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Jason’s Praying Pencils

How a student gave his teacher a special education

by Hugh Chapman

I was an hour-and-a-half into my new teaching career when I saw him at the other end of the hallway. He was the reason I almost didn’t take the job; before long, he became the reason I stayed.

Though I had never met Jason Banning before, I knew his situation. He was a 13-year-old special needs seventh-grader who had been confined to a wheelchair virtually all his life.

As Izard County (Arkansas) Consolidated School’s newest special education teacher, I was hired to teach Jason and attend to his personal needs. He had medicines that needed to be administered and diapers that needed to be changed twice a day; odd tasks for a man who had made a habit of fleeing his own kids at medicine and diaper-changing time.

My educational certification is in business, but there had been no positions available in that area. Special education was the only job open. It wouldn’t be easy: I would have to go back to school during summers and evenings to be certified in special ed. But because my own kids were in the school system, I wanted very much to be involved.

So I stood at my end of the hall, watching Jason being pushed toward me by his friend Delbert. I whispered a quiet prayer. "God, please help me with this." I expected an angry child, resentful of the life he had been dealt.

More than a student

As I watched him, I had to admit that he had every right to be angry. Jason had spina bifida, a congenital defect of the vertebrae. He had already undergone a dozen surgeries and his family anticipated more. He was being cared for, full time, by elderly grandparents.

His prognosis was poor. I remember seeing Jason at the school’s sixth grade graduation. His grandmother had invited the entire family and had ordered balloons and flowers for the event. She wanted the celebration to be special for Jason, because, as she later explained, it might be the only graduation he would ever see.

Yet if Jason was bitter, I saw no sign of it that day. Wheeling up to me in the school hallway, Jason realized who I was. Holding out both arms in greeting, he said, "Welcome, friend. It’s good to see you."

Though it took us a while to adjust to each other and our new surroundings, we eventually settled in. During our conversations, Jason often shared his heart. He told me he had attended church for as long as he could remember, and a couple of years before he had given his life to Jesus. Someday he hoped to become a preacher.

Prayer in the school

One time my first year, when his 80-year-old grandfather was ill, Jason asked me to pray with him. Not wanting to jeopardize my future, I was reluctant. Tactfully I explained that our government had regulations about teachers and students praying together on school grounds. Jason seemed to understand.

Two hours later, though, when Jason was in band class, God spoke to me—not in an audible voice—but through a feeling of deep remorse that weighed heavily on my heart. It is a sad world indeed, when a public school teacher is so wrapped up in the system that he is afraid to pray with a frightened child, I thought.

I dropped what I was doing and found my friend among the tubas and clarinets. I wheeled him back to the nurses’ station and there, in the quiet of the room, Jason and I prayed for his grandfather. He recovered soon after.

Secret code

Many times after that, Jason and I prayed together. I told Jason I often prayed silently in my classroom, and he suggested a way the two of us could pray silently together. He would lay his pencils (he always had at least two) on his desk in the form of a cross, as a signal to me that he was praying. From wherever I was in the room, I would join him.

Once when I was having a bad day, Jason’s friend Delbert came to class without a pencil. Jason and Delbert knew that I expected my students to be prepared for class, and Jason would often secretly loan paper or pencils to Delbert. I noticed Jason slipping a pencil to Delbert. I was annoyed, but said nothing.

Later, I gave the students an in-class written assignment. Jason wheeled up to my desk with tears welling in his eyes. "I don’t have my pencil," he said.

"Jason," I said, irritated, "if you didn’t keep giving your things to Delbert, you’d have a pencil, wouldn’t you?"

Then I noticed a pencil in Jason’s shirt pocket. Annoyed that the disruption had been unnecessary, I pulled out the pencil and held it in front of him. "Jason, here’s a pencil in your pocket!"

A tear rolled down his cheek. "That’s the pencil I write with," he explained. "It’s the pencil I pray with that I don’t have."

I choked up, ashamed for jumping all over him. I immediately found him a pencil. From that moment, I made a point to have lots of spare materials on hand.

No longer afraid

As the school years went by, I realized how I had been changing inside. At first, I had thought of Jason as a student, then a friend. Now, he was much more than a friend. Jason was like a son to me.

I had a chance to pray another time with Jason, when he was frightened because of an upcoming hospital stay. "Will you pray with me, Mr. Chapman?" he asked. "It seems to work better when you help."

I explained that God listens to everyone’s prayers, but that I would be honored to pray with him anyway. Then, I gave him an assignment.

I had noticed Jason’s T-shirt with the opening words from the 23rd Psalm printed on it. "The Lord is my Shepherd … "

"Jason, do you know where to find that verse?" I asked. He nodded. "Then for homework, I want you to memorize the words."

To my surprise, he came back the very next day and recited the entire chapter flawlessly. I smiled, and told him I was proud of him, then we discussed what each line meant. Finally, I told him to recite the verses to himself whenever he felt afraid at the hospital. It worked.

In the fall of 1997, before he went in for a scheduled heart surgery, Jason, now an eleventh grader, and I prayed for the last time. He hugged me as he left that day, and as I returned to the classroom to gather my belongings I glanced at his desk. Two pencils lay in plain view.

Jason died from complications two weeks after the surgery. When I think of him now, one word comes to mind: remarkable. I miss him, but I’ll never forget his courage.

And I know that I will see him again one day—without his wheelchair. In my mind, I see Jason in the distance standing with his friend Jesus—the same friend who answered his many prayers and watched over him as he struggled with life here on earth.

The struggles are over, and the radiant smile and laughing eyes once again draw me. With open arms, Jason says, "Welcome, friend. It’s good to see you!"

Copyright © 1998 by the author or Christianity Today International/Today’s Christian magazine. July/August 1998, Vol. 36, No. 4, Page 77 "This article first appeared in July/August 1998 issue of Today’s Christian. Used by permission of Christianity Today International, Carol Stream, IL 60188."