I was a bumbling fool. She liked me the way I was, but I missed my chance.
       School let out the week after the banquet, and I didn’t see Sonya much during the summer. When school started the next year, we didn’t have any classes together, and we lost track of each other. I saw her in the hall once in a while, and I’d talk to her but it was never the same.
       I’d always been one for taking chances. I believed I’d never get anything in life unless I tried. I didn’t try, and I lost out. Chances are nothing would have changed if I had gone to the dance that night. But there’s always that one chance that things might have been different. If only I’d stepped out and taken a chance.


Driving


       Summers were the loneliest time of year for me. The days were filled with many long, empty hours. That’s the reason I slept late in the summer.
       Sometimes, I felt as if I was cheating myself out of part of life by not making use of that time. When I made myself get up, usually around 10, I spent most of the day inside under the air conditioner and in front of the television.
There wasn’t a lot for a boy without a summer job or a car to do in a small West Texas town, and I had neither.
       The summer between my sophomore and junior years looked to be even more solitary. Bill wasn’t around as much that summer. We were usually inseparable in the summer, taking crosstown bike rides, camping out in the back yard or just sitting under a shade tree, but that year Bill went to work at his granddad’s gas station, fixing flats and pumping gas.
       I was lost without Bill. I’d always had a friend to run around with in Bill, and now he was gone.
       The only hope I saw in saving the summer from complete boredom was that it was the summer before my 16th birthday. Sixteen is a coming of age. It is the age of first loves. It often is the age of a first kiss.
       There was another rite of passage in turning 16. It was the age of discovering the freedom of the road when most teens get driver’s licenses.
       I had dreamed how it would be when I got my license. I had it all figured out. There were classes every fall and summer at the high school. I figured I could take driver’s ed that summer, then when my birthday rolled around in October, I’d take the test and get my license.


       I watched the newspaper every day, waiting for an announcement of when the driving classes would start. When it finally came out, I rode my bicycle to the school to sign up.
       As I rode, I thought about how wonderful it would be when I got my license. I could drive to school. I could go to the mall by myself. I’d be able to go anywhere!
       I picked up a registration form in the office and started home. I kept thinking that soon I wouldn’t have to pedal everywhere I went. I’d have a car. I still had to have Mom or Dad sign the form, but I figured once I got their OK, I’d be on the road to freedom.
       I never thought it would be so complicated and bring so much heartache getting there.
       Mom was in the kitchen frying a chicken when I got home with the papers.
       “I need you to sign this,” I said laying the paper on the counter.
       “What is it?” she asked.
“It’s just a form I have to fill out for driver’s ed. All you have to do is sign it,” I said, pushing the paper a little closer.
       “Wait a minute. Driver’s ed?”
       “Yes, I have to take it this summer so I can get my license by my birthday.”
       “I don’t know, Chris,” she said turning a piece of chicken over in the skillet. “I think you better talk to your dad about this.”
       “What’s there to talk about?” I asked, starting to get flustered.
       “Well, I’m not sure if you’re going to be able to get a license.”
       “Why not?” I demanded. I was really starting to get worked up now. I hadn’t considered the possibility that I wouldn’t get my license. Dad had taken me out and let me drive on country roads in the old Plymouth he drove back and forth to work. Now to think that I wouldn’t be able to drive, I couldn’t imagine it.
       “We’ll just have to wait and see,” Mom continued. “I don’t know if you can handle that.”
       Dad came around the corner about that time, probably smelling the chicken frying. Dad was always the first one to the table.
       “There’s your father. Talk to him about it,” Mom said.
       “Talk to me about what?” he asked hesitantly.
       “Your son wants to take driving. I told him he had to talk to you.”
       Dad was silent. For a minute, I thought he was going to be on my side and that he would tell Mom that I could handle it. After all, he was the one who always tossed me the keys and told me to back the car out of the driveway and park it in the street. For a brief second, I had a glimmer of hope. Then, suddenly, my hopes came crashing down.
       “Son, they’re not going to let you have a driver’s license,” he said.
       “Why not?” I asked. My voice started quivering and tears welled up in my eyes. “Why won’t they give me a license?”
       “I really don’t think you can handle driving a car,” he said.
       “It’s not fair! You let me drive in the country. Just let me try.”
       “No!” he said sternly. “I’m sorry. Not now.” And with that the discussion came to an abrupt end. I burst into tears and bolted from the room.
       I ran to my room and slammed the door. I was furious. Why wouldn’t they at least let me try?
       My anger turned to rage. I went into a tantrum. I took my arm and with one sweep, brushed everything on the dresser off into the floor. I pounded my fist against the floor, but all that did was make my hand throb. I couldn’t understand why my parents were treating me so unfairly.
       I lost my balance trying to upset the things on my desk, and my shoe came off. It incensed me even more. I picked up the shoe and threw it against the door, then fell limp in the floor crying.
       Mom tried to get me to come out and eat, but I wasn’t hungry, which was unusual for me. I usually wanted to eat all the time, but I couldn’t eat now. Mom tried to explain why they couldn’t let me take driving. She said she knew I could drive, but they were concerned that my reflexes wouldn’t be quick enough to make sudden stops. She said my muscles weren’t strong enough to steady a car.
       I didn’t understand. I thought they were being cruel. I thought it was unfair. Life was unfair. Mom tried to persuade me to come out of my room and eat. I didn’t want to eat. I wanted to stay in there and feel sorry for myself. I had a right to feel sorry for myself, and I wanted to pity myself.
       I stayed in my room the rest of the night, trying to find a way to convince them I could do it. I calmed down gradually, but there were occasional outbursts of anger. It was then that I started questioning God. I wanted to know why. Why was this happening to me?
       I cried out to God. I was angry at God and at life. I blamed him. “Why me?” I kept asking him. “Why did this have to happen to me, God? Why?”
       It was natural, I guess, to want to know why, but until then it was a question I never thought to ask. I accepted my disability as part of life, the nature of things. Life wasn’t always fair. I had accepted that. I never had blamed God.
       I believed there must be a reason for all things. “For by him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or authorities, all things were created by him and for him,” Colossians 1:16 said. I believed God created me for a purpose. He had a purpose in making me the way he did. But I also believed in God’s power to change things. I believed in miracles.
       Mom and Grandma Altman had prayed and asked God for a miracle. I can’t count the number of times they prayed for me. I remember my mom and my Sunday school teacher taking me to a healing crusade in Amarillo when I was about 10 years old. They prayed that God would heal me.
       Everyone prayed for me that night. I had so many hands on me I felt like a rag doll that everybody just passed around. I didn’t understand why I wasn’t healed because I knew it was possible. Even at that young age, I believed it was possible.
       I lay in bed that night after everyone had gone to sleep, and with tears streaming down my face, I called out to God.
       “Why is life unfair?” I cried. “Why has life dealt me this hand?” I really felt sorry for myself. I prayed for a miracle.
       That night, I felt God would either have to heal me or reveal his purpose for making me that way. God didn’t answer me that night, or at least it wasn’t the answer I wanted. I finally cried myself to sleep.
       I sulked for days afterward, moping around the house. I thought if I sulked long enough, Mom and Dad would have to give in and let me take driver’s ed, but my efforts were to no avail. They tried to help me to understand it was because they loved me, but, of course, I didn’t understand.
       I continued to search for the answers about my life, but I no longer blamed God. I sought him and his purpose for my life. God is a loving god. I knew he had a plan and that if I just looked to him, in time, his purpose would reveal itself.


