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Happy 30th Birthday, Ben! One of the most inspirational and special students I have ever met

Ten years ago, in the fall of 2012, I met one of the most fascinating and inspirational students of my four decades in education. I have taught many special students, but Ben Pavlosky was indeed unique and unforgettable.

And today, despite all odds, Ben is celebrating his 30th birthday.

While I remember him well, I wanted to put together a good remembrance of him — and iCloud really helped prompt my memory.

Here is what I remember about the fall of 2012 and spring of 2013.

A “special student”

All that I knew about Ben was that he had some special needs and would be accompanied to my English Comp I class by his mother. However, Ben as a child had suffered something terribly devastating. He became blind because of a brain tumor with which he had been born, and that set into action a series of unbelievably drastic health problems.

A son of Gary and Brenda Evans Pavlosky, Ben has been forced to spend a great deal of time at St. Jude’s Hospital and other medical facilities, and even today, he still struggles.

However, I remember seeing Ben and his mother come into class, and I spent time talking with them and trying to make them feel comfortable. Ben said that he loved history, and that he was looking forward to learning how to write well in college.

What I still remember, though, was starting into my lecture/discussion about the class and asking a question that had something to do with history. Immediately, the only hand that went into the air was Ben’s.

In fact, he practically jumped out of his seat with his eagerness to answer it.

I knew right away that I was going to love Ben.

I was right.

What he demonstrated was that he had a strong grasp of history, and his detailed answered amazed many of the students who were probably not that interested in that particular field of study.

In short, Ben was simply a joy to have in class. His mother had to write for him, but he would give her his ideas and she could put the ideas in the outline and then help him organize his writing.

In the spring, Ben then tackled a more challenging course: Public Speaking.

I happened to find some of his materials from those classes that are quite interesting.

Informative Speech: Sitting Bull

One of the historical topics and Ben used in both his essays and a speech was Sitting Bull, who was a Teton Dakota Native American chief who united the Sioux tribes against the white settlers who took their land.

One of the interesting notes that I have on his evaluation is that while many students rely excessively on their note cards, he knew his topic so well that he did not even have to use his mother to help him with his prompts.

The majority of the students in the class who evaluated his speech on Sitting Bull gave him an A. One even praised his “strong, powerful ending,” For someone who had worked so hard on it, that was satisfying to him.

Visual Aid: Braille

Another speech of Ben’s that was very effective was his visual aid presentation. In this one, he explained something that many in the class had heard of, but really did not understand. This was the way that he learned to read, with Braille.

Ben’s mom had helped him do a Power Point presentation with this, and it was very effective. The students in the class realized what Ben had to do in order to learn to read, and it was very powerful for them.

The inspiration

Watching Ben and working with him was a joy. He worked so hard, and he was a fascinating student to have in class, always participating and asking questions. The students had so much respect for him because they were aware of what he had overcome.

In some of the short speeches, Ben would mention some of what he had been through in his life. Born with a brain tumor that doctors felt would prevent him from living long, he is now 30. He has had many surgeries, strokes, and other maladies.

Ben has been fortunate to have been born into a wonderful family, with his parents and five siblings and grandparents with whom he was close. To say nothing of nephews and nieces.

However, he also talked at length about how frustrating it was for him at times because of the disability. Still, he always had a smile when he started that class. He was eager to learn and be part of the college experience.

“When bad things happen to good people”

I have often written about Rabbi Harold Kushner’s book that explored why some people in life, seem to have such devastating things happen to them. And how we have to make sense of this in God’s terms.

His son contracted a disease called progeria that starts in early childhood and progresses through life. At the age of 15, he looked like he was 65 or 70, and he died shortly after that.

It seems unfair, just like what happened to Ben, an innocent child, but for me, it demonstrates how special people like Ben have been in life. He has struggled, but today, he became 30 after the physicians did not think he would live for a year.

So, for me, at the age of 75, I can look at someone like Ben with not just admiration but awe — amazed at his courage, his tenacity, and his outlook on life. And I realize how fortunate I have been.

Happy 30th Birthday, Ben! I hope that you received my card.

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