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Lessons for life

Jamie Thomas might have thought it was summer vacation, but his mother had other ideas. He had to learn to cook. To use an elevator. To count his money.

By BRADY DENNIS
Published September 7, 2006


TAMPA

The stares begin each time he approaches the stage, his hand searching for the familiar touch of the keyboard. He never knows how many pairs of eyes are focused on him, watching, waiting.

But he knows what the hushed audience sees - blind kid, dark sunglasses, the promise of a song - and he knows the introduction that will come, the one that always begins the same way.

"Ladies and gentlemen, the next Ray Charles!"

He's too shy and polite, maybe too proud, to tell them thanks-but-no-thanks, my name is Jamie, not Ray; I love country music and Wheel of Fortune and my mama; I want to be a DJ, a wrestler, a comedian. But a musical icon? Chill out. I'm a 13-year-old on summer break.

Instead, he obliges the crowds he cannot see. He gives them a gospel song, then maybe America the Beautiful or Soul Man. The music pours from his fingertips, across the keys, out the speakers. He tilts his head toward the sky, tries to keep his soft voice on key amid the havoc of puberty. In return, they give him their shouts and applause and praise.

The informal summer tour of Jamie Thomas has passed through church suppers and family reunions, high school graduation parties and Sunday morning worship services. He has played in noisy hotel restaurants, in fellowship halls, in the living rooms of strangers and in back yards where smoke carries the smell of grilled meat.

But during the quiet hours, when his keyboard sits untouched and the audiences aren't around, he has experienced another kind of summer. A summer his mother knew must come.

* * *

"Come to the stove," Melissa Thomas tells her only son. "Now, be careful. It's hot."

The rain falls hard outside Apartment 201. It's a Saturday afternoon in July, and mother and son are alone. Jamie inches toward the stove, reaching timidly for the pot handle. He can hear the water boiling and recoils each time he gets close enough to feel the heat from the burner.

"Don't be scared. You won't get burnt. I'm right here," Mrs. Thomas says. "Now, lift the pot . . . hold your bowl."

Oven mitt on one hand, Jamie pours the contents of the pot into a small, plastic bowl. He puts the bowl on the kitchen counter, places the pot back on the stove.

"Okay, slide it to the back of the stove so you won't get burnt," his mother says.

Jamie hesitates.

"Don't be scared," she tells him again. "I'm here. I ain't gonna leave you."

He does as she says, then turns off the stove. Mix in a couple of spoonfuls of sugar, she tells him. He counts aloud as he stirs, showing off his Spanish: "Uno, dos, tres, cuatro, cinco, seis . . ."

He carries the bowl out of the kitchen, sits alone at the dining room table and tastes the first batch of oatmeal he has ever made by himself.

A smile.

"Sweet," he says.

In the kitchen, Mrs. Thomas smiles, too. One more item checked off her list.

* * *

For so long, she has been his only eyes. She has fed him, clothed him and guided him in every way since the day he was born premature and blind in 1992.

"Having a child with disabilities is not easy," she says. "But I have learned to accept it for what it is and what it's going to be."

The Thomas family lives in a modest apartment complex along the banks of the Hillsborough River in Tampa. Melissa Thomas cleans school classrooms and offices in the afternoons. Her husband, Jimmy, works nights as an assistant manager at a Wendy's in Brandon.

Mrs. Thomas has lost four children over the years, one to pneumonia, the others to miscarriage and premature birth. She built her life around the two who remain: Jamie and his 17-year-old sister, Jasma, a junior at Hillsborough High School.

Their mother lavishes attention on them, plays video games with them, cooks homemade pizza for them, tows them to church and family reunions and nearly everywhere else she goes. She laughs at their jokes, however silly.

Jamie: "Hey Ma, what do you call a fly without wings?"

Melissa: "I don't know, baby, what?"

Jamie: "A walk."

Still, she knows she won't always be around to hold her son's hand. Blind or not, he must learn to care for himself.

"Jamie is growing up. He's becoming a man. He needs discipline," she says. "It's not always about playing the piano. It's about being able to function in life. It's about being able to do what you want to do with nobody stopping you."

So during Jamie's summer break from the Florida School for the Deaf and Blind in St. Augustine - where, people like to remind him, Ray Charles studied - Mrs. Thomas set out to make the most of their time together.

She spent long hours teaching him to cook, to use the elevator, to make his bed, to count his own money. She sent him to a summer camp where he learned to cash checks at a bank and do his own laundry. She even taught him to slow dance. After all, she said, "I want a daughter-in-law someday."

At home, Jamie has memorized the world around him - the setup of his bedroom, the switches on his stereo, the contents of the refrigerator, the Braille Bible stacked against a wall, the buttons on his mother's cell phone.

But she wants him to understand more of the world outside their walls.

Like so many other people, she loves to hear Jamie play the piano, a skill he taught himself starting at age 3. She says his talent gives others "joy they didn't have," and she wants him to share it.

But she and Jimmy know their son must become more than a musician. He must become a man. A man not limited by blindness.

"Jamie isn't handicapped," his father likes to say. "He's just blind."

And so as the summer passed, week by week, the lessons continued. Cook today. Make your bed. Count your money. Memorize. Think. Grow.

* * *

He has finished another morning service at Miracle of God Faith Healing Gospel Church, in a storefront off Waters Avenue. A solo, six hymns, an hour and a half of worship. But Jamie's day is only half over.

He'd rather challenge his mom to a video game of Wheel of Fortune, or listen to his country radio show or lounge around home. Instead, he's scheduled to perform at a high school graduation party in Bartow.

Jamie, Jasma and their mother arrive just before the celebration begins at a fellowship hall off U.S. 17. It's a potluck dinner - chicken, corn bread, baked beans, pound cake. About 100 people show up.

The program lists two solos for Jamie.

Just after dinner, the emcee calls him up front. And here it comes . . .

"He is the Ray Charles now. Let's say Amen! Jamie Thomas . . . He's going places!"

Jamie says nothing, just dives into the first song, a gospel tune:

They said I wouldn't make it,

They said I wouldn't be here today.

They said I wouldn't amount to anything.

But I'm glad to say, that I'm on my way . . .

* * *

Early in the summer, he fretted about returning to St. Augustine. One June afternoon, he said he'd rather not go back.

"Oh, he's just saying that because he wants to stay home with his mama," Melissa said.

"What's wrong with staying home with you?" he asked.

"Jamie," she said, "I want more for you than just me."

Now it was early August, a summer of life lessons and singing for audiences behind him, and Jamie was ready for seventh grade, ready to see his friends, ready to blast country music in his dorm room and write new songs for his pop band, Invision.

His mother knew the school could help him grow in ways she couldn't, giving him job training, computer knowledge and experience traveling alone.

"Jamie's going to learn a lot of skills that mama couldn't teach him," she said. "They're not going to baby him."

And so, on a recent Sunday, mother and son drove north toward St. Augustine. She knew he'd still come home most weekends, but she hoped their summer together had started him down the road of independence.

She hoped that in this place, where Ray Charles once roamed, her son would find his own way, discover his own beat.

"Jamie can have a normal life," she said. "He can go where he wants to go. He can do whatever he wants to do. I want him to be who he wants to be.

"If he's happy, then I'm happy."

She spent a couple of hours helping Jamie settle into his new dorm room, which he'd share with two other boys.

Just after 4:30 p.m., with a three-hour drive back to Tampa ahead, the mother said goodbye to her son. She gave him a kiss on the cheek and promised to call twice a day.

Brady Dennis can be reached at 813 226-3386 or dennis@sptimes.com.