My Calling


       God doesn’t follow man’s timetable, yet his timing proved itself to me time and time again. It may not have seemed like it, but God had a plan. There were times in my life where God clearly was leading my steps, even though I didn’t realize it at the time.
       One of the biggest heartbreaks in life was trying to accept the harsh reality that I wouldn’t get my driver’s license when I turned 16. All my friends were driving and experiencing the freedom of the open road. I never once stopped to consider that I might not be able to operate a machine that required such exact coordination.
       It made me look to my future. What else wouldn’t I be able to do? I had thought about the future, but I never thought about what I wanted to do after high school. I dreamed about going to college, but I wasn’t sure if I would be able to go. More and more, I began seeking God’s direction for my life.
       When school started that fall, God’s plan began to become clear, but it came in a way that I was unaware it was even happening.
       I couldn’t take the usual array of virile classes that were popular with boys — wood shop and auto mechanics. Each year, Dad and I sat down and tried to figure out which classes I would be able to take.
       Dad always suggested classes that would make me think. Classes like psychology and anatomy. When I made out my schedule at the end of my sophomore year, I needed one class as an alternate in case my first choice for electives filled up. The high school counselor suggested journalism.
       I knew little about journalism or newspapers, but I liked to write so I decided to try it. Besides, the counselor assured me the chances of having to actually use my alternate schedule were slim.
       Sure enough, when I received my schedule a few weeks before school started, the first thing on it was journalism. I was nervous about the class because, although I liked the idea of crafting stories, I shied away from anything that involved a lot of handwriting.
       I did all right if I had a typewriter, but at the time, the school newspaper had only one typewriter and there weren’t many computers when I was in school. Budding reporters had to write their stories longhand, then use a typesetter to set the stories into print.
       I was terrified about the class at first, but my fears vanished as I learned about journalism and newspapers. I quickly became fascinated by journalism. I realized later it was no coincidence that those other classes were full and I wound up in journalism.
       It was God’s way of leading me. It was the first step in a sequence of events that led me to a career in journalism. It was clearly God’s hand working in my life, guiding me in his way.
       I wasn’t alone in sharing my reluctance about taking the class. The journalism teacher, Lynda Queen, was concerned about me taking the class.
       Journalism is a talking-intensive business, and because of my speech, Mrs. Queen wondered if I would be able to communicate well enough to do the interviews. But she welcomed me into the class anyway and gave me a chance.
       We didn’t start writing right away. We studied the advent of the printing press and the first daily newspaper in the American colonies, the Pennsylvania Evening Post, in 1783. It seemed more like a history class than a writing course.
       I never was that fond of history, but I found it interesting, especially the early-day journalists — William Randolph Hearst and Benjamin Day and the publishers of the penny papers — I wanted to be just like them. But the thing that brought it to life for me was when I got to see the workings of an actual newspaper.
       Mrs. Queen took the class on a tour of The Pampa News. It was a small daily and the only newspaper I’d ever read. We wandered around the newsroom, watching reporters scrambling around the room on deadline, and we saw the presses roll.
       I was captivated by the whole operation, seeing a story start with an idea and watching it blossom into a finished story and then finding its way onto the pages of the newspaper.
       I had all these thoughts inside of me, but because of my speech, I had no way to express my feelings. After seeing the newspaper, I knew I was meant to be a newspaperman.
       After several weeks of studying the history of journalism, my hands were itching to write. Mrs. Queen started me off slow. My first assignment was to write a story about the school’s new elevator.
       The school board, after years of stalling, saw the light and went to work on getting an elevator at the high school.
       It was installed over the summer, and it was ready when school opened in the fall. It was a small elevator, and only students with a disability or students who were injured were permitted to use it.
       Mrs. Queen asked me to write the story because she thought who better to write about it than someone who actually would be using the elevator. It was a rather crude story. I hardly knew how to go about writing a news story. I had written narratives about my family and make-believe stories about adventures I dreamed of having, but this was different.
       I agonized over it for days. Finally, I sat down and started writing. I told how the elevator would help students who broke their legs, saving precious steps up and down the stairs. The elevator got quite a workout during football season, when players hurt their legs and were unable to climb the stairs.
       The article wasn’t completely objective because the elevator was meant to help me, after all.
       It was a tiny elevator, only about the size of a broom closet. It was barely big enough for three people to ride comfortably. It shook like a roller coaster when it moved. I was more than a little bit leery of riding it. I tried to avoid elevators altogether. I’d rather walk up 10 flights of stairs than ride the elevator. I just knew it would get stuck.
       Sure enough, the second time I got on it, the thing that I was afraid would happen happened. The elevator got stuck.
       I had gotten on the elevator after school one day when it got stuck between floors. I was in there only about 20 minutes, but it seemed like hours. It was smoldering in the cramped space. There was no breeze at all. It must have been 100 degrees in there. I broke out in a sweat. I was frightened. I thought I was going to be in there all night.
       I finally was freed when Dad came to pick me up and I wasn’t outside waiting. He knew something was wrong and came in looking for me. When he didn’t see me in the hall, Dad decided to check in the office.
       Dad decided to check the elevator on the way to the office. That’s when he heard me. Dad alerted the office, and they were able to start the elevator with a crank in the basement. They had me out within minutes.
       The elevator was out of service for several days while they tried to repair the problems, which was perfectly all right with me. I swore I would never ride that thing again. Dad convinced me to give it another chance. He reminded me that they put in the elevator to help me, so I should try to use it. I was still a little reluctant but finally agreed to give it another chance.
       My story omitted the details of my harrowing experience, except to say the elevator left a couple of riders stranded early in the year. The story was sketchy on all accounts. It was all of four paragraphs.
       I asked Dad to read the story before I turned it in. He offered some constructive criticism, which no writer likes to hear but invariably must accept. He suggested a few changes, which I admit improved the article, although it was still pretty rough.
       The story went through more changes before it appeared in the paper the next week — the power of an editor. I was so proud the first time I saw my words in print.
       You would have thought I had written a Pulitzer-prize winner. I thought I really had accomplished something getting my story in the paper, and I had. Or at least it was a start.


