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Fifth-grader's strides give classmates a surprise

By GREG HAMILTON

© St. Petersburg Times, published May 28, 2000


In a season of magical moments, this one stood head and shoulders above the rest. That's because it was Jeremy Ruiz's moment -- and he was standing.

The cafeteria at Pleasant Grove Elementary School was wall-to-wall well-wishers, gathered Wednesday night to watch their fifth-graders accept graduation certificates before taking that huge step from elementary to middle school.

One by one, the youngsters rose from their seats when their names were called and hurried to the stage where their teachers and a beaming principal Pat Simon awaited. Cameras flashed and bursts of cheers arose from family members who couldn't contain themselves as their sons and daughters passed this important threshold.

Lynne Kirby read through her class list, giving each child a big smile as he or she approached. Two-thirds of the way through, she paused at a name. Looking off-stage, she said: "Jeremy Ruiz."

His 120 classmates know Jeremy, who has spina bifida, as the friendly kid who gets around the school in a wheelchair. They open doors for him and push his chair to give his arms a break. He's one of them, no better, no worse.

But here was Jeremy emerging from the stage drapes -- and he was walking!

Supported from his armpits to his ankles by a wrap-around device that kept him vertical, Jeremy leaned onto a walker and carefully lifted his right leg. He willed his left leg, amputated at the ankle when he was younger, to follow.

As one step became two, the room erupted. His classmates jumped to their feet, whooping and cheering for their buddy. The roomful of guests, grasping what was happening, rose as one to join their children in the raucous standing ovation.

Closer and closer Jeremy came to center stage, where principal Simon and Mrs. Kirby were losing their grip on their tears. With each careful step, the cheering grew louder, the applause more enthusiastic.

Every step was a tribute to the teachers and aides at the school and elsewhere in the system who tirelessly help kids like Jeremy. In fact, there were two other fifth-grade boys at the school with missing limbs who crossed the stage Wednesday night thanks to their hard work and that of the largely unsung teachers, therapists and aides.

For Jeremy, this marked the second time he had walked in school. In the spring, when he first received the brace, he navigated the roughly 100-foot length of the fifth-grade hallway as his schoolmates leaned out the classroom doors cheering him on.

It was then, his mother Linda Hill said, that Jeremy hatched the idea of walking across the stage. "He said that not all of his teachers and classmates had seen him. They'd all be there for graduation," she said.

His doctors want Jeremy to practice walking every day, but it's sometimes hard to get him motivated, she said. "He said, "Mama, it takes too long to get where I want to go.' "

She has insisted that Jeremy, the youngest of her four children, keep trying. "I tell him, "You got to keep a positive attitude. All you have to do is want it and you can do it,' " she said.

Recently, as he and Simon talked about the end of school, Jeremy mentioned his idea of making the occasion even more special. Tonight, Jeremy was reaching for that star.

"When I got closer, I could see tears in my principal's eyes," Jeremy said later. "It was the first time I had ever seen him cry."

With his graduation certificate secured, Jeremy began the journey off-stage. Teacher's aide Vita Harvey, accompanying him, tried to get Jeremy to look over at the cheering crowd, but the youngster was focused only on making it back across the stage.

"I didn't see 'em, but I heard 'em!" he said Thursday as he joined his classmates for a day of fun at the Roller Barn.

Did he feel left out as dozens of kids whirled by on skates? Hardly. "I pull all the girls around with my chair," he said with a grin.

Jeremy, 11 ("and a half," he corrected), is like most other boys in his dreams and wishes. He likes sports, and so it's no surprise that foremost among his goals is to become a wheelchair racer. He saw a race on television and he was hooked.

He also revealed a dream this year in an essay, the memory of which still brings a tear to his teachers. One day, Jeremy said, he would like to run on a beach, to feel the warm sand between his toes.

It's such a simple wish, something you and I take for granted. For Jeremy, it would be a visit to paradise.

As he finally reached the far side of the stage, Jeremy returned to his wheelchair, never to forget his glorious success.

Neither will we, Jeremy. Neither will we.

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