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    Lifelong devotion

    A mother puts aside her life to focus on her son with Down's syndrome. He will graduate from high school with honors.

    [Times photo: Krystal Kinnunen]
    Geoffrey Powers looks to his mother for reassurance during his Latin class.

    By BABITA PERSAUD, Times Staff Writer
    © St. Petersburg Times
    published May 12, 2002

    TAMPA -- At 19, Geoffrey Powers has achieved so much. He takes advanced placement calculus, Latin and English literature. He scored 1460 on the SAT.

    When he graduates from Gaither High School this month, he will be wearing honors white. In the fall, he's off to the University of South Florida to study engineering or prelaw.

    Geoffrey Powers is disabled. He has Down's syndrome and is legally blind. He has only peripheral vision. He must tilt his head to see.

    He can't hold a pencil for long, can't brush his hair, can't coordinate a knife and fork. He seldom speaks, except when angry or frustrated. The words that escape at those times seem meaningless, such as "Uncle Lenny's car."

    When Powers was born, his mother, Diane "Ditty" Tower, vowed she would do everything possible for her disabled child.


    She goes with him to school. She sits beside him in Latin, holding the pencil, taking the notes, raising her hand and telling the teacher: "Geoffrey has a question."

    She cuts his Salisbury steak at lunch. She combs his shaggy Beatles haircut. She dresses him in plaid, green shorts. "He's a prep," she says.

    At times, Ditty Tower, 61, looks exhausted, her blouse yanked at the shoulder, her gray and brown bob disheveled.

    Then she looks at her son and beams.

    Her day from morning to good night kiss is absorbed by him. Her family, her husband, her life have had to step aside. Geoffrey needed her.

    * * *

    This was Ditty Tower's life before Geoffrey:

    She graduated from Worcester State College. Taught kindergarten in Massachusetts, then in Atlanta before moving to Tampa with her husband, a management consultant.

    She had two daughters and became a full-time mom. She played bridge with friends, loved to shop.

    Then, at age 41, Tower became pregnant again. Doctors advised her to have amniocentesis to check for any birth defects.

    She didn't. She would have her baby no matter what. A devout Catholic, she abhors abortion.

    "I always believe God never gives you anything you can't handle," she says.

    Geoffrey A. Powers was born Jan., 23, 1983, with an extra copy of the 21st chromosome in his cells.

    "When you have a normal child," Tower says, "they put that baby in your arms and you look at him and say, "The world is yours, my son.' They put a child like mine and the first thing you think about, "What's going to happen to this child when I am no longer here? Who's going to take care of him?' "

    At that time, the only disability the family knew about was Down's.

    At times, when Geoffrey slept, Tower would forget her son was disabled. Then, at times, when he sat ramrod straight because the muscles of Down's children can lock, "it seemed to be neoned across his chest."

    She would sit in her rocking chair and cry.

    She and her husband spent a small fortune on nurses, physical therapists, occupational therapists.

    "Tell me what to do," Tower asked them.

    How to bend his fingers. How to move his toes. How to prop him up.

    If specialists told her to wiggle each of his fingers 14 times, three times a day to encourage fine motor growth, she did.

    It kept her busy. Tower cried less and less; she was coping. But then, she discovered her son wasn't babbling. Babies babble. Why wasn't Geoffrey trying to talk?

    More tests. The brain's speech functions were damaged, the doctors said, perhaps by a stroke at birth.

    Then, Tower realized Geoffrey wasn't reaching for his toys. Why wasn't he reaching for things? He was partially blind.

    * * *

    "Having a handicapped child does not just affect the child, it affects everybody in your family," Tower says. "Drastically."

    She remembers one painful day. Nikki, her fourth-grader, wanted her mother to go to her volleyball game. But Geoffrey needed to be taken to a hearing test.

    "You know, Mother, you do have more than one kid," Nikki said.

    "Yeah, Nikki, I know I have more than one kid, but sometimes when you're a mother, you make painful decisions."

    Nikki gave her a look, Tower says, that "if I live to be 100 I'll never forget. My heart broke."