A Budding Reporter


       If I was going to be a reporter, I needed a beat. We drew lots, and everyone in the class got an assignment. Mrs. Queen wrote the names of the beats on slips of paper, and everyone drew one.
       Some reporters snagged a newsy beat: student government, the debate team, the drama department. Others of us weren’t as lucky. I got stuck with the cafeteria beat.
       Besides writing how bland the food was, I wondered what I could possibly find to write about the cafeteria. I was stymied.
       I talked to the cafeteria manager each week in search of a scoop, and for the first couple of weeks, I came up with a story. After a few weeks, though, I began running out of ideas and started venturing into other areas for stories. My reporter’s instincts led me to a history teacher who had worked in politics before turning to teaching.
       I was in her American history class and was fascinated by the stories she told about working for the campaigns of a president and a former governor. I told the editor, Patt Richards, about her, and he asked me to write a story about her.
       I interviewed Miss Spearman after school one day and found out she was a field coordinator for President Reagan’s reelection campaign. She arranged visits for George Bush, then the vice president, when he was campaigning in Texas, and she helped with the president’s fundraisers. She also had worked for a senator and a governor.
       I was astounded by the people she knew. It made for an interesting story, all the notable people and even a notorious criminal. Miss Spearman said in her college days, she knew John Hinkley Jr., the man who shot President Reagan.
       I conducted the interview in a somewhat crude fashion. I wrote my questions on a piece of notebook paper, and Miss Spearman read along because it was difficult for her to understand me.
       Then, she wrote down her responses to make it easier for me to record her answers. It may not have been the customary way to interview someone, but it was the best way I knew to communicate. I couldn’t interview the normal way, so I had to adapt.
       I gleaned a glimmer of light into Miss Spearman’s life from the interview, and I worked on the story for two weeks to get everything right. I worked harder on it than any story I’d written. It had to be perfect. I battled over every word, trying to choose just the right phrase.
       I finished the story and turned it in to the editor. It wasn’t flawless, but it gave me a sense of pride, knowing that I had worked so hard to get a story. Patt raved over it.
       Mrs. Queen was rather surprised by it. Neither she nor Patt had really expected any more out of me, so they hadn’t given me challenging stories. They looked at me differently after that, though. I got better assignments once they saw what I could do.
       Mrs. Queen encouraged me to write more. I wrote features on other teachers and profiles on students. I relished over writing stories. It became my passion.
       I turned from features to writing news stories. Mrs. Queen worked with me after school to help me improve my stories. She believed in me and my writing ability. My writing improved during the year, and Mrs. Queen convinced me to compete in the interscholastic news-writing contest that spring.
       The contest was the literary equivalent of the University Interscholastic League competition for sports. I never had competed in anything in my life. I scarcely paid any attention to UIL until Mrs. Queen asked me to compete. I didn’t really realize the prominence placed on the contest, or I probably would have been too nervous to compete. I simply saw it as a way to get out of school for a day.
       The contests lasted all day at West Texas State University. Pampa took a busload of students, 36 in all, competing in science, math, typing, journalism and spelling.
       As I boarded the big, Harvester bus, painted in the school colors of green and gold, for the first time, I felt like I was part of a team. I was excited about competing against other students in the district, but I really didn’t know what to expect.
       While the other Pampa students roamed the campus before their contests, Mrs. Queen took her students, about seven of us, to the library for some last-minute preparation.
       She tried to reassure us. “You’re all going to do great,” she said. Mrs. Queen was the kind of teacher who was always jovial and cheery.
       Newswriting was the first contest. I was relieved that I was going first. I could go in and be done with it. I was nervous, but Mrs. Queen assured me I could do it.
       The contest was timed, which made it more difficult for me. No allowance was given for my handicap. I was expected to compete like any other student. I wasn’t looking for favors. I wanted to be treated the same as everybody else, but I thought if I could type my story, I could finish in the same time it took everyone else to handwrite theirs. And I thought the judges would be able to read it easier.
       My handwriting was illegible when I got in a hurry. It was shaky anyway, and when I tried to hurry it only made it worse. I thought if I could type it, the judges would be able to read it, but the judges refused to make an exception. They said it would distract the other contestants, me banging around on the keyboard. I would have to do the best I could in the time I had and hope for the best.
       They gave each contestant a sheet of a paper with feign quotes and facts, and we had 45 minutes to write a story. I read the information sheet through twice carefully and tried to organize my story in my mind. I read through the sheet a third time and then started writing.
       I strained to print each letter legibly, bearing down on my pencil so hard I broke the lead and had to ask for a new one. I wanted desperately for the judges to be able to read my writing, but I knew I had to hurry.
       The test monitor strolled up to the blackboard every few minutes and wrote how much time was remaining. That made me more jittery. I had to hurry, I told myself. I was taking too much time. I had to speed up.
       I read through the fact sheet once more and then began writing, weaving quotes with the rest of the information.
       My handwriting got noticeably dimmer the closer it came to the deadline.
       I was starting the last paragraph when the monitor announced time was up. “Put your pencils down and turn your papers over on your desks,” she said. I wasn’t finished yet. I needed more time! But that was it. I had to be satisfied with what I had. The monitor instructed us to leave our papers on the desks as we left.
       Mrs. Queen was perched outside the door when I came out. “How do you think you did?” she asked in her usual cheery voice.
       “I don’t know,” I said. “I didn’t finish.”
       “I’m sure you did great,” Mrs. Queen said, patting me on the shoulder. I honestly didn’t know how I did. I thought I had done poorly because I didn’t finish.
       Now, I had to wait. The judges would grade the papers and post the winners precisely at 3 o’clock. It was 1:30 when I finished. I had an hour and a half before I learned the results. Meanwhile, the next contest was starting, and two of my classmates were competing.
       I was too nervous to stay at the test site. I decided to roam around campus. As I made my way across the huge campus, I prayed that I had done all right in the contest. “God, please don’t let me let Mrs. Queen down,” I prayed. I didn’t care if I was disappointed, but I didn’t want to let Mrs. Queen down. She had worked so hard to help me.
       Thirty minutes passed, then 45. Finally, I couldn’t take it any longer. I started back. I thought by the time I got over there, the results might be out. I walked slowly, still fretting over how poorly I thought I had done.
       The feature writing contest was letting out when I reached the site. Contestants lined the halls waiting for the results. The suspense was thick in the air. It was like a fog had formed in the hallway. Finally, a woman came out with a sheet of white paper.
       Everyone started crowding around the door. I couldn’t get in close enough. I couldn’t see the results. Suddenly, I heard a loud squeal. Mrs. Queen had nudged her way through the mountainous crowd to the head of the line.
       The crowd began to clear out, and I moved closer to where Mrs. Queen was standing. “Chris, you won! You won!” she exclaimed. “You got first place!” She grabbed me and gave me a big hug. “You won! ” She was more excited than I was.
       I was excited, but it hadn’t sunk in yet. I was shocked.
       Mrs. Queen was ecstatic. “We have to call your mom and tell her the news. You’re going to regional s!” she said, pulling me closer for another hug. I didn’t think I needed to call Mom, it being long distance and all, but Mrs. Queen insisted.
       “You’ve got to give her the good news,” she said.
       She got Mom on the line and handed me the phone.
       “Chris, what’s wrong? Is something wrong?” Mom asked. “Where are you?”
       “No, everything fine. I won. I won the contest,” I said.
       “You won?” She asked, sounding surprised.
       “Yes. First place. I’m going to regionals.”
       “That’s wonderful,” she said, not sure how to react.
       She was thrilled, of course, but I don’t think she knew what to say. It was a surprise more than anything. I never thought I’d win. That thought never entered my mind. Mrs. Queen wasn’t surprised, though. She told me I could do it. She believed in me.
       Our class fared well in the rest of the day’s contests. Three other journalism students also won, two in editorial writing and an alternate in headline writing. Four English students also won district, giving Pampa a strong contention for the regional contest.
       I felt like an athlete must feel after winning a game. Exhausted, but invigorated. It was a great feeling. Pampa was the big winner that day with seven students advancing to regionals, and for the first time, I was part of the winning team.


