A Time for Thanks

by Memoir Mentor on November 21, 2011

It’s a time for thanks. For parents who love unconditionally. For challenges that teach us what’s important and help us reach for the best in ourselves. For teachers who seek out the needy and give them a chance to shine. For the needy who radiate hope and happiness despite their disadvantages and inspire us all to follow their lead. For writers who stir us with stories that capture the best in humanity. For Jeanne Fobes’ story, below, which captures all these things and fairly glows with charity and good will. Her story will change your day.

Gerard, Big Man on Campus
by Jeanne Fobes

Our son Gerard, who has Down’s Syndrome, lives every day with joy and enthusiasm and curiosity.  When he was growing up, he excelled in the Special Education classes at College Park Elementary and Marion Parsons Junior High. Then it was time for Gerard to go to high school. The Special Education class was at Corona del Mar High School.

Gerard and Jeanne

Suddenly he was immersed in a culture awash in gorgeous blondes, “cool dudes,” athletes, and all the different types of kids who roam the campus of a big high school. Within weeks Walt Richardson, his teacher, and Mr. Moto, the vice-principal, summoned Steve and me to school. Mr. Moto spoke right up. “We’re worried about Gerard. He’s hanging out with a bunch of wanna-be tough guys. Do you know that he’s wearing a tank top to school, with a bandana knotted around his head?”

“I feel bad about this,” chimed in Walt Richardson. “He won’t listen to me at all. I hope you can work it out–this situation sure isn’t good for him.”

When we talked with Gerard after he got home from school, we learned that he smuggled the tank top in his backpack and pilfered a bandana from his sister’s dresser to complete his “hood” outfit and that the tough gang were his “new friends.”

It was obvious that Gerard needed help. After talking it over with him, having further conversations with his teacher, visiting his psychiatrist, doing a lot of research and even more praying, we sent him to a highly regarded Catholic school for developmentally disabled students in St. Louis, Missouri. We gave him a prepaid phone card and asked him to call us often, which he did, always reminding us that he belonged at home in California.

At last he was coming home for Thanksgiving vacation. Steve and I kept grinning at each other as we waited for him at the airport. Gerard’s first words were, “I’m a California kind of guy and this is where I belong.” We picked up his luggage and, sure enough, he had packed everything and brought it home. He was finished with St. Louis and the cold weather and was back where he belonged. Just being away from what he loved—his family and his home—made him realize how much it meant to him. I couldn’t stop hugging him–I was so happy!

After the Thanksgiving weekend, Steve and I met with Mr. Moto, and the next morning we took Gerard back to Corona del Mar High School. Mr. Moto, a good-natured bear of a man with a Santa Claus white beard, had a big grin on his kindly face as he shook hands with Gerard. “Welcome back, Gerard. I’ve got a surprise for you. Let’s go out to the field. Coach Holland is waiting to meet you.”  Mr. Moto had asked the football coach for his help with Gerard. Clearly Mr. Moto had given Gerard a lot of thought and had come up with a plan to help him, a plan that turned out even better than Mr. Moto could have foreseen.

Coach Holland, a generous and good man, took Gerard under his wing and gave him a place where he could belong. He asked Gerard to be water boy for the varsity team. As always, Gerard met this new challenge with his own exuberant level of enthusiasm and commitment. He went to all the practices, where he helped the equipment manager. He worked out with the team, attended all the meetings, and was accepted as one of the guys. He felt part of an important and respected group of young men. That did wonders for him. But Gerard himself simply carried the day, going further, faster, and better than Coach Holland dreamed of. Coach Holland was sincerely honoring Gerard for his commitment to the team when he gave him a letterman’s jacket with “Secret Weapon” stitched on the front. Gerard was a B.M.O.C.

Steve took Gerard to all the football games, where Gerard joined the team in the locker room for pre-game prayer, then ran out on the field with them. He checked out books on football plays, purchased football videos and started a notebook where he diagrammed plays the coach might use in the game. Gerard was so knowledgeable about the diagrams and the plays that he sometimes corrected the coach, to Coach Holland’s delight, I have no doubt.

Now, twenty years later, Gerard is still in charge of getting water to the players. Steve takes him to all the games, where Gerard joins the team in the locker room and runs out on the field with them. Every year he’s invited to the Football Banquet, an invitation he eagerly awaits. The coach and the team honor and applaud him and then he looks forward to the next football season.

Each time Steve and Gerard leave for a game, I give Gerard a big hug. “Have fun,” I tell him. “I hope I see your smiling face at the kitchen door window when you get home.” And when I hear them walking from the garage after the game, I hurry to the door and delight when I see that grin lighting up his face and both thumbs up. Of course, sometimes they’re pointed down and the face isn’t so lit up.

“This is the year the team will go all the way!” Gerard’s faith and optimism are unquenchable as each football season opens. He was wildly enthusiastic in 1988 and again in 1989 when his beloved Corona del Mar Sea Kings won the much-yearned-for CIF Championship. However, despite Gerard’s hopes, no Corona del Mar team has won that top award since. As the football season ends each year, the team’s favorite Water Boy says, “Next year they’ll do it!”

Gerard went on to have a great career at Corona del Mar. He was elected to the Associated Student Board, the first Special Education student to receive this honor. His favorite class at Corona del Mar was Auto Shop, probably because he wanted to be an auto mechanic, no doubt inspired by the Fonz on one of his favorite television programs, “Happy Days.” His teacher told us that he “burned up the wrenches.”  

As his senior year drew to a close, we received an invitation to attend the awards ceremony. Gerard received the Bank of America Industrial Arts Award given to the Best Student in Industrial Arts because of his “enthusiasm and improvement in Auto Shop.”  We were happy to see his love for his favorite class rewarded. The final and biggest award was the Gerald McLellan Sea King Spirit Award, given each year to the graduating senior who made the greatest contribution to the school spirit of Corona del Mar High School. Usually the winner is the quarterback of the football team or some Big Man On Campus. We were astounded when they announced the winner to be GERARD FOBES. There was a great ovation as Gerard walked up proudly to receive his trophy.  Steve and I were both in tears and I know we weren’t the only ones to be deeply touched by this acknowledgement to a rare young man. His name is engraved on the permanent trophy displayed in the school trophy case. A reporter put a story about Gerard in the L. A. Times with photographs of him as the first special education student to be on the Student Government Board and with the football team.

Holding His Spirit Award

Gerard’s whole class, all twelve special education students, went to the Senior Prom. Their teacher, Miss Beth since Walt Richardson’s retirement, accompanied them to the Spaghetti Factory for dinner, then on to their prom. Gerard was thrilled and was so handsome in his rented tux. After he got home, Steve asked him to hold his Spirit Award and talk about his years at Corona del Mar for a video. He told about winning the big award, and about how great his Senior Prom had been. Then he said the words that I have tattooed on my heart, “I’m just a regular Down’s Syndrome kind of guy, but I’m really wonderful once you get the chance to know me better.”

After the graduation ceremonies on that idyllic June afternoon in 1991on the Corona del Mar campus, after all the hand-shaking with dignitaries, after all the bright blue mortar boards had been tossed triumphantly into the air, after Gerard had hugged and been hugged by every football player and every cute girl, Mr. Moto, that same vice-principal, caught up with Steve and me and said, “I want you to know that it’s been a privilege to know your son and to see his effect on the students in regular classes. I, and they, are better people for having associated with Gerard.”

“So are we, Mr. Moto,” I replied, unshed tears catching at my voice. “So are we.”