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The 1979-80 school year was a bittersweet period in my life. I was about to turn 17 that spring, so I was perhaps one of the oldest ninth graders at Riviera Junior High School. The fact that I was one or two years older than most of my peers was a source of extreme embarrassment and adolescent angst. I’m sure that many of my classmates thought I had flunked a grade or two in elementary school or that I suffered from some form of mental disability.
I believe that the manifestations of my spastic cerebral palsy (CP) gave many people the idea that I was different from the non-disabled teens who attended Riviera with me – and not in a good way. Most of the friends I made in my non-Special Ed classes harked back to fifth and sixth grade at Tropical Elementary, and few of those were – in 21st Century slang – BFF’s.
In fact, as I write this, the only friends that I share a Riviera Junior High connection with are my lifelong buddies from Special Education; I doubt that any of the students who later attended Southwest Miami Senior High School from 1980 to 1983 remember me now.
Maybe my life would have taken different turns if I hadn’t suffered a birth injury that caused my CP half a century ago. I don’t have a crystal ball (no one does, really), but if I didn’t have a physical disability and its related issues, I could have been in the military or even flown into space as an astronaut.
Even if I had still chosen to pursue a writing career, it’s possible that I wouldn’t have had as many self-esteem problems as I did back then.
Unfortunately, CP is not a disability that can be cured, much less wished away. It can be treated with physical therapy and occupational therapy, and some of its effects can be minimized with patience and a desire to do what doctors and therapists ask you to do. But CP is a part of my life whether I like it or not, and I have come to terms with this reality.
At the time, though, I fervently wished that I didn’t have CP. I didn’t like being teased or called names, and I hated feeling physically and socially awkward, especially around girls.
Like most guys my age, I wanted to have a girlfriend to go out on romantic dates with, but I was painfully shy and didn’t ask many of the girls in my classes if they were interested. The few attempts I made to ask a girl to be my girlfriend ended badly; one young woman said I was too nice, and another – a blonde cheerleader in my first-period math class – said she didn’t like me “that way.”
To make matters worse, Joe B. was still dating Mom and would remain in our lives till my second semester at Miami-Dade Community College’s South Campus. He was still battling his demons of rage, frustration, and bigotry with alcohol, but drinking only made him meaner and more violent. He never hit my mother, thank goodness, but he called her horrible names that no man should ever use toward any woman – much less one he professes to love.
However, Joe B. did try to hit me a few times, but I refused to cower at the sight of his angry red face and huge clenched fists. He scored a few punches on my body a few times, but I gave as good as I got in self-defense.
For all that, my last year at Riviera wasn’t all doom and gloom. After my guest article about the 1970s was published in the January issue of The Ram’s Horn, the editors and Mrs. Heller asked me to do two more pieces. My favorite was a science fiction story in which Capt. James T. Kirk and the USS Enterprise encounter the titular spaceship from Battlestar Galactica. My friend John Perry – the guy who had tried to get me to sign up for journalism classes – was my co-writer. It wasn’t a Hugo Award-worthy story, but we had fun writing it – and it got published.
A few weeks later, Ms. Allen assigned all her ninth graders to write a short novel for our end-of-year project. We had been studying that literary form since the beginning of the school year, and Ms. Allen wanted to see how well we understood such concepts as rising action, dramatic conflict, characterization, plot, and dialogue. She didn’t expect us to turn in an epic length novel – we lacked the writing chops and the time to write anything longer than 50 pages – so she told us to write a minimum of 20 pages.
I decided to write a pulpy science fiction novel about American and Soviet forces duking it out in space in the 22nd Century. Titled “Hypercraft One: A Sound of Armageddon,” it was essentially a World War II bombers-against-important enemy target story gussied up with futuristic spacecraft and infused with Cold War superpower animosity.
I decided to give Ms. Allen a longer manuscript than what she had asked for; when most of my classmates turned in their 20-page novels, I handed in two drafts (one rough, one final) of a 40-page magnum opus.
Although I’m sure that Hypercraft One had stock characters and a predictable story, it received one of the highest grades in our class – four As. And since the project was worth one third of our final grade, I earned a B in English on my final report card.
