Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Disabled by shame

This kid needs to be in school. Not only is there no reason for him not to be in school, it is all the more reason for him to be in school.

That was my immediate reaction when I read Steve Lopez’s column a few weeks ago in the Los Angeles Times. Steve Lopez is one of my heroes, an inspiration to me - a sharp, insightful columnist who writes with passion as well as compassion. With this column, however, he didn’t go quite far enough.

The column was about Jose Chojolan, a junior at Fairfax High School in Los Angeles. Although he is quiet and shy, Jose is likable and smart, determined to go to college - preferably U.C Irvine. As his marine biology teacher, Jennie Jackson, is quoted, “Jose is probably one of the most humble, hard-working, reliable students I have ever known.”

That is, when he’s in school.

Jose hasn’t been in school since January, and he doesn’t want to. “He can’t quite imagine returning to school,” according to Lopez.

That’s because he now uses a wheelchair, having been paralyzed from the neck down after suffering a blood clot in his neck. He did visit the school recently but didn’t stay long. As he told Lopez when Lopez visited him at Rancho Los Amigos Rehabilitation Hospital, “I didn’t want them to see me,” referring to his fellow students.

The column is about the students at Fairfax raising thousands of dollars for Jose’s family, who had been living in an inaccessible second-floor apartment and has lost income from taking time off to care for Jose. This is truly awesome.

But I keep thinking about the guy I wrote about a couple years ago who was found by friends in a nursing home decades after thinking he had died. I wish Lopez not only had written about how sad and ridiculous that Jose and his family are left relying on the kindness of students and strangers rather than the state. I wish mostly that Lopez had written more about the shame that Jose feels about being disabled, the shame he has learned to feel, the shame that is now what’s really paralyzing him.

After all, there’s a big sign in the window of his hospital room saying “We Love Jose,” signed by his fellow students. Think about it. He needs to be in school.

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