    Tower educated herself in disability issues, attending meetings of groups such as the Coalition of Ongoing Developmental Education.

    At first, Tower felt lost. There were doctors, educators, professors in the group -- all parents of disabled children -- and they were going on and on about OCR.

    "What's OCR?" Tower finally asked.

    "The Office of Civil Rights," snapped a woman.

    "My son has civil rights?" said Tower.

    Tower read and reread the federal laws governing special education.

    "The more I learned, the more I was forearmed," said Tower. "And I had control."

    It would come in handy later.

    * * *

    By age 8, Geoffrey Powers had established himself as the holy terror at Caminiti Exceptional Child Center, a public school in north Tampa that many special education children attend.

    He would throw himself on the ground, cry, kick off his shoes, said Fay Osborn, a vision teacher at Caminiti.

    Nothing seemed to work until Tower hired private speech therapist LorRainne Jones. She showed Geoffrey a new way to communicate called Facilitated Communication, or FC.

    The origins of FC are obscure. It came to the United States via Australia in the early 1990s and was used with children who had autism and some with Down's.

    The method uses a facilitator and a paper keypad. A facilitator puts her hand directly under the child's hand, with her finger pointing under his. The child bends his finger and points to letters on a paper keypad, spelling out words. The facilitator then says the word.

    Jones worked with Geoffrey for two years, mostly on Saturdays in the family's Odessa home.

    One day, he appeared extremely happy.

    "What's up with you?" Jones asked.

    Geoffrey took her to the paper keypad, held her hand and began to tap:

    "I g-o-t m-e r-a-d-i-o b-a-c-k."

    The radio was a boom box his sister had given him when she left for college.

    Ditty Tower was overjoyed. Her son could communicate.

    Then, as ever, she wondered whether he could do more. Whether she could do more.

    She pushed for her son to be taken out of Caminiti and put in a regular classroom. The Hillsborough school system was skeptical. He would have to take tests to show he could fit in.

    For one test, Geoffrey, now 10, was given a story to read alone in a room. Then an outside facilitator came in.

    "What is the story about?" Geoffrey was asked.

    He tapped out "d-o-d-o."

    The facilitator looked puzzled, but the answer was correct. The book was about a dodo bird.

    Tower cheered and cheered Facilitated Communication.

    Not everyone does. Some academics and child-care professionals say facilitators consciously or unconsciously guide the hands of their students. They likened the paper keypad to a Ouija board.

    Hillsborough school officials were not enamored of FC, either. Edward McDowell, director of Exceptional Student Education, says the school system prefers other methods to assist disabled children, such as specialized computers. FC makes it hard for the children to achieve independence, and "We want them to go on to the next level and be successful," he said.

    School officials thought Geoffrey should use a computer. Not good enough, said Tower. Geoffrey had become frustrated with a computer.

    Then, Tower threw in her biggest artillery.

    Under federal law, a public education must be granted "in the least restrictive environment with all related aides and services." In other words, the school system had to provide an aide, who would then be trained in Facilitated Communication at Tower's expense.

    If Geoffrey was the holy terror of Hillsborough schools, his mother was the royal pain, she said.

    "Were there fights? You bet ya," she said. "I scream. I slam my hand down and say, "That's it, I've had it.' "

    She didn't care what other parents or teachers thought of her: "There are some people who will never believe."

    In 1993, Tower divorced her husband, Geoffrey A. Powers III. He moved to Clearwater and retired. She regained her maiden name, Tower, and moved out of the spacious Odessa house to a smaller one in Calusa Trace in Lutz. Geoffrey and her two daughters came with her.

    "It would have been nice if our family had remained intact," she said. "But that's the way it happened and you deal with it."

    * * *

    The leap to a regular classroom was tough. Geoffrey bit a child during his first weeks of fourth grade at Northwest Elementary and was suspended. When he returned, he concentrated on his studies.

    Geoffrey has had several aides or facilitators, but mostly his facilitator has been Osborn, the vision teacher he met at Caminiti, or his mother.

