A Timeless Classic
Jeff Ross’s Story as told by his mother, Ann Marie Ross
Written by J.R. Jamison
CHEV – RO – LET
Lined up on the magnetic spelling board in primary colored letters. He couldn’t say it, but there he was—spelling it.
CHEV – RO – LET
He was three at the time. Must’ve been something on television and he was relaying the message back to us. He didn’t actually talk until he was four, but, you know, he’s unusual. He’s been to different diagnostic places, and everyone says they’ve never seen a case like him.
There on the old, metal magnetic spelling board –
CHEV – RO – LET
These simple, classic spelling board games . . . they really helped us when sound wasn’t the determining factor to let our minds know what he was thinking.
Well, when Jeff was born the cord was around his neck. Which cut off oxygen, and that caused the brain damage. It wasn’t obvious in the beginning, but around 11-months-old he didn’t really show any signs of crawling or walking. We kind of suspected something, and when he was about 15-months-old the pediatrician confirmed that brain damage had likely occurred during birth.
But, like I say, he’s an interesting case.
Jeff started reading and spelling before the age of when most children exhibit these types of developments. His speech wasn’t coming along well, but he loved to read. Books on presidents, books on travel, and in kindergarten he read an entire encyclopedia. Once his speech came, he could tell you the name of every president’s wife, her birthdate—he could even tell you their anniversaries!
It was almost like he had a photographic memory.
One of his pre-school teachers at Isanogel even said, “Send him to Burris.”
Burris, at the time, had four teachers per classroom because students from Ball State would go over and help the main teachers with their classes. When we’d go to parent-teacher conferences they’d say, “He just amazes the college kids.”
They’d give a test, and he’d go down every question and check, check, check and be done, and everyone else was still taking it. This one girl said she thought Jeff had just marked anything to finish and that he likely didn’t have any of the answers correct. So she pulled his test and checked it before the other kids got done, and every answer was right. It’s like he was this little genius.
But by the time he got into middle school, he couldn’t do the math.
One of his diagnoses is that the left and right side of his brain don’t work together. For reading you only need one side of your brain, and for math and reasoning you need the other. And a typical brain transfers information back and forth, but, with his, only one side works at a time and doesn’t connect.
Since Burris wasn’t going to work out, we explored other options.
We even tried a school in Piqua, Ohio.
But after two years it became too much, and we brought him back to Muncie and he went to Wilson and then on to Southside. In 1990 he got his graduation certificate and he went over to Hillcroft to work in their workshop.
He loves it over there. He does piece work, mainly. It’s repetitive.
He likes things to stay the same.
He likes to play supervisor.
During breaks, he has to be the last one to leave the lunch room so he can make sure everyone is out. And if they’re not? Well, he gets a bit supervisory on them.
But that’s Jeff, you know.
He’ll be there until retirement. It’s not like a factory, it’s a good environment. When we’re on vacation he says he can’t wait to get back to work. We laugh and say, “Who wants to go back to work when they’re on vacation?”
Hillcroft takes good care of him. I feel good about it—he’s safe over there. And like I say, he doesn’t communicate well.
Every now and then we do get approached about him having a job out in the community, but his sense of reasoning is just so bad. I really hesitate to do that. Like, if I told him in the morning to go down the hill to get the bus, and if the bus didn’t come until 5:00 in the afternoon he’d still be sitting there. He wouldn’t think, “Gee, maybe the bus isn’t coming.”
He has a form of aphasia.
Sometimes he’ll blurt out a sentence and it’s clear as can be, and other times it takes him five minutes to spit out a sentence. Between that and his lack of reasoning ability, he can’t work out in public.
Even with family, the communication can be different. He does this special handshake with his nieces where he puts his finger out and they touch it, and then he goes on and goes away, and then they do it again before they leave. And if they forget to do it, he’ll stand down at the bottom of the hill and wait for them to come back.
Growing up, some kids would make fun of him and your heart just breaks when you see it. That’s life I guess, but that was the difficult aspect of it all . . . the most challenging part of having a son with disabilities. He didn’t always notice people were picking on him or being mean. Only once or twice. And when he was little, he’d cry.
But after that it didn’t seem to bother him as much.
As he’s gotten older, the world has grown up around him, and Jeff has stayed so young at heart. In many ways, he’s a classic case of someone with intellectual disabilities, but in other ways—such as his impeccable memory—he’s not.
He’s timeless and ageless. He still sees the world as a child in many ways, and there is something really beautiful about that.
Just a few weeks ago, my husband and I were having dinner at Cammack Station. We have this refurbished historic car we sometimes drive, and as we were walking out we noticed this woman admiring it. We sparked up a conversation, discussing the history, design, engine—and then she shared something that floored me.
“Oh, my son would love to take a ride in this car. He loves old cars. In fact,” she said, “he once wanted to be a car designer, but an accident left him with a severe brain injury and intellectually disabled.”
I shared that my son, too, had intellectual delays.
There we were, two mothers bonding over our sons who have faced similar life circumstances and finding common ground over a classic car—and then I realized, despite all of the ups and downs of challenges and rewards, how perfect life really is.
From the days of . . .
CHEV – RO – LET
. . . on that old, metal magnetic spelling board—I’ve come to realize we’re all just passengers in classic car exteriors. Some are changed. Some are unusual. Some stay the same.
It’s what binds us.
J.R. Jamison is the co-founder of The Facing Project. He also serves as the Executive Director of the Indiana Campus Compact, a coalition of 40 colleges and universities that have dedicated their institutions to campus and community partnerships for the public good. He has been featured in The Huffington Post, Harlem World Magazine, and on NPR. He calls Muncie home.