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by Chris Ely
This 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.
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.
“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
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
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
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 . . .
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
“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
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
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
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.
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
“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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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 —
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
“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
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
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
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
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
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
“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
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
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.
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
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
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
“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
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
“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
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.
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
“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.
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
“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
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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
“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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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,
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
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
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
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
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
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
“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
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
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
“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
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
“Kick your feet now,” he instructed. “Wave your
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
“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
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
“. . . Would you dance with me?” I asked
quivering. Speaking was frustrating enough, but
it was even more difficult to get those words
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
“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
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.
“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.
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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 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
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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
“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
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
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
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
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
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
Dean was a stocky fellow. He had coal-black hair
and a dark complexion. He was a year older than
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
“I guess we need to talk to the pastor now,
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
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
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,
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
“They can’t even walk straight,” one of them
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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
“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
“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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
“You’ve got to give her the good news,” she
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,”
“You won?” She asked, sounding surprised.
“Yes. First place. I’m going to regionals.”
“That’s wonderful,” she said, not sure how to
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.
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
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
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
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
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
“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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
“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
“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
“I believe I have something you’ve been waiting
for,” she said as she tacked the papers on the
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
Mrs. Queen laughed a cheery titter. “It was all
Kambra’s idea,” she said, giving her a nudge.
“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
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
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
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
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
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
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.