Friday, April 29, 2011
Metalhead in a wheelchair
I used to teach this odd mini-course for the University of Texas. It was a last chance grammar boot camp for students trying to pass the grammar-spelling-punctuation test and thus get into the Journalism Department. One day, a long-haired guy in a motorized wheelchair rolled into class. His name was Jacob Payne. His head lolled to the side, drool dripped on his beard and his eyes were all smile.
Jacob had a notebook on which he could slowly, meticulously scrawl out notes. His first to me was, "Can we talk in the hall?" I followed as he zoomed out of the class. He had two requests: "Can you lift my head?" and "use the cloth to wipe my drool." I nodded OK, did both, and we went back into the classroom. Every once in a while I'd lean over and adjust his head or wipe a little drool. No big deal. Jacob seemed to appreciate that I just did it, gave him a thumbs up and moved on.
My plan for the class was blown to shreds by Jacob. He couldn't get on the computer to do exercises. He didn't write quickly enough to do the practice tests. I ended up stuffing his backpack with work to do at home. I was left wishing someone had warned me so I could find a way to better serve him. Then I realized this is what it's probably always like to be him.
After a while I began to notice this guy was funny--and smart (funny people are always smart; it's a law). He asked me about music (Jacob was a MAJOR metalhead). He asked me about writing. He wanted me to hook him up with The Austin Chronicle for music review gigs. At home I Googled his name and read an essay he'd written for The Daily Texan about how he'd scam his way backstage at metal shows by bumping people with his wheelchair until they parted like the Red Sea and he found himself at the stage. Then, the natural scammer scrawled a one-word note (Backstage?) to the band that he'd love to be just a little closer. Soon he was backstage.
Jacob still failed the GSP test, but he showed up again the next time I taught this class. This time I felt like I was greeting an old friend. I purposely put him in a study group with a young woman he thought was cute. She was very nice to him, and Jacob's squeal of a laugh came out often. He had a great time. He seemed to be getting it.
We became friends on Facebook, and I loved the photos he posted of a trip to New York City. He invited me to parties, but I was too busy being a dad with a young son. But I talked about Jacob a lot to everyone. He taught me something important, one of those lessons we're supposed to get early on but never seem to completely stick. It's about not seeing the chair, but seeing the person. I know Jacob had a lot more challenges that most people, but he seemed to revel in life. A band recorded his song lyrics. His articles were published. He rocked out. He traveled. He had a whole lot of friends. He lived. What more could you ask?
Jacob died this week at 27. I'm happy to have grazed against his sparkly life. Rock on, dude. I'm better for having known you.