The Competition


       Regionals were the last weekend in April at Brownwood in Central Texas. That left three weeks after district contest to prepare. Mrs. Queen began drilling us immediately after returning from district.
       It was hard to concentrate on school for thinking about my next feat. That’s all I thought about for three weeks. Studying turned into drudgery the closer it came to the contest.
       The end of school was a drag anyway. Warm weather was coming on. The days started getting longer, and I started getting spring fever. There were so many distractions the closer it got to the end of the year. This year it was worse. All I could think about was going to regionals.
       Mrs. Queen even found it hard to get back on track after we returned from the contest. She talked about it for days afterward, recounting how the Journalism 1 class dominated the contests.
       She was more excited than any of us students who were competing, and understandably so. It was as much of an accomplishment for her as it was for the students.
       She gave us more drills and practice tests. We worked long hours after school getting ready. Regional s were more competitive than district with only the top student journalists making the cut. Mrs. Queen told us competition would be stiff. I knew I had to be prepared.
       I knew it would be a challenge, but it was one I had to take. I couldn’t compete in sports. This was my chance to make my mark. I wanted it more than anything. I had to do this. I worked hard and I was ready when it came time to leave.
       Students, teachers and the journalism staff turned out to give us a grand sendoff. The principal gave each of us a green-and-gold key ring emblazoned with the school’s emblem for luck. He told us we represented dear ol’ Pampa High and were competing for its honor as well as our own. I felt privileged to be among that group.
       At last, we were off. Seven students, two teachers, Ralph the bus driver and . . . my mother! That’s right, Mom was tagging along. She insisted that I needed someone to go with me because I couldn’t make the trip alone.
       Mom and Dad were proud of me and they wanted me to go, but they didn’t think I should go alone. I was sure I could, but Mom talked to Mrs. Queen and they thought it was best if Mom went along.
       You get to know people pretty well after spending six hours cramped in a car together. I already knew Patt.
       I was embarrassed at first, having my mother tag along on the most important trip of my life, but I didn’t mind it too much. I was thrilled just to be going. Nothing could have kept me from getting on that bus.


