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When Will was in high school in Tucson, he got a job as a dishwasher at the Sheraton El Conquistador. Usually  given the most undesirable shifts, he was often chosen as “employee of the month”. He was determined to use the job to show that he could be dependable, handle responsibility, could succeed in a “regular” position. This, he believed, would help him with his ultimate goal, true independence.

Special education classes at Ampitheater High School were segregated almost entirely from the “general” school population, a situation Will loathed. The big “integration breakthrough” came when the special education students were allowed to eat in the cafeteria with the others. As usual, segregation increases, never decreases, alienation and bigotry and this proved true in this case. Will recalled sitting at a table with some of the other students and watching as they got up and left him there, alone.

One day, another student pushed him down in his haste to enter the cafeteria. The mainstream students were accustomed, apparently, to thinking of the special ed students as road obstacles and irritations as opposed to fellow human beings. Will fell – and broke his right elbow. But he was scheduled to work after school. And so he went to work – how, I cannot imagine. A manager noticed the blood and – mercifully – insisted Will call his father. Though the arm eventually healed, his elbow remained scarred and slightly crooked, which I observed during the first hospital stay that I accompanied him to. And that’s when he told me the story of how it happened. I was speechless. Why, I asked, stunned, did you go to work? How could you do that? It must have hurt terribly!

It did, he said. But “I didn’t want to be unreliable”. So he went to his dishwashing job, determined to tough out a fractured elbow.

That unfathomable determination, single minded focus, and raw courage never left him, not for a second. But he was clear: physical pain was far less tormenting than the pain of being marginalized, labeled, treated as a child of a lesser god.

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