DOVER — “Freakin’ amazing.”
Ben Knapp added that analysis after first thanking several key contributors to his improbable 3½-year-plus journey to high school graduation.
The 20-year-old shared his thoughts through a series of hand squeezes and mouth movements a few days before Dover High’s ceremony.
Tonight, Ben will cross a stage in a wheelchair with his dad Chip and collect a diploma hard earned by any measure of effort.
After a traumatic brain injury on Oct. 21, 2011, left him blind, unable to speak and barely able to move, finding the courage and willpower to finish his high school education was just like he said — “Freakin’ amazing.”
Those final words came unsolicited as Ben answered submitted media questions through a family-created spelling system that he has mastered.
“I would not be graduating without the help of my para Karen (Lechner) who went to all my classes with me, the Dover High therapists, my Aunt ‘Lazer’ (Lisa Weis) who dedicated her Sunday afternoons to my science lessons and my parents who were always there for me,” Ben said.
And asked for advice on how to handle challenging obstacles, Ben responded with:
“Never ever give up 5 minutes before the miracle.”
Since last fall, Ben passed six courses to earn enough graduation credits, attending class in school once a week for an hour while working with his paraprofessional Karen Lechner to meet all academic requirements.
“This is one of those times where a young man has come out of a horrible situation and been so positive in his attitude about everything,” Ms. Lechner said.
“In his mind he always knew he would graduate. He wanted to attack it and worked day and night to make it happen.”
It’s time to celebrate, father Chip said, and the family will host a graduation party after tonight’s ceremony.
Ben is relieved his high school education is complete and no more requirements are needed, his dad said.
“He wants to be done with it,” Mr. Knapp. “He’s done all the schoolwork and earned all the credits awhile ago.”
For his dad, the upcoming moment is “bittersweet.”
“I wish he could walk over the stage on his own, but it feels good that he’s rewarded for all the hard work he did to earn it,” Mr. Knapp said.
“He picked me to guide his wheelchair through the ceremony and that’s an honor, but there’s also thoughts of what might have been.
“There’s just a lot of different emotions associated with this.”
Ms. Lechner — an educator since 1969 while spending time as a teacher and school principal before retiring in 2004 — said “as much as I taught him, Ben taught me.
“He taught me to never give up, you absolutely never give up. You can achieve anything you want to if you set your mind to it, no matter how difficult it may be to get there.”
Just being Ben
Godmother Lisa Weis said the original Ben still exists inside and that’s just fantastic.
“I think the thing that I find most amazing about Ben is that he has not let this injury define who he is,” she said.
“It temporarily limits what he can do physically. Every day Ben wakes up and he is the same person that he was before this happened. It has not changed who he is inside.
“Sometimes being a super hero simply means just being yourself, in spite of all the obstacles that you face.”
In addition to completing Advanced Placement level classwork, Ben traveled to Alfred I. duPont Hospital for Children in Wilmington five days a week for therapy that came in eight-hour sessions.
Within three months — in early 2012 — of starting at the hospital, he was able to open his mouth and shrug his shoulders on command, which led to family members and his favorite teacher Brad Whitenight creating a system for him to spell and respond.
When Ben correctly answered 17 of 18 questions from the back of his Advanced Placement Music Theory textbook, it was clear he had the cognitive ability to continue his education.
After meeting with Capital School District officials the summer after his injury, it was determined that Ben needed to complete two school years’ worth of classes.
The National Honor Society member, baseball pitcher and piano player began by auditing an AP physics class and taking individual music theory lessons with Mr. Whitenight.
He hasn’t slowed down since.
Six classes completed
In the 2014-15 school year, Ben completed classes in consumer math, physical science, English (two courses), sociology and psychology. Many of his tests were multiple choice and short answer, and he passed them all.
Ms. Lechner said math courses were most difficult, since Ben couldn’t see written formulas in front of him.
He committed them to memory, making the achievement that much more spectacular.
“He absorbs information when he’s listening, and is a very intense learner,” she said. “He will hold information and ask about what he’s heard.”
Capital provided therapy services to help Ben sit on his own and use a communication device, Mr. Knapp said.
Ms. Lechner said students in his Friday classes always made him part of the group and supported any of his needs to stay involved in discussions and projects.
On the educational journey, Ben requested that Ms. Lechner read the book “My Stroke of Insight” about a brain scientist suffering a traumatic brain injury to better understand his plight.
Ben had read the book roughly a week before his own injury.
Through it all, there’s always been a touch of humor involved, Ms. Lechner said.
“You have to add humor to it because he adds humor to it as he’s absorbing information,” she said.
And tonight, Ben will be recognized as a Dover High graduate.
“It’s going to be very emotional, because of being with him and understanding how hard he worked and the time he put in,” Ms. Lechner said.
In the future, Ms. Lechner said she’s “looking forward to attending a college class with him.”