    For middle school, Geoffrey went to Roland Park. Disciplinary problems evaporated. Teachers told Tower her son was brilliant.

    He arrived at Gaither High as an honor student.

    "Someone like Geoff comes into the classroom and you assume a lot of things," said Steve Page, a world history teacher.

    He has seen Geoffrey answer questions his aide did not know "Coincidences only go so far," he said.

    "I would have to admit, if I didn't know Geoff firsthand, that might be a little difficult for me to believe. But I know Geoff and I know he's doing his work on his own," said Page.

    Powers' days at Gaither are divided between Osborn and his mother.

    For calculus, Powers usually sits in the back of the class, with Osborn beside him. A paper keypad, crumpled at the corners, is on his desk.

    Susan Hammer, the calculus teacher, takes her spot up front, leaning on the overhead projector. She hands copies of the overheads to Osborn.

    Powers bends his head toward his desk. He can read, but often Osborn quietly reads the problems to him. "It is faster," she said.

    "Find the volume of a pyramid if the altitude is r and the base is a rectangle of dimensions a and 2a."

    Powers rubs the side of his head.

    He gives his hand to Osborn. Together the two hands move over the keypad, thump, thump.

    Osborn asks, "Is that what you want?"

    More tapping.

    She writes "y equals square root of x."

    "This is the hypotenuse," she says. "What did Ms. Hammer say about the isosceles triangle?"

    Tap. Tap. Tap.

    "Is that what you want?" Osborn says before writing another step in the equation.

    This is how Powers did a book report on The Merchant of Venice: He tapped out what he wanted Osborn to say. She wrote it down. Then, in class, she stood beside him and read the report.

    This is how he finished an assignment in physical science to make a carton for an egg that would keep it from breaking when dropped 9 feet. Powers tapped out the directions. Osborn and Tower made a container out of foam.

    "We carved out a place for the egg and surrounded the box with Popsicle sticks glued together," said Osborn. "Then we wrapped it in brown paper."

    The egg was dropped. Powers' egg didn't break. Most others did.

    This is how he did a recent essay assignment in sociology. He tapped out what he wanted to write at home. His mother wrote it down in her cursive.

    The essay was titled "Don't Judge a Book by Its Cover." The first line read: "What is truly important is how a person is inside."

    * * *

    Powers rarely interacts with "regular" students. His best friend is Fay Osborn, the facilitator. They go to hockey games together.

    "I-t i-s v-e-r-y f-r-u-s-t-r-a-t-i-n-g b-e-c-a-u-s-e i-t i-s s-o s-l-o-w t-h-a-t p-e-o-p-l-e d-o n-o-t h-a-v-e t-h-e p-a-t-i-e-n-c-e t-o w-a-i-t f-o-r m-e t-o t-a-l-k f-o-r l-o-n-g," he taps for the reporter interviewing him.

    He says he is like any other teenager. He likes action movies, loves to eat, loves to watch TV when he gets home, hates mornings.

    He calls his mother his "r-o-c-k."

    "I w-i-s-h s-h-e w-o-u-l-d t-h-i-n-k o-f h-e-r-s-e-l-f s-o-m-e-t-i-m-e."

    At Gaither's graduation May 30 at the USF Sun Dome, Powers will not walk with his mother when he collects his diploma. A student usher will assist him. Powers wants it that way. He wants his mom to be able to sit down and watch.

    * * *

    Tower is working with USF to find a replacement facilitator for Osborn because she is a school system employee and cannot go to USF.

    "It's time for Geoffrey to find somebody else," said Osborn. "I'm not going to be with him his whole life."

    Mom, though, might. She is prepared to go to USF to help him through classes.

    And then?

    Sure, she says, if he wants to go to law school, she will be there, too.

    "I will go with him as long as I'm needed, as long as he needs me," said Tower. "The minute he says, "Mom, I'm okay,' I'm out of there. But the minute he says "Mom,' I'm there."

    -- Babita Persaud can be contacted at (813) 226-3322 or

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