       I already knew Patt Richards, the editor of the paper, and I knew Marc Gilbert and Jessica Patton from journalism class. Then, there was Kambra Winningham. I’d had a big crush on Kambra in fourth grade. Kambra was the brightest girl in the class even then. We had become close friends in the years since grade school.
       Kambra and the other two people in our group, David McGrath and Traci Gibson, made up the contention in the English categories along with the English teacher, Mrs. Lockwood.
       A few miles out of town, Patt quipped up and asked, “Are we there yet?” Then, Marc piped in: “I need to go to the bathroom!” Patt and Marc got it started, and soon everybody joined in. Everyone was laughing and joking. You wouldn’t expect a trip with two teachers and your mother, nonetheless, to be fun, but it was.
       We arrived in Abilene by nightfall and spent the night there before going on to Brownwood the next morning. The teachers wanted us to get plenty of rest before the contest, but no one slept much that night. Everyone was excited and nervous.
       I stayed in the room with the other guys. We sat outside until late in the cool night air, bouncing a rubber ball off the motel balcony down on people below, then ducking back into the room. I was having the time of my life. I was one of the guys for the first time in my life, and I knew how to have fun with the best of them, joining in on their pranks.
       A man checked into the room next to us. He was on his way to Dallas on a business trip and looked in dire need of a good night’s sleep. Patt told him we’d try to keep the noise down.
       The man was a good sport about it. “Don’t worry about the noise,” he said. “No one can keep me awake.”
       “Wanna bet?” I retorted after he was out of ear range. We finally had to go in when Mrs. Queen and Mrs. Lockwood came down and tried to get us to go to bed.
       The next day started early. It was still an hour’s drive to Brownwood. The contests didn’t start until that afternoon, but we had to be there early to check in with the UIL officials.
       It was much more subdued on the bus that morning. Everyone was getting nervous now. The closer we got, the more nervous everyone became. I could feel the muscles tightening up in my stomach. I was terrified. Mrs. Queen told us not to worry, just do our best, but I couldn’t help but worry.
       We arrived in Brownwood to get our contest assignments at the college shortly before 10. The contest schedule was the same as the district competitions, with newswriting first.
       My contest began at 1, so we decided to look around campus before checking into the motel. The competitions were at Howard Payne University. It was a picturesque, little campus, nestled around a clump of towering Oaks.
       I fantasized what it would be like to actually go to college, holding on to the hope that I would go to college — someday.
       We found the room where the contests would take place in the communications complex. We looked around the newsroom, then headed to the motel for lunch.
       I didn’t have much of an appetite, which was unusual for me. My stomach was tied up in knots. I was too nervous to eat. Mom said I should try to eat something. She said I needed energy to help me in the contest and, as I soon found out, I would need all the energy I could muster.
       I didn’t think I’d be able to eat anything, but I managed to finish a cheeseburger and fries. Then, I went back to the room and tried to rest before it was time to leave. I wasn’t a bit tired, though. I should have been exhausted because we didn’t go to bed until after 2 that morning.
       Mrs. Queen came and got me when it was time to go. “This is it,” she said in her usual jovial voice. “Are you ready?”
       “I think so,” I said, trying to sound confident even if I wasn’t.
       Only Mom and Mrs. Queen went with me back to the college. The others stayed at the motel until it was time for their competitions. The journalism contests were all that day, while the English competition was the next day.
       We arrived back at campus an half-hour before the bout got under way. That gave me time to get settled and psyched up. Mom had done pretty good at not mothering me too much on the trip, but she had to get sentimental when we pulled up in front of the school. She got all teary-eyed and mushy, then Mrs. Queen joined in. They both gave me big hugs and tried to reassure me before we went in.
       No one else was there when we arrived. I went in and took a seat on the back row. The other students filed in slowly. Mom and Mrs. Queen stayed with me until they made the teachers leave. Finally, it was time to begin.
       I was still nervous, but I knew what to expect this time. I had only 45 minutes, so I had to work fast. The test monitor looked like an old schoolmarm. Her hair was tightly wound in a bun on top of her head, and she wore a pair of wire-rimmed glasses.
       She gave each student an information sheet and four pieces of blank paper. She held a stopwatch in her left hand ready to start the contest. The room was silent except for the ticking of the stopwatch. I heard the watch click, signaling us to begin. Everyone began shuffling papers on the desks and started writing.
       I didn’t waste a lot of time reading the material this time. I read completely through the information once, taking notes as I went along. I wasted little time crafting a lead. The lead would be the first thing the judges would see when they read my story. It had to be perfect.
       When I had the lead the way I wanted it, I jumped right into the rest of the story. The story had the same fictitious characters and make-believe town as the story at district.
       My eyes stayed fixed on the paper, glancing occasionally at the information sheet to add additional facts or pull a quote for the story. I never looked at the blackboard to see how much time remained. I kept writing. I had to finish this time.
