Jerry Davich: Different grads, different paths - the future is all theirs
JERRY DAVICH June 12, 2013 5:54PM
Zachary Buchwalter with his Valparaiso High School diploma. | Sun-Times Media
Updated: July 15, 2013 2:29PM
Zeda Pingel and Zachary Buchwalter have never met.
They don’t know each other. And they’re just learning about the other’s life in today’s column.
But I’m introducing them to each other, and to you, to contrast their vastly different paths as teenagers, as high school graduates, and as card-carrying members of the class of 2013.
Although one of their lives has been filled with less pomp and more circumstance, I’m offering my congratulations to them both, for different reasons.
‘She is still in there’
Zeda Pingel sat in her wheelchair in the front row with fellow graduates at River Forest High School on Saturday morning.
Escorted by her favorite nurse, Shawn Fields, Zeda waited for her name to be called to receive her “Completion of Education” degree. The 18-year-old Lake Station girl attended that school to learn certain life skills, usually three days a week for only two hours. But it’s more than I ever thought she would accomplish at school, or in life.
I first wrote about Zeda in 2009, after she suffered a series of life-threatening reactions to the popular Gardasil vaccine. The shot was intended to protect her from cervical cancer, but it left her crippled, bedridden, imprisoned in her own body and in need of round-the-clock care. In other words, she shouldn’t have received that vaccination, her mother insists.
“Before she was given the vaccine, she was a straight-A student who loved talking on the phone, playing paintball, and just being a teenager,” her mother, Amy Pingel, told me in 2009. “Now look at her.”
Zeda spent every day in a hospital bed in the family’s living room, surrounded by medical equipment, get-well cards and a crucifix on the wall. She was mostly unresponsive, and her slightest twitch or facial movement was heralded as a breakthrough.
Through the years, she has made strides toward normalcy but it’s been a daily struggle.
“Zeda still has seizures from time to time, but beyond that there have been no more real health scares,” said her aunt, Charity Savage. “She consistently answers yes or no questions by shaking her head. When she is interested, she can do things like stick out her tongue.”
Zeda is slowly improving, and she smiles and laughs often, especially when her little sisters get into trouble. When she’s mad, she lifts her leg from the chair. She even can hold a ball in her right hand. Like I said, small breakthroughs.
“Zeda gives us constant reminders that she is still in there,” Savage told me. “Her actions come from her own will and it can no longer be said that it is coincidence.”
Zeda’s mother and aunt were worried how the school was going to handle Zeda’s special needs at the graduation ceremony.
But the school’s administration went above and beyond their expectations.
“Zeda was very much a part of the commencement,” Savage said.
Zeda was a bit “grumpy” during most of the ceremony, but when it came time to hand out diplomas, each graduate took the stage in traditional manner. Then, the girl in front of Zeda cleared the stage and the entire gym fell silent for several seconds.
Every faculty member walked off the stage and lined up to hand Zeda her diploma. Zeda’s nurse pushed her wheelchair through the line to accept congratulatory handshakes.
“It was beautiful to witness,” her mother said.
Zeda’s graduation meant more to her family than just finishing high school. It closed a chapter on so many obstacles from her past — months on life-support in the hospital, daily feedings, physical therapies, and doctors’ disappointing prognoses.
“She has remained strong even when doctors chose to give up,” Savage said.
“Those two minutes at graduation dedicated only to Zeda were hard earned. She deserves every bit of recognition. The future is hers.”
A ‘perfect’ path
Zachary Buchwalter graduated from Valparaiso High School last Friday without the same poignant fanfare that Zeda received. But his achievement is still noteworthy.
Zachary graduated with perfect attendance, from kindergarten through his senior year, which I find extraordinary. I’ll bet I screwed up my chance for such perfection by first grade.
According to my math, this comes out to roughly 2,160 school days in Zachary’s educational career to date. Meaning, getting out of bed early each morning and to class for those 2,100-plus school days, regardless of weather, sickness, or laziness.
“I think it was harder on me and his mom than him,” joked his father, Brian Buchwalter, who surely had to yank Zachary out of bed at times.
The daily task was no easy matter, especially during Zachary’s teen years when he wanted to stay home simply because other students had missed days.
“But he always got up and went,” Brian told me. “Me and his mother are so proud of him.”
Not only for his perfect attendance, but also because he has maintained a 3.5 grade point average throughout high school. Plus, Zachary has run track since sixth grade and he lettered all four years in high school.
“He ran various events in his seven years, but his favorite was the 4x1 relay,” his proud pop noted.
Zachary works part-time at Culver’s restaurant in Valparaiso, where he met “the love of his life,” Anna. He will be attending Purdue North Central this fall, but is undecided with his major and ultimate degree.
“Zach is a great kid, but I’m sure that’s what all parents say,” Brian said.
Possibly, but Valparaiso Schools Assistant Superintendent Jim Doane feels the same way about Zachary.
“He’s a great kid and we’re extremely proud of Zach,” Doane told me when I contacted him to confirm Zachary’s perfect attendance.
“That record of attendance is truly remarkable, one of the most difficult feats to achieve over the course of that many years.”
I completely agree. And, just like Zeda, the future is his.
On this week’s Casual Fridays radio show, we will tell you what gifts NOT to give dear old dad for Father’s Day this Sunday, and offer cooler alternatives. Tune in this Friday at noon on WLPR, 89.1-FM, streaming at www.lakeshorepublicmedia.com.