“So, what are your plans?”
That might be the most commonly uttered sentence this time of year as over three million high school students are set to graduate across the country. It is often answered with a shrug, the name of a general field of study, or a career path so specific the questioner wonders how the student even knows it exists. Of course it is all accepted as either the overflow of youthful exuberance or naïveté, but it does make an encounter with a young person of conviction quite refreshing.
Cooper Timm sits at the table and props his arm on the chair next to him. He is sporting a T-shirt, shorts, bare feet and an easy smile. It’s hard to be more relaxed than a 17-year-old on a Saturday morning. He is in his parents’ dining room, surrounded by keepsakes and other mementos. It’s a room of nostalgia, the kind of room built to remind you of the past but also project a vision for the future. After all, the things we hold onto from our past are what we try to create again.
He is nearing the end of his senior year of high school and says he wants to be a doctor, “I think that being a doctor is kind of the top thing in life where you can help the most people.” It first occurred to him about a year and a half ago, but only after a “scary, old German lady” at the High Plains Science Fair laughed out loud at his desire to earn a master’s degree in music. Seeing her reaction, a potentially damaging one for a four-time all-state choir participant who has spent countless hours practicing for and dreaming of a career in music, he decided to reevaluate his life goals. He sought the advice of his high school science teacher/football coach, who instructed him to think of a passion. The one true passion he identified was helping people, something that has motivated him from an early age.
He credits this early sensibility, at least in part, to his childhood in Huron, where he lived before moving to Hill City in high school. Living there he met people from diverse cultural backgrounds: African-American, Mexican and refugees from Burma. Some of the diversity is leftover from Huron College, closed for over a decade now. Lutheran Social Services has also contributed over the years, placing scores of refugees in the city. For Cooper, the experience taught him what seemingly dissimilar individuals can have in common.
It’s a powerful lesson for a child to learn, one that can make him conscious of everyone around him. So now what Cooper ultimately wants is for everyone to be comfortable in his/her skin. And he exudes this feeling whenever he can. He dresses for comfort, performs at open mic night, and wears shirts featuring space-travelling cats.
Cooper’s mom, Melanie, pulls her feet up on to her chair and leans back against Cooper’s dad. She smiles as she remembers young Cooper. In fourth grade he came home upset because there was a boy at school with chapped lips and Cooper just had to get him some lip balm. Another kid needed shoes, and Cooper thought he could afford to give up a pair of his own. She often found herself packing extra food in his lunch because he wanted to ensure full meals for a couple other students. He always showed a soft spot for kids who looked different, never more so than sixth grade when he met Juan.
To say Juan only had one leg would be an overstatement. It was closer to one-half. Melanie remembers the first time Juan came to the house. “When you come to someone’s house you take your shoes off. Well, Juan would take his legs off.” Juan would then traverse the house on his hands and amaze Cooper with his speed. But it was Juan’s breakdancing that impressed Cooper the most and eventually impressed the rest of the school, too.
Cooper’s house was the first one Juan was ever invited to. It was the first place outside of his own home he felt comfortable enough to just be himself. Cooper knew that about Juan and took it upon himself to correct at the upcoming sixth grade dance. He told all the kids that they had to see Juan dance. They formed a circle and gave Juan room to do his thing. He ditched his legs, waited for the beat, and seized the moment. After that the kids all saw Juan the same way Cooper did, as just another kid with talents and struggles just like everyone else.
Cooper’s storytelling matches his demeanor, informal language mixed with different voices for each character and accompanying actions, though he does break from this pattern one time. He sits up a little straighter, leans forward, and allows his voice to drop to its natural baritone. He tells of a recent verbal altercation in which he publicly reprimanded a friend for his use of the “r” word to describe a student with a disability, not a surprising reaction from someone whose parents’ previously worked in service to the handicapped. The friendship didn’t seem to suffer and Cooper has no qualms about it. Some may see it as a character flaw to be so outspoken, but Cooper doesn’t mind that. Why bother holding values without expressing them? This self-assurance is something he plans to take with him.
His next step will be as an undergraduate at South Dakota School of Mines and Technology. Cooper, a member of the National Honor Society known for his impressive academic standing, knows it will be a difficult challenge but feels confident in his abilities. Once he becomes a doctor he would like to practice medicine in a metropolitan area, perhaps in Colorado. He likes the idea of helping people of all backgrounds, ailments and abilities. Ideally, he would like to work in an Emergency Room because he relishes a good adrenaline rush. And as of now, his commitment to this dream is only growing stronger.
What started as an invitation to reevaluate disguised as a mocking German lady has grown into a passion, one that intensifies each day as graduation approaches. “I will do anything it takes to get into med school,” he remarks. Because in the end it all matters to Cooper. It matters that people are accepted. It matters that people are well. “I think everyone is here to help everyone. The best way I feel like I can do that is to be a doctor.” So he moves on, informed by memories of addressing wrongs and changing perceptions, hoping to do so again.