       I wrote as fast as I could. It was unbearably sticky in the room. I started perspiring as I pored over the story. I expended so much energy trying to print neatly and finish on time, I broke out in a deep sweat. My mouth was dry, and my breathing was irregular.
       I wrote and wrote for what seemed like hours, although I knew it had to be less than an hour. I finally looked at the board. There were five minutes left. I was going to make it. I was going to finish! I barreled down again to get the last words on the paper.
       I finished with a few minutes remaining. I skimmed over the story to make certain I hadn’t left out any words. I still wasn’t satisfied with the story, but there was no time to change it. I had to be content with it, even though I knew it wasn’t as good as it should be.
       The test monitor instructed us to leave our papers on the desks as we left the room. I came out of the room, my hair dripping with sweat. I felt as if I had just run a marathon. I was drained when I came out.
       It really got to Mrs. Queen when she saw me. Mom started wiping my brow with a handkerchief. “Are you all right?” she asked. “You look exhausted.”
       I was exhausted, but it was a good exhaustion.
       “I’m all right,” I said. “I just need to sit down for a minute.”
       Mom guided me over to a bench, while Mrs. Queen went to get me a glass of water. The cool water soothed me, and I began to catch my breath again.
       “How did it go in there?” Mrs. Queen asked after I’d had time to catch my breath.
       “I could’ve done better if I’d had more time,” I said. “I finished, but I know I could’ve done better.”
       “I’m sure you did great,” she said. “You did your best, and that’s all you can do now.”
       I was just relieved it was over. The van was waiting to take us back to the motel, then came the unbearable task of waiting again. The judges would post the results after all the contests that day. I decided I wasn’t going to worry, that whatever happened happened, but it was hard to get it off my mind.
       I lay down when I got back to the motel room. Patt and Marc had gone to their contest already, and only David was left in the room. I tried to take a nap but never could get to sleep. The muscle tightness began to ease as I lay there. I kept thinking about the story and what if I had written this differently or done that differently. It was easy to recreate the story in my mind after it was finished.
       After a restless afternoon, the van was waiting to take Mom and me back to the college to find out the contest results.
       “Don’t be nervous,” Mom told me, but she looked as nervous as I did.
       We joined up with Patt, Marc and Mrs. Queen, who had come from the editorial-writing contest. Mrs. Queen was fidgety. She had not one, but three contests to worry about. She looked like she would explode at any minute.
       A few minutes before 5, the test monitor emerged from the newsroom. She had the results in her hand. I felt my heart thumping fiercely in my chest.
       “I believe I have something you’ve been waiting for,” she said as she tacked the papers on the bulletin board.
       The mass of students descended on her, and the professor disappeared from sight. Once again, Mrs. Queen was in the thick of it. I heard a scream from somewhere in the crowd, but this time it wasn’t Mrs. Queen. It was someone else.
       I nudged my way in to get a closer look. Then, I heard a teacher telling a girl that she won. Someone else had won! I finally pushed through the crowd and got up to the bulletin board where Mrs. Queen was standing.
       “You won fourth place!” she said excitedly.
       Fourth? My heart sank.
       “That’s good! ” Mrs. Queen said. “That means you’re an alternate.”
       I looked at it another way. I lost. Alternates advanced to the state competition if one of the top three winners couldn’t compete, and that wasn’t likely. I was disappointed.
       Mrs. Queen was trying to tell me I had done well, when the professor appeared again with results of the editorial contest. This was it for Marc and Patt who had been waiting anxiously.
       For a brief moment when Marc and Patt were waiting to see their results, I secretly hoped that they wouldn’t win. If I couldn’t win, I didn’t want them to win either. I was selfish. I wanted to keep all the glory for myself.
       It was only a brief second, but I hoped they wouldn’t get to go to state either. I knew it was wrong of me, and I later asked God to forgive me for harboring selfish feelings toward my classmates.
       Neither Patt nor Marc placed in the contest. I felt badly for them afterward. They were my friends. I wanted them to do well, but there was that split second when I let pride and selfishness take control of me.
       I was the only one in the group to place. None of the English students who competed the next day placed in their events either. I was the only one.
       Everyone was disappointed, but it was a trip none of us would ever forget. Those of us on that trip had a special closeness. We were like family. We celebrated together when we won, and we cried together when we lost.
       I learned a valuable lesson about competitiveness. I learned that I didn’t have to win to share in someone else’s victory. I could be happy for them regardless. Winning or losing doesn’t matter. It’s what you do with it that counts. I knew God had given me a gift for writing, and I wanted to use it for his purposes.
       School let out a few weeks after we returned from Regional s, giving way to summer vacation and countless idle hours. I usually welcomed summer break, but I dreaded the year ending.
       Writing had taken over my life. I didn’t want the year to end. Writing gave me purpose. My life had meaning. As I looked back on that year, I began to see the hand of God directing my life. I didn’t know where he was leading me, but I knew I had to trust him to show me his purposes. I knew God had a definite plan for my life. Doubts and fears about the future lingered, but I had a goal, and I’d already started thinking about the fall and my senior year.


