My Most Unforgettable Character
At a high school orientation day in Sacramenton, California, John Van Berkel III stood apart from my other students. His arms and legs seemed too long. Homely and awkward, wearing thick glasses, he hunched his shoulders as if to hide his phenomenal height.
“Well,” I said to the students, “I see our future basketball star.” I smiled at the boy, trying to put star.” I smiled at the boy, trying to put him at ease. Then I committed the blunder that people frequently make when they meet someone who’s different. “Just how tall are you?” I asked.
“I’m two-metres-tall and growing,” he answered with an impish grin. “By the way,” he added, “have you ever heard anyone ask, “Just how fat are you?” A good question—and I liked him for asking it. John Van Berkel was different
I didn’t know at the time that John had many painful nick-names like “Frankenstein.” Nor did I discover, until later, that he had Marfan’s syndrome. That year-1983 — researchers were still struggling to identify the causes of this genetic disease that afflicts one in 10,000 people. Marian’s weakens and loosens connective tissue, producing the classic symptoms of extreme tallness, nearsightedness, abnormally long fingers and an enlarged aorta.
“Accept Me.” Our first-year basketball coach noticed John’s height and hoped he had potential. With his physical problems, however, it quickly became clear that John would not be a star. Nevertheless, he practiced hard, and his never-say-die attitude won the hearts of his teammates.
During one game, posted near the basket, John missed three shots in a row, but he wouldn’t give up. Recovering the ball a fourth time, he lifted it high over his opponents’ heads and simply dropped it in. It was John’s one and only score for the season, and his teammates went wild. John and his second-year coach were both realists, however and faced up to the fact that-basketball wasn’t for him. That’s when we met again. I was the drama teacher, and one day John showed up at my door. John’s intelligence and love of learning were quickly apparent. Seldom without a book, he would retreat to quiet corners to read. With severe visual disability from Marfan’s, he had to hold a book close to his face, but he still finished at least one a day. John soon became a fixture in the drama department moving scenery, working backstage with lights and sound equipment — and making us laugh. One day when I asked •him what roles he’d like to try, he joked, “I could probably play a tree.” From then on, he was known in the drama department as “Tree.” Gradually we all got to know the real person inside that big body. Let me live my life as fully as I can, that inner person seemed to say, and accept me as I am.