But even though I was happy with my accomplishments as a young writer, there was a new and unwelcome development in my academic life. Even as I was writing the first draft of the novel, I labored with the sad knowledge that I would not follow most of my Riviera classmates to Southwest Miami High after summer vacation.
Riviera was – and still is – one of several junior high/middle schools in the Southwest Miami High “feeder” system. Most students who attended “Ram Country” moved on to Southwest when they earned promotion to 10th grade unless they moved out of the area or their parents placed them in private schools. Special Education students were also part of this feeder system, and most of my friends who were one or two years ahead of me attended Southwest.
Unfortunately, Southwest Miami High was built in 1956 and was not designed to handle disabled students with mobility issues. It had two floors which were accessible by staircases, but it lacked an elevator for students who needed wheelchairs or couldn’t climb steps easily.
This design flaw made it hard for many Special Education students to get to class on time, and even though the school administration planned to install an elevator and other additions to solve the problem, it was still “in the pipeline” of school bureaucracy in early 1980. (The upgrades to the school were made eventually, but not before the 1982-1983 school year.)
Southwest Miami’s Special Ed students couldn’t afford to wait till the school was modernized. They were frustrated with the facility’s inadequate accessibility for disabled persons and wanted a quick solution to the problem of how to get to class without being tardy or having to risk life and limb on staircases designed for able-bodied students and teachers.
So the School Board made a Solomon-like decision and split up the high school’s Special Ed department. Those students with vision and hearing impairments could stay at Southwest Miami, while those with physical disabilities were transferred to South Miami Senior High.
I was unaware of this controversy for much of the 1979-80 school year. I didn’t regularly hang out with any of the students who were inconvenienced by Southwest Miami High’s outdated facility much then, so I assumed that I’d attend “Eagle Country” with my regular class friends at the beginning of the new school year.
It wasn’t until March of 1980 that Mr. Katims, the young Special Ed teacher who had replaced Mr. Coats as my homeroom instructor, told me that the powers-that-be reassigned me to South Miami High as part of the deal between the School Board and the disabled students’ parents.
I was devastated. I had spent five years (two at Tropical Elementary, three at Riviera) with many students that I considered to be friends. I had struggled long and hard to gain their acceptance and prove that I wasn’t feeble-minded or a freak of nature. I felt a strong bond with my classmates and couldn’t imagine being separated from them.
I tried to get my mom to appeal the School Board’s decision to include me in the transfer to South Miami High, but she was too preoccupied with her stormy relationship with Joe B. She only made one half-hearted call to Riviera’s principal, Mr. Davis, but she gave up when he told her that the only solution was to take me out of Special Ed altogether. If Mom chose that course, Mr. Davis told her, then I’d be reassigned to Coral Park Senior High, which was the closest high school to my house at the time.
I wasn’t thrilled with that scenario. True, I didn’t know too many of the non-disabled students at South Miami, but at least I’d see some familiar faces at Cobra Country, including Betsy Matteis, Joaquin “Kiki” Trias, and even my ex-girlfriend from Tropical Elementary. Reluctantly, and perhaps somewhat angrily, I realized that I was fighting a losing battle and had to accept reality.
I spent the last week of ninth grade in a fugue of sadness, denial, and anger. I didn’t misbehave; I was too old and smart to think that acting out would get me what I wanted. But I was moody and shuffled listlessly from one class to another, pretending that this was all a bad dream and that Mr. Katims would say,
We pulled some strings and reversed your transfer; you’re going to Southwest Miami next year.”
To cheer myself up, I convinced myself that a miracle would happen and that the School Board would change its bureaucratic mind. Even some of my classmates thought they’d see me in the fall; my Aries 1980 yearbook is full of “See you next year at SW!” inscriptions.
Finally, in June of 1980, the final bell of the school year rang throughout the various wings of Riviera’s campus. Most of us were elated to cast off the shackles of school, teachers, homework, and pop quizzes for the next three months. I wasn’t – I suspected that I wouldn’t see most of my regular class friends again. I boarded the homeward bound school bus with unshed tears in my eyes and many sad thoughts in my mind.
My days at Riviera Junior High were over. The transition to South Miami Senior High was about to begin.