Life after high school: living with Down syndrome

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Alumnus, Luke Zimmerman, poses with high school memory board.

Stella Kretschmann, cub writer

Luke Zimmerman, a Secret Life of the American Teenager celebrity and alumnus awarded for being, “an outstanding person with Down syndrome and [for] representing people with down syndrome as being capable of doing many things,” graduated Beverly in 1997.

“[Luke’s] brothers all went to Beverly. He has an older brother who graduated in ‘93, so Luke started Beverly after Drew graduated, and then he has a younger brother who was there for two years, with Luke. I wanted him to have the same experiences as his brothers had, in the town, the community where he lived. And have friends that were in the community. In eighth grade, we were poking around for a program for him and my kids were lucky enough to have Joe Hooker as their counselor, who’s since retired, but he’s a wonderful man and [a] great counselor. And so I was talking to Joe one day and I said, ‘you know, we’re looking at all these programs for Luke,’ and he said ‘well, why doesn’t he come here’ and I said, ‘that’s a great idea!’ And so, Mr. Hooker really implemented it,” Luke’s mother Susan Zimmerman recalled.

Having many interests, Luke spent his high school career in an eclectic manner. He not only studied the regular curriculum, but he also tested band, chorus, theater, art, cooking and much more.

Luke was on the swim team, he favored the Butterfly Stroke, claiming that “it’s hard but you have to learn how to kick like a dolphin first and then swim like a butterfly.” Nonetheless, Luke confessed that his preferred school activity was football. “I liked football the best. Being on the team with the guys and…We almost won a championship, but we lost.”

Susan explained that “going to Beverly High is a pretty overwhelming experience for any student and then when you go in there and you have some challenges. I mean, he had friends from Horace Mann that looked out for him and then once he was on the team, nobody was going to mess with him. The whole football team had his back.”

Being made honorary captain of the team had Luke feeling “awesome and great.”

“It was hard for me at first, but I [liked] it. Every time when we were losing, [football coach] Carter [Paysinger] made me, you know, do a little [pep] talk,” Luke remembered. Luke would “make them do it right.”

Of this achievement, Susan recollected, “I was very proud of him, and very proud of the team, and very proud of Coach Carter. You know, the program comes up to the level of the person who’s leading it and he was a great leader of the team. And so the boys [on the] team would follow in Carter’s example and he set a wonderful example of kindness and inclusion and looking out for everybody. Looking out for your teammates, right Luke?”

“Yeah, very kind,” Luke assured.

Susan asked Luke, “Can you imagine if you had not gone to Beverly?” To which he replied, “Well, that’s a tough question.”
The two conversed about how the teachers Luke met at Beverly were “very nice” and really “helped [him] along,”
referring specifically to Coach Carter and his brother Vonzie.

“So if you hadn’t gone to Beverly High, you wouldn’t have met them,” she concluded with agreements from Luke. “So your life would’ve been very different if you hadn’t met them, right?” she questioned. Luke replied, “yeah, [Vonzie] helped me.”

“Vonzie was a great help,” Susan agreed.

“Great man,” Luke asserted.

Initially speaking to Luke, Susan said, “when you first came to the high school, Vonzie would make sure…”

She shifted her attention,  “Vonzie would look out for Luke, even before [Luke] was on the football team, he would make sure Luke got from like the gym to his classroom,” Susan declared.

“Everything like that,” Luke said, agreeing.

Susan continued, “If Luke had a problem, if he wasn’t feeling well, Vonzie always made sure to talk to us… He was just a very kind, supportive man. A very special person to know,” back to Luke, “Huh, don’t you think Vonzie was? We’re always so happy when we see Vonzie.”

Current physical education teacher, Vonzie Paysinger, believes that Luke had the bigger impact.

“I’m not sure if I really helped Luke. I think Luke helped the athletes as much as the athletes helped Luke. By having Luke [being a] part of the athletic program, the athletes became more aware of people with special needs. I think our students became more receptive and it brought the school community closer. The Special Education Department was no longer off on a island by itself. We became a school where students were not looking at kids as ‘special education kids’,” Paysinger said. “At the end of every game when we were leading, we would put Luke in the backfield for one or two plays as the clock was winding down. I think the kids played harder during the game because they wanted Luke to get on the field and be apart of the game.”

Since graduating from high school, Luke has been doing varying jobs including working at the courthouse three days a week, sorting papers and lids, and filing things.

“[Everybody] there loves me, they do, they’re really nice people. Because you know, [they’ve been working] there many more years than I do and I come in there and I say, ‘Hey, what’s going on [and] how you doing,’ you know, that. I cheer them up very well when I’m there,” Luke said.

The Zimmermans feel as though the attention Luke was granted at Beverly and the confidence he gained there helped him get to where he is today.

“We are just very, very appreciative of Luke’s experience at Beverly High, the teachers and administrators he met there, the other students. Even today, Luke’s classmates, if we run into them [somewhere], they always come over and say, ‘Hi.’ Everybody remembers Luke. It’s been a very good experience for [him],” Susan said.

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