All together now

It’s not hard to read Zach Thompson’s face and body language: He’s smiling and nodding, full of nervous energy and eager to use the drumsticks in his hands.

No doubt it’s a treat for Thompson, blind since birth and hindered by learning disabilities, to have personal attention from his drum teacher. Or from his piano instructor, or from the teachers-in-training he hangs out with twice a week at Fort Lewis College.

But stick around for a bit and you see another dynamic: The relationship runs two ways. The people working with Zach seem to be learning and enjoying it as much as he is.

And that’s a good thing. Because ultimately, the goal is to tap potential in students with special needs, whether it’s Zach or someone else down the line.

A conga drum between his knees, Zach is eager and waiting in a chair inside the Stillwater Foundation building just off 32nd Street. He listens to last-second instructions from teacher Steve Dejka, then it’s time to shine. He begins tapping the “blue duck” rhythm. To the conga rhythm “ta-tap tap, ta-tap, ta-tap” he chants “The-blue duck will-drive the-truck.” Listen: Zach’s stutter has disappeared.

There’s a reason, Dejka posits, why Zach loses his stutter when he connects words with the rhythm. It’s in the groove.

“Once he gets the groove. ... All of a sudden he’s spitting (words) out like it’s nothing,” Dejka says. “I just find it really a treat to work with Zach and to try to understand how he learns.”

Dejka is one of many angels in Zach’s life. Another is Ed Simons, who met Zach while substitute teaching several years ago in the Life program at Durango High School. When Zach, now 24, became too old to attend DHS (the cutoff is 21), Simons took him under his wing. Now they get together every Tuesday and Thursday – a relationship sponsored partly by Community Connections Inc., partly by the good-hearted Simons.

Simons had picked up on the fact that Zach likes music, so he found a willing piano teacher, Ryan McCurry at Katzin Music, and more recently found Dejka at Stillwater Foundation.

At a visit to Katzin and the small room where McCurry has been instructing Zach for 3 years, you observe a couple more interesting things. Zach has as much rhythm on the piano as the drum. He can maintain an Afro-Cuban clave beat while McCurry keeps the tune going. Side by side on the bench seat, they play the classic “Guantanamera,” ending with a rousing “ole – cha-cha-cha!”

Simon had mentioned Zach’s uncanny ability to recognize casual acquaintances – someone he’d met once, long ago – and here you see proof. As Zach’s leaving, a new Katzin employee tells him goodbye. They’d met for the first time a week ago. Zach takes a few seconds. “Alicia,” he says, surprising the woman and those of us who often can’t do this trick a minute later, much less a week later.

Zach lives in Ignacio with his father and step-mother. On Tuesday and Thursday mornings, he travels to Durango via the Roadrunner bus, then transfers at the Durango Transit Center and connects on a bus up to FLC. That’s where on this day Amber Bentley, a post-bacchelaureate student, is waiting for him. Soon she’s joined by fourth-year student Mitch Wertheimer and senior Ashley Schwartz, all students in teacher-education professor Gene Taylor’s “Managing Diverse Classes” class.

Three-and-a-half years ago, one of Taylor’s students spent three weeks traveling with Zach from Ignacio on the Roadrunner and teaching him how to navigate the bus and the transfer. Zach’s messed up only once since then, ending up in Bayfield one day.

Others in the class join in on the five-minute walk to the Education-Business Hall and up to Taylor’s second-floor classroom. The conversation wanders on the walk, but Zach doesn’t. He stays focused and on-route. Although he has ready guides, Zach pretty much does the work himself, using his walking cane to probe for and follow the sidewalk crack.

“Gene (Taylor) told us the first day, ‘We’re trying to open his world. We’re trying to make his world bigger,’” Wertheimer says. “It’s amazing. Zach’s an incredible person.”

The students are working on developing classroom-management plans. Exactly how Zach fits in with the class is up for debate, but it’s clear he and Chris, another special-needs resident, are an integral part of the class. “Inclusion” is a buzzword in education circles, Taylor notes. Special-needs students “tend to do better when they’re hanging out with a wide variety of people.” Special-education classes segregate.

Sitting around a circular clump of desks, students say hi to Zach and Chris one at a time. Then they throw Zach a curveball: Name the three students who aren’t here today. Quickly he names two. He needs a hint for the third (this person always sits by Sarah Armstrong), then gets it.

He smiles through the lecture and class discussion, lightly chuckling and clapping at proper moments. Later in the semester, he’s on tap to give a musical performance for the class.

Taylor has been bringing what he calls “special abilities” students to his classes for a decade. He says that when he was a student teacher, incorporating those students into his classes “was a huge breakthrough.”

“It freed me up to realize that the students were my teachers,” Taylor says. The cookie-cutter formula no longer worked. He had to listen, get to know them and help solve their problems.

“A person’s inability to do things is not a reflection of their incompetence,” he says after the students have filed out. “It is a reflection of our incompetence.”

But Taylor emphasizes that the story here is about Zach. It’s about a man with a contagiously good attitude.

“He walks into a room and the room lightens up,” Taylor says. “He makes us feel so good. He’s smiling. And he’s sincere.

“I think he makes us better. I think we make him better. It’s a reciprocal arrangement.”

It’s created a bigger and happier world for everyone involved. John Peel writes a weekly human-interest column.

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