Student with Cerebral Palsy to Graduate

Sumner Spence has cerebral palsy, but this evening he is set to get his degree and will address fellow graduates at the University of Delaware in Rehoboth Beach, Delaware.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Hey, if you're graduating from college this season or know somebody who is, here's a story for you. In fact, if you're not graduating from college this season, it's still a story for you.

A few years back, commentator Liam Callanan visited a college class in Georgetown, Delaware and he met two people there who he can't forget.

LIAM CALLANAN: I noticed them immediately, the son and his mother. The son was the student but his mother attended all his classes too - taking notes, downloading them to a computer each night. That's because her son, Sumner, had cerebral palsy. He could speak fairly clearly but sometimes his eyes wouldn't focus and his hands would clench, which made reading and writing almost impossible for him. That's where the computer came in. Each night its robotic voice would read aloud the notes his mother had careful taken each day.

Today's assignment had been to read my first novel. I was a guest lecturer. And the class was hosting a lunch beforehand. As we talked, I learned my visit had caused a problem. Sumner's mom didn't know there was an electronic version of my novel. She had retyped the entire book so the computer could read it aloud to Sumner before class, maybe 40 hours of typing so we could do what we were doing now - talking, eating, sipping soda.

Throughout, Sumner offered up sharp observations, asked smart questions. At one point his cup cracked in his hand and his mom got him a new drink. When we later headed off to class, she quietly explained that his grip could get uncontrollably strong.

Not long after I got home the phone rang. The professor told me she'd just hung up with Sumner's mom, who had been crying. Because she was so happy, the professor told me. That lunch today, that was the first time Sumner - in his entire 20 years of life - had ever eaten in front of people who weren't his family. She said Sumner had always been too embarrassed, unable to trust his hands, his mouth, worried that he would repulse people who didn't know him. But he loved reading and he wanted to talk about books over a meal. It was a small wish and a huge risk, but no smaller than the risk Sumner's mom took, encouraging him to enroll in college, fighting for him, all those years at his side in class.

Tonight though, she's taking a chair farther back as Sumner does something on his own. He'll go to the front of the room and say a few words to his classmates on the occasion of his graduation from college.

INSKEEP: Sumner Spence will address fellow graduates from the University of Delaware this evening in Rehoboth Beach, Delaware. Commentator Liam Callanan directs the creative writing program at the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee. And his latest novel is called "All Saints."

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