Sunday, April 03, 2011

Jimmy's Dream

In 1977 I graduated from Northern Baptist Seminary with a Master's degree. Linda and I agreed it was God's plan to go on for a Ph.D in philosophical theology. I applied at the University of Chicago and Northwestern University. To my surprise and embarrassment, I applied too late to get into school for the coming fall. What would I do? What would God want me to do?

We lived in Joliet, Illinois, where I was a pastor at First Baptist Church. I received a part-time salary and needed to find a full-time job. Linda's sister Lora worked at the United Cerebral Palsy Center of Will County, and suggested that I might find employment there. I called and scheduled an interview.

Mrs. Gretchen Lance was the Center's Director. She greeted me and brought me into her office. She shared what I would be doing there if I was hired. I would be a Teacher Assistant, working with students of all ages, most of whom had cerebral palsy. Then Mrs. Lance said, "Come with me. I want to show you something." She took me to the men's bathroom. "You'll be spending much of your time in here. You will toilet the boys and men who are unable to help themselves."

Mrs. Lance offered me the job, and I took it. I believed this was what God wanted for me. From the lofty, abstract field of philosophical and theological studies, I would now spend a year wiping bottoms. I had never wiped anyone's bottom but my own, and felt awkward as I thought of my new job. I told myself God had placed me in another degree program. I was working on a "B.A" - "Bathroom Assistant." It turned out to be a high calling.

I grew to love these students, and looked forward to being with them. The hardest part for me was when we went out with them. Not because of them, but because of the occasional stares and giggling of others. When I saw this I wanted to smack them, becoming like Harrison Ford when he entered that Amish community in "The Witness."

Thirty-five years later I remember some of my students.
  • Helen was a beautiful young girl whose cerebral palsy caused her to have a reverse tongue thrust. I fed her lunch every day. Her mother usually packed her a sandwich. I would tear small pieces off the sandwich and place it between the molars in the back of her mouth. She would nod her head and give me a look with her eyes that indicated the food was in place. Then, she chewed. Helen was intelligent. She had a beautiful smile. She was wheelchair-bound and could not use her arms, hands, or legs. She could not speak. She learned to type with a pointer fixed around her head like a bandana. I don't remember her ever complaining about anything. She seemed to have a deep joy inside.
  • Gayle was an autistic girl. We had to pin and tie her clothes on her, otherwise she would take them all off. Wherever we went we had her on a leash connected to her waist, because she would run away. She had a permanent bruised lump on her forehead where she constantly hit herself. Gayle did not like change. If we changed something in the classroom she would disrupt it by knocking it over or throwing it. Her parents told us that they had not re-arranged one thing in their home for many years since Gayle would destroy it. I used to drive the Cerebral Pasy Center's station wagon and pick Gayle and another student up every morning, then bring her home after school. One day when I was bringing her to school Gayle had taken one of her shoes off. She was sitting in the back seat. She threw it with full force into the front where I was driving. It whipped past my ear and slammed onto the window above the dashboard. It shocked me! Because of Gayle I began to study autism. I was hoping and praying to find a cure for her.
  • David was an idiot savant. I was told he had half a brain. He sat in his wheelchair and constantly rocked from side to side, holding his hands together and at times waving one of them in the air and talking to himself. He could recognize us but could not carry on much of a conversation. David was our "Rain Man." He studied calendars. David had calendars in his head. You could ask David what day April 3 will fall on in the year 2041 and he would immediately say "Tuesday" faster than you could say "google." He never made a mistake. David loved my guitar playing. He called me "Mr. John." He wanted to know when my birthday was. If David is alive today he knows that Mr. John's birthday is April 25. David had wonderful parents. They told me how much David liked me. One day, years after I had left the Center, I was back in the Chicago area playing a concert. I called David's parents. They brought David to the concert. I was so glad to see him! He had a smile on his face, began twirling his hands around, and said, "Mr John - When is his birthday? - April 25!"
  • Jimmy had Down's Syndrome. He had this little smile on his face every time he saw me. His vocabulary was limited. All he could say was "Uh-huh," and Uh-uh." Yes and no. His fine motor control was very poor. His eyesight was impaired, so he wore glasses with lenses as thick as coke bottles. At the end of the year the Center had an annual fund-raising banquet. The speaker was the brother of actor John Ritter. Ritter's brother Tom had cerebral palsy. We all felt so honored to hear him that night! And, I had written a song just for Jimmy. We put together a slide show of Jimmy that played behind me as I sang "Jimmy's Dream." I barely made it through the song. When I finished Jimmy immediately stood up, all alone, and began clapping for me, his poorly-tuned fingers unable to do it properly. There I was, with an audience of one giving me a standing ovation. I was broken.
The next time I applied for more schooling it was in time. I was accepted at both U-Chicago and Northwestern. I chose Northwestern. My area of study was linguistic-analytic philosophy. While working on my degree I stayed on at the Cerebral Palsy Center in the summers, and volunteered thoughout the year. I had made some very close friends. They trusted me, even liked me, and I loved them. I learned things that year that no doctoral program could have taught me. I learned things I needed to learn, and without which I would be even more incomplete than I now am. God, in his all-knowingness, was doing a very good work deep within my soul. For that I remain ever grateful.

Jimmy's Dream
- a song written by John Piippo for Jimmy Turner

I know a cowboy
his name is Jimmy
He's the roughest rider around
With his eyes cut like diamonds
and his smile like a Cheshire
He's the best cowpoke in town

He lives in the saddle
And he's good with the cattle
Smooth like a river he rides
He and his pony
They turn in one motion
Over the praries they glide

One day in Dodge City
Three outlaws came driftin'
Walked in to the bar and sat down
They ordered their whiskey
then left without payin'
Mounted, and rode out of town

But they had not seen Jimmy
A-sippin' his Pepsi
In the corner he'd seen what they'd done
So he rode out and caught 'em
They gave up when they saw him
Cause he's the roughest rider around

I know a cowboy
His name is Jimmy