Lakeridge student amazes peers by moving from wheels to his feet
There were nearly 7,000 students who began the new school year in Lake Oswego this week.
None of them made an entrance like Neil Slayter.
At the start of 2006, Neil, who suffers from cerebral palsy, was confined to bed following a difficult operation. He didn't even have the strength to use his wheelchair.
On Wednesday, the first day for local high schools, the 17-year-old junior walked down the halls of Lakeridge High School.
But first Neil gave a preview of his big entrance when he dropped by school last week to see his counselor Lee Brown.
'Mr. Brown was shocked,' Neil said with a laugh. 'He had that 'wow face' on. He was as happy about it as I was.'
Actually, there were a lot of 'wow faces' at Lakeridge High.
'When Neil walked into school everyone was amazed,' said Patricia Slayter, Neil's mother. 'He had done so well on his recovery.'
A miracle? Perhaps not. A triumph of the human spirit? Most definitely. Neil Slayter is a remarkable young man and he has had tremendous support from his family and the entire community. He is a success story deserving many powerhouse adjectives.
Actually, what Neil resembles is something he loves to build models of: a tank. He is strong, sturdy and able to withstand the blows that life has thrown at him. And there have been a lot of them.
Neil nearly died in childbirth, along with his twin brother Nick, due to a combination of being born prematurely (they were '27 weekers' and seriously underweight) and Patricia coming down with a serious strep infection.
'All three of us nearly died,' she said. 'They told me Neil wouldn't make it through the night.'
Neil made it through the night, of course. But challenges lay ahead of him. Nick overcame his birth problems and today is a strapping 6-1, 200 pounds and plays right tackle for the Lakeridge football team. Neil developed cerebral palsy and has always had trouble walking.
Twice in his life, including recent years, he has been confined to a wheelchair and has used leg braces for support otherwise.
Yet it became apparent very early that the little guy was greatly blessed in the guts department.
Patricia recalls, 'Neil was a very strong-willed child. He would see a ball across the room and he couldn't stand up or crawl to go get it. But he figured out a way to roll his body over the floor.'
Neil has received some wonderful help along the way that has sort of served as a 'Team Neil.'
Lee Brown said, 'Neil has a great family with really solid values. That really helps.' It includes dad Clark, brother Christopher, 18, now a freshman at the University of Colorado, and sister Chantelle, 16, who has her sights set on attending an Ivy League university.
There have been many teachers who have gone special lengths to help Neil over the years. Like Laurie Nguyen in the third grade, who enlarged every single paper so Neil could read it, and history teachers Chenne Fox and Tim Provost, who were always ready to shoot the breeze about World War II, Neil's favorite historical topic.
Then there are his classmates, who have continually given Neil friendship, encouragement and support. When Neil returned from his surgery last January, he found signs saying, 'Welcome Back, Neil,' and when he came by for a counseling session last week he was met by cries of, 'Neil, you're walking!'
'Everyone loves Neil so much,' a grateful Patricia said. 'Lakeridge High School is the most caring, warm school that I've ever been in.'
But the main reason for Neil's success is Neil. He has the right stuff. He has never given into his handicap and has always attended regular school rather than a special school.
'Neil has never, ever complained,' Patricia said. 'No matter how bad his headaches were, no matter how bad the pain was in his legs.
'When he came out of surgery he said, 'I'm okay, mom.' He never once cried out, complained or got angry. He's fantastic.'
'Probably the best thing about Neil is that he's always smiling, he's always upbeat,' Brown said. 'That's just fantastic to see when you know what he's gone through.'
But Neil faced one of his biggest tests when he underwent surgery last November. It was a six-hour ordeal that included removal of an inch of thigh bone, the insertion of a 6 by 8 inch metal plate with four metal bolts, cutting of his pelvis so his hip could be rotated, and a shelf wall placed on his hip socket. He was flat on his back in bed for two months and was unable to return to school in his wheelchair until Jan. 25.
Patricia admitted to fearing 'he might never walk again.'
That is when Neil's willpower kicked in. And also when Allan Coyle stepped in. An educational assistant for the Delta Program (as well as being coach of Lakeridge's varsity baseball team), Coyle accepted the task of helping Neil to walk.
'I worked closely with Neil,' Coyle said. 'He did a lot of rehab, he worked in the weight room, and I took him walking where there wasn't a lot of foot traffic.
'I basically mentored him mentally as well as physically and helped him get over the attitude of 'I can't do that.' It was a hard nut to crack, but after that he was great. It was definitely challenging early. I pushed him pretty hard. After that he pushed himself pretty hard.'
Neil remembers, 'I would go down to the track and walk with a walker, and Mr. Coyle would go very slow. By the end he was timing me for one-minute walks.'
'Neil is such a fun kid,' Coyle said. 'We had a really good time. We definitely had more than the normal student-teacher relationship.'
Once Neil started walking, he never stopped.
'Over the summer he worked hard,' Patricia said. 'Walking, riding the stationary bike, walking the stairs, walking up and down the street, out in the field. He would just walk.'
That all led up to Neil's grand entrance and all of the 'wow faces,' and now he anticipates a great junior year and a promising future. Not that there won't be more challenges.
'Neil is going to have many more surgeries until he has a full hip replacement,' Patricia said. 'His surgery didn't turn out as well as we'd hoped. His foot turns out and that will require another surgery.'
Still, Neil has made so much physical progress that he will be able to concentrate much more on academic pursuits this year and even prepare for a career.
'When he graduates he wants to be a tank designer for the military,' Patricia said. 'He's looking into colleges where he can get that kind of training.'
'Neil will have options,' Brown said. 'He is very goal-oriented. Just like any kid he needs to gain perspective and be realistic in finding out what he can do.
'Neil absolutely has a bright future.'