ELYRIA — Will Simons started his talk Thursday in front of a room full of attentive sixth-graders with topics they could understand — marching band, wrestling, learning to teach himself how to drive and what video games, if any, he liked to play.
Then, a student raised his hand and asked the 16-year-old Elyria High School student a question that opened the floodgates of curiosity.
“If you could cut off your arm and get a better, fake one, would you do it?” the student said.
All eyes in the room instinctively went to Will’s left arm — shorter and smaller than the one on the right, the result of a birth injury called brachial palsy.
“No,” Will said, with a confidence that showed he had been asked questions of that nature before.
“If I woke up tomorrow with two working arms, I wouldn’t know what to do. My arm has made me the person I am today. Good or bad, it has molded me into being who I am.”
Kelly Luter, working this year in her first year as the district’s school climate coordinator, had a feeling Will would make a great guest speaker. He’s spent years in Elyria Schools and has always had to answer questions about his injury.
“Everyone has a story. Some are just longer,” Luter said.
Will’s visit to Eastern Heights Middle School served two purposes. It was a part of the district’s revamped anti-bullying campaign, which Luter is pushing hard at every building in the district this year, and it corresponds with the new sixth grade language arts curriculum.
The teacher Annette Gracon has had her student met with other students from the district with special needs or physiological features that set them apart. It’s all part of a group of lessons taken from the book “Wonder,” a book about a child with a facial disfigurement and his strength in school.
“I really wanted to drive the point of the book home,” Gracon said.
The lesson for the students at Eastern Heights is about tolerance, acceptance and compassion. By meeting real people with similar challenges to what they are reading about in the book, they are seeing the strength of others first hand, and learning everyone is the same, despite their individual challenges.
“I wondered what kind of life he had, but I learned he likes some of the things and sports I like,” said 12-year-old Jaylen Horton. “There is a lot of stuff he can do with his arm.”
The previous visitor to the class was an Elyria High student who is wheelchair bound and communicates by using her eyes to track across a computer screen.
“They get better at the things they know how to do and try a lot of others,” Jaylen said of what the visits have taught him.
Kim Simons, Will’s mother, could barely contain her pride as her son answered every question that the students threw at him, including whether he wishes he had two normal arms. She said she honed the skill to stand back when Will was a baby and would fall often when learning to walk.
“I learned many years later that we missed out on a nerve surgery he could have had when he was 3 months old, but I don’t know if fixing this was the right thing for him,” she said. “He would have been physically different, but would his heart would be the same. Everyday I look at him and know he is a miracle. He should have had brain damage, but it’s just his left arm and hand. Oh, well.”