By Hugh Chapman
I was thirty-five years old and an hour and a half into my new teaching career when I saw Jason at the opposite end of the hallway. He was the reason that I almost didn’t take the job; then later, a hundred times when I wanted to quit, he was the reason I stayed.
Though I had never met Jason, I had been briefed as to his situation. He was a special needs student, thirteen years old and confined pretty much to a wheelchair since birth. As the school’s newest special education teacher, it would be my job to try to teach Jason and attend to his personal needs. He had medicines that would have to be administered, and diapers that would need to be changed twice a day; odd tasks for a man who had made a habit of fleeing his own kids at medicine and diaper change time.
My educational certification was in Business, but there had been no positions available in that area. To take the job meant I would have to return to school during summers and evenings in order to obtain the necessary certification, but because my own kids attended this school system, I wanted very much to be a part, and special education was the only position available.
And so as I stood at my end of the hall, watching Jason being pushed toward me by his friend Delbert, I whispered a quiet prayer. “God, please help me with this.” Though I didn’t know it at the time, it was a prayer God would answer a thousand times.
I expected an angry child, resentful of what life had delivered, and as I watched his approach, I had to admit silently that Jason had every right to be. His condition was called Spina bifida, a congenital defect of the vertebrae. He had already undergone a dozen surgeries and his family anticipated more. He was being cared for, now full time, by elderly grandparents.
And his prognosis, too, was poor. Only a season before I had attended the school’s sixth grade graduation. At that ceremony, his grandmother had invited the entire family, and had ordered balloons and flowers for the event. She wanted the celebration to be special for Jason, for, as she later explained, it might be the only graduation he would ever see.
Yet, if Jason was embittered I saw no sign of it that day. As he approached slowly and steadily, suddenly he seemed to realize who was, and held out both arms in greeting. “Welcome friend, It’s good to see you!”
Though it took us a while to adjust; Jason as a new Junior High Student and I as a new teacher, we eventually came to terms. More than a student, Jason became a friend – then later, more than a friend, Jason became like a son.
In our times together, Jason would often share his heart. He told me he had attended church for as long as he could remember, and that a couple of years before he had turned his life over to Jesus, and that someday he hoped to become a preacher. Though Jason never made it into the ministry, his witness was powerful and I believe he helped me grow as a Christian and as a teacher.
I remember one time in particular, when his 80-year-old grandfather had become ill, that Jason asked me to pray with him. As a first year teacher and not tremendously secure with my own future, I was reluctant. Tactfully, skillfully, I brushed away the suggestion, explaining that our government held guidelines and regulations about teachers and students praying together on school grounds.
Jason, as always, seemed to understand.
It was two hours later, though, when Jason was in his band class that God spoke to me – not in an audible voice – rather with a feeling of deep remorse that weighed heavily on my heart. It is a sad world indeed; I came to realize, when a public school teacher is so wrapped up in the system that he is afraid to pray with a frightened child. I dropped what I was doing and went among the tubas and clarinets to find my friend. I wheeled him back to the nurse’s station and there in the quiet of the room Jason and I prayed for his grandfather.
It was shortly thereafter that Jason’s grandfather began his recovery and many days after that, Jason and I prayed together. I shared with Jason that I often prayed silently in my classroom, and Jason suggested a way that he and I could pray silently together. He would lay his pencils (he always had at least two) on his desk in the form of a cross, as a signal to me that he was praying. Silently then, from wherever I was in the room, I would join him.
Once, when I was having a bad day, Jason’s friend Delbert came to class without a pencil. Jason and Delbert knew what a stickler I was for bringing necessary materials to class, and Jason would often secretly loan things to Delbert. I noticed (and though I was annoyed, said nothing) as Jason slipped a pencil to his friend.
Later, I made a written assignment, and was surprised when Jason wheeled up to my desk with tears welling in his eyes. “I don’t have my pencil,” he said, and immediately I remembered Delbert.
“Jason,” I said, almost in a shout, “if you didn’t keep giving your things to Delbert, you’d have a pencil, wouldn’t you?” Then as I looked up, I noticed a pencil in his shirt pocket. All the more annoyed that the disruption had been entirely unnecessary, I pulled out the pencil and held it in front of him. “Jason, here’s a pencil in your pocket!”
Now a tear rolled down his cheek. “That’s the pencil I write with,” he explained, “It’s the pencil I pray with that I don’t have.”
From that moment forward, I made a point to have lots of spare materials. Sometimes my students come to school in the winter with no socks on their feet, or coats on their back. A pencil, at times, seems like a small thing.
I had a chance to pray again with Jason, at a time when he was frightened because of an upcoming hospital visit. “Will you pray with me, Mr. Chapman?” he asked, “It seems to work better when you help.”
I explained that God listens to everyone’s prayers, but that I would be honored to pray with him anyway. Then, I made a unique assignment.
I had noticed lately, that Jason had been wearing a T-shirt upon which was printed the opening words of the 23rd Psalm, “The Lord is My Shepherd…”
“Jason, do you know where to find that verse?” I asked. He nodded his reply.
“Then for homework,” I told him, “I want you to memorize the words.”
To my surprise, he came back the very next day and recited, without flaw, the entire chapter. I smiled and told him how proud I was, then together we went over each line and discussed what they meant. Finally, I told him that while he was in the hospital, whenever he felt frightened, to say the verses to himself. A short time later he told me he was no longer afraid.
It was late last year, on the Thursday before he went in for a scheduled heart surgery that Jason (now an eleventh grader) and I prayed for what would be the last time. He hugged me as he left that day, and as I returned to the classroom to gather my belongings for the trip home – I saw the desk where he sat…
…and the two pencils he had left behind.
When I think of Jason now, I remember perhaps the most remarkable young man I have ever known, yet I have a hard time becoming sad for him, because I know that he was not afraid.
And I know that I will see him again one day, only this time without the chair that bound him as a child. In my mind I see him there in the distance, standing with a friend, the same friend who once answered his prayers, and who from his own heavens watched over Jason as he toiled and struggled with life’s situations below. The struggles now are gone, but the happy smiles remain, and with laughing eyes and open arms he makes his way toward me.
“Welcome friend, it’s good to see you!”