Meaning of Friendship


       Everybody took it for granted that I would stay in journalism, but I caught everyone by surprise when I chose my classes my senior year. I enrolled in yearbook instead of staying on the newspaper. Mrs. Queen thought I was making a mistake by not taking the newspaper class, but I thought differently.
       Newspapers thrive on deadlines, constant deadlines, and I was afraid of having to meet a deadline every week. Instead, I signed up to work on the yearbook, where deadlines came only once or twice a semester instead of every week.
       I had gone back to taking the easy way out instead of facing challenges head-on. I started slacking off again. I’d completed most of the required classes needed to graduate, and I figured I could slide through to graduation.
       I padded my schedule with light classes, courses in which I knew I could make an ‘A’ and protect my class average. I enrolled in a Spanish class of all things. The counselor was aghast when I told him I wanted to take Spanish.
       He had a tough enough time deciphering my English. He couldn’t imagine why I would take a foreign language, but my friends told me it was an easy class, so I took it.
       I often regretted that I slacked off my last year in high school. I lost a year out of my life, a year I could have used to prepare myself for the world that laid just beyond the school doors. I regretted not staying with the newspaper most of all. Working on the newspaper another year would have given me valuable experience, and I let it slip away. It was time that once it was gone, I could never get back.
       That year proved helpful to me in other ways. I brought more away from working on the yearbook than I ever expected. And I learned the true meaning of friendship.
       Up until then, I had looked at each gesture of kindness offered to me to see whether it was pity or a true offering of friendship.
       I was determined to make a place for myself in the harsh world in which I lived, and people saw my perseverance. This became clear to me my senior year in that yearbook class.
       It was a small class, with only about 15 writers, but we were more than a class. Patt Richards, besides being editor of the newspaper, was co-editor of the yearbook along with Kambra Winningham.
       I delighted over being in class with Kambra again. We had remained friends over the years since we left elementary school and renewed our friendship on the trip to Brownwood.
       One Saturday in late October, we had a work day at school. We were approaching our first deadline and had to send a shipment of page proofs to the printer by November or the yearbooks wouldn’t arrive by spring.
       I wasn’t looking forward to spending my Saturday at school. It was the only day I could sleep in, and I could think of plenty other things I’d rather do than go to school. I had a story due for the first deadline, and I’d put off writing it because I thought I had plenty of time. But now the deadline was near and I hadn’t even started it.
       I stayed up well into the night to finish. Although writing seemed to be a gift, it was never easy. I toiled over every word. I wasn’t satisfied until it felt right, and I knew when it wasn’t right. I’d write and rewrite it until I had it the way I wanted.
       Mom came to my room around midnight to get me to go to bed. “It’s late,” she said. “You can finish that tomorrow. You don’t have to do it all tonight.”
       I had to finish, though. I couldn’t rest until it was done. Mom kept insisting I go to bed so I could get up the next morning, but I kept writing. I had to. I was exhausted, but I had a good feeling knowing I had seen it through.
       The next morning, while most of the students drove to school, I rode my three-wheeled bicycle. Mom wanted to drive me, but I insisted on riding. The West Texas north wind was stronger than usual that day. Riding against the wind, the blustery gusts made it difficult to pedal. I kept having to stop to catch my breath. It took me longer to make the eight-block trip that usually took only 10 minutes.
       The others were already there when I arrived. I saw their cars parked in front of the school and rushed inside. The building was pitch black. Only an entrance at the other end of the hall let a narrow stream of light escape and guide me down the hall.
       It was so quiet it was eerie. I hurried down the darkened hallway to the journalism room.
       When I got to the room, there was no one in sight. I didn’t think much about it. I figured everyone was in the newsroom, but there were no sounds coming from there either. As I rounded the comer to head into the newsroom, I noticed the lights were out.
       I was frightened. I wondered where everyone was when I saw a red streamer hanging from the ceiling. Confused, I proceeded cautiously. Suddenly, lights flooded the room.
       “Surprise!” someone yelled. I was caught so off guard that I didn’t know what was happening.
       “Happy birthday,” Mrs. Queen said, as a chorus of others chimed in. My 18th birthday was two days away. I was so stunned I didn’t know what to say. “How did you know it was my birthday?” I asked.
       Mrs. Queen laughed a cheery titter. “It was all Kambra’s idea,” she said, giving her a nudge.
       “Kambra?”
       “I remembered your birthday was in October, and your mom told me the day,” Kambra said. Then, they set a work day that day to get me there.
       “Are you surprised?” everyone asked.
       I never suspected anything like that.
       Everyone crowded around me and started singing “Happy Birthday.” Then, they brought out a cake. They had it decorated, and it had 18 trick candles.
       I took a deep breath and blew as hard as I could, but each time the candles rekindled. I laughed so hard, I cried.
       The whole class was in on the surprise, and everyone brought gag gifts. They had things like a fake nose and mustache, which Mrs. Queen ended up wearing before the day was out, and they gave me a birthday card shaped like a yearbook, and everyone had signed it.
       It was the best birthday ever. For one day, I was just a normal boy getting together with friends. That day really confirmed in my mind that there were people who didn’t pity me. It showed me that I had friends who cared about me. No one had ever done anything like that for me.


