RIVERTON — I could begin this story coyly by telling you that Jag Martin, a 12-year-old at Rosamond Elementary, can read, write, shoot hoops, play a little soccer, talk his way into a seat by himself next to the wall, and annoy his sisters like any self-respecting brother; he's just like other kids in almost every way, except he's pretty much a straight A student and he has stumps where you have arms and legs.
Or I could just as easily begin this story by telling you how he came to this country; I could tell you about SaraJo Martin, who was a 39-year-old Riverton schoolteacher at the time and had never married when she adopted 1-2-3-4 children over an 8-year period from an orphanage in India — and then at age 50 she met Jim Miller, a highway patrolman and saint who bravely married all five of them.
But we're getting ahead of ourselves.
Let's begin with Jag and weave our way back to the beginning. Jag attends a mainstream school, where barely anyone notices his disabilities anymore; he's just another kid, which is exactly as he would have it. He rides his electric-powered wheelchair to school and parks it the rest of the day, preferring to move around on his feet or all fours the rest of the day, depending on how big of a hurry he is in. He's a good student. His teacher already has referred him for algebra next year in the seventh grade — most kids don't take algebra until the eighth or ninth grade.
"I get A's except in typing and handwriting," he says with a grin ... "Typing is an F. I'm only typing 20 words a minute!"
My thought: How does he type that fast? After all, he has no hands. He types with a single digit — the only one he has. His left arm consists only of a shortened upper arm bone that ends with an elbow joint and a "nubbin" (a fleshy growth that appears to be a fat thumb). He has an upper and lower arm on the right side, albeit shortened and fused, and it ends with a thumb (his sole instrument for typing). Ever resourceful, he has discovered a way to write by anchoring a pencil on his left arm, against his nubbin and holding it in place with the thumb on his right arm. This two-handed writing style produces passable and stylish work.
"He doesn't let anything stop him," says Rosamond principal Shelly Nordick. "If there's something he can't do, he figures a way to do it."
Take recess, for instance. His legs are short and stubby — he stands less than three feet tall — and each foot has only three toes. But he manages to play most of the sports on the playground. In kickball, he strikes the ball with his arm or a teammate kicks for him, and then he gallops around the bases on all fours (which is one reason his left elbow is calloused and thick).
"The students don't see him as different," says Nordick. "Sometimes if the teacher helps him, the other students say, 'Why are you helping him?' He's just a natural part of the classroom."
Well, almost. "I like school," Jag says, "but I talk too much so some of my work doesn't get done, and now the teacher has me sitting against the wall so I can't talk to others."
Jag is a gabber, but then he's got a lot of energy to release since he's not as mobile as most his age (he rocks and fidgets constantly while seated for an interview in his living room). His sisters won't let him sit on the couch with them when they watch TV