Opinion
Education Opinion

A real cowboy

By Jessica Shyu — January 16, 2007 2 min read

I had a blog entry ready from a couple months ago about one of my students with mental retardation and physical disabilities. This is how it was going to start:

I have a 14-year-old cowboy in my classroom who cannot add. He cannot remember the alphabet. And he most definitely cannot read.

But even with a disabled hand and a limp, “Elmer,” who has mental retardation, can cut bales of hay. He can tell you which direction the sun rises. He can feed the horses, figure out which sheep are missing and make dinner in the microwave. Sure, there is physical therapy and he gets occupational therapy, but more importantly, there is water that needs hauling. And wire that needs cutting. And porches that need sweeping.

According to the therapist who evaluated Elmer earlier in the year, most children with his level of physical and mental disabilities would not be able to manage the range of motion, strength and skill that he has. Years of being a cowboy and helping the family survive has given him abilities that he probably would not have had if he had been sheltered, coddled and living in the urban confines of, say, Washington, D.C.

This was originally going to be an entry on his incredible life skills abilities despite his major academic inabilities. But now I have to change it. Because now Elmer can read about 25 life skills words and spell about 15. (Once he reaches 50 sight words, we’re going to have a party. We’ve discussed this for a long time now. It will involve the biggest and bestest chocolate cake that Ms. Shyu will hand-craft for him despite never having baked a chocolate cake before in her life.)

He can now comprehend stories read to him at the upper-second grade level. He knows which books he likes at the bookstore and he knows how to nag me until I drop my work and record the story onto a tape. He knows how to “take notes” and “summarize” stories into a tape recorder so I can grade it after class. He knows how to use a calculator to add and subtract single-digits, double-digits and money values. He can count by 1’s, 5’s and 10’s for pennies, nickels and dimes.

There is so much more we must do. He is 14 now and has less than seven years to go in public education. When I imagine what countless skills it will take for him to be able to go grocery shopping independently one day, I’m overwhelmed. And sad.

But he’s overcome so many hurdles and surpassed so many expectations already. Who am I to be sad? I’m just here to bake a cake.

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