       I came to see that taking yearbook was the right thing. I often thought I’d made a mistake by leaving the newspaper class, but as the year went on, it became clear that it was the right choice. I cherished the friendships I made in that class. For most of us, it was our last year in high school and the last year we would all be together.
       I continued to write, but I started moving in another direction. I turned to editing. It was quite by accident, or maybe God’s hand once again, that I started editing.
       It was early January, and we were coming upon another deadline and sending another shipment to the printer. The stories had all been edited, and I stayed after school to help get the proofs ready to mail.
       Everybody read the stories before they’re put on the page, then we read them again. Patt and Kambra made a final check on a story before the pages went in the mail, but even after all those eyes passed over a story, mistakes still slipped by. As I was packing the pages in boxes to mail, I glanced over a story about the cheer-leading squad and noticed that the cheer-leading sponsor’s name was misspelled.
       I called Patt’s attention to the error, and we were able to change it before we sent in the page. After that, everyone wanted me to proofread their stories. Patt was so grateful I caught the mistake in time that he asked me to be the copy editor. I became a staff member and began to work closely with Patt and Kambra.
       My confidence soared. I was thrilled they wanted me to join the staff. I felt like I really had a part in putting out that year’s book.
       The final deadline was in early March. Everything had to be finished by then to get the book back before school was out in May. With the book finished by March, the only thing left to do was wait.
       It was an exciting time of the year. There was such expectation as we moved closer to graduation. There was still much left to do. Classes were still in full swing, and my mind kept wandering as I pondered the fact that I had only a few weeks of high school left.
       The long awaited yearbooks arrived the first week of May. There were box loads of them, stacks and stacks of sealed boxes. I’d never seen so many boxes. Everyone, of course, was anxious to look at them, but we had to wait awhile longer.
       The particulars about the book were guarded in secrecy. We, on the staff, had been sworn to secrecy all year so as not to divulge any surprises in the book until we unveiled it at an all-school assembly the week before school was out.
       It was hard keeping the book a secret when the rest of the school was naturally curious about it and what it looked like. Everybody was asking questions and trying to get a glimpse of it.
       We taped newspaper over all the doors and windows in the newsroom to keep onlookers at bay while we sorted the books. We wanted everything to be a surprise.
       Finally, the big day arrived. Teachers dismissed classes early for the assembly and a signing party. The school board, principal and all the teachers were present for the unveiling. We painted a larger-than-life, cardboard replica of the cover and shrouded it in linens until the appropriate time.
       Then, with everyone assembled in the fieldhouse and all eyes fixed on the giant piece of cardboard, Patt lowered the veil to reveal the 1987 Harvester yearbook. The crowd gasped in approval.
       It was a simple design, a basic gray background with green stripes diagonally across the cover. In the center was a bubble-shaped quotation and the words “You said it the theme for the year. The book was filled with hundreds of quotes from students and teachers. It was their book, so we quoted as many people as we could on everything from football to fashion.
       A rousing round of cheers and shouts rose as the audience expressed its pleasure with the cover.
       Patt also made special presentations during the assembly. Those of us in yearbook knew he was going to present copies of the annual to the school board members and to four retiring teachers. But I was not prepared for what happened next. After Patt presented the four teachers their copies of the yearbook he sat down, and Kambra stepped to the platform.
       She began by saying the yearbook staff had a special person they wanted to dedicate the book to. I was kind of confused because we hadn’t talked about dedicating the book to anyone. I didn’t occur to me who she was talking about until she said it was a person who worked on the yearbook and is “one member of our family whose determination is admired by all.”
       Then, I realized she was talking about me. I sat there in disbelief. Kambra said it was a person “whose courage and friendship we admire and cherish. The yearbook staff wishes to dedicate this year’s book to our friend Chris Ely.” I was motionless. I didn’t know what to do. Mrs. Queen started waving wildly for me to come up on the stage. I stood up, my legs trembling, and started toward the platform as the audience stood and applauded.
       I felt tears coming to my eyes as I made my way to the stage. It seemed to take me a lifetime to walk from where I was seated on the bottom row of the bleachers up to the stage. When I reached the platform, I could think of nothing else to do but lean over and hug Kambra as she handed me a copy of the yearbook. It was the happiest moment of my life.
       After I returned to my seat, I got another surprise. Kambra called Mom from the audience and presented her with a copy of the annual. I didn’t know that Mom was in the audience. I learned later that they called Mom and told her something special was going to happen at the assembly. She wasn’t told what was going to happen, only that she needed to be there.
       It was an emotional afternoon. Friends and classmates and some I didn’t even know came to me after the assembly and said they admired me. When the crowd had cleared, I choked back tears as I read the words the staff penned to me on a dedication page in the back of the book.
       I cherished their words and the love in them. It meant that my efforts were not in vain. People really did understand me. Whether I realized it or not, people were watching me. Not because I was different, but because my determination made them want more for themselves.
 

Through Eyes of Faith

Part 2

 

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