May 12, 2004
Once upon a time, I knew a boy with more than his share of challenges. I think he was classified as moderately mentally handicapped—I believe today they would simply call him EMH, educable mentally handicapped. His mother was quite severely mentally retarded and died young. His father was a drunk. He was raised by his poor, naïve elderly grandparents who paid his father money when he threatened to take him away. It was not an easy life. His grandfather drove him many miles to his special school every day. His grandmother literally papered the refrigerator with his artwork. He participated in the Special Olympics and did well. He discovered he had his grandfather’s genius with horses. He was cute and quiet, with a shy smile.
His grandparents were some of our closest neighbors, and he grew up with my brother. He was over at our place quite a bit. Some of the neighbors made fun of the family, but we never did. It never occurred to us. His grandpa was a sweetheart, his grandma was a character, he was just another kid, and we loved it when they came over. Perhaps as my brother outstripped him mentally, he got a bit tired of him tagging after him, but he never said so, and they continued to hang out together until my brother went off to college.
So, what does an EMH boy who spent his entire schooling in a “special” school do when he finishes his schooling? He goes on to college and gets a job, of course! So the boy—now a young man—decided to attend a vo-tech 200 miles away from home. I can’t begin to imagine the courage that must have taken. He studied auto body work, and, from what I have heard, he was good at it. However, his grades were too low—remember, he went from special ed direct to college!—and the college refused to let him come back for his second year.
A relative of a neighbor who also grew up playing with this boy hired him to do body work at his car dealership. I’m sure he knew he could pay him a lot less than a person with a degree, and he certainly knew he was a good worker! But, even if it was mostly for his own benefit, he gave him a job and a chance. And so the young man got a steady job and a car and his own mobile home.
Time passed, and his elderly grandparents sold their farm and moved into town, and eventually to a nursing home. The young man lives in the same town, even though he has a long commute to work. We would see him escorting them all over, always watching out for them. He has been repaying his grandparents in full for all the sacrifices and work they put into raising him at a time they should have been dreaming of retirement.
When my brother died, he was one of the pallbearers. We shook hands, and he gave me his shy smile. Last year his grandmother died, and I went to the funeral. His grandfather was off to the side, being watched over by other old men, lifelong friends. He stood in the doorway and greeted people, the one with responsibility for the family. We shook hands again, and again he gave me that same shy smile.
This boy is my hero. Now I have a nephew who has been labeled EMH. He has his own challenges, much different than what this boy faced. But I think about this boy and realize, he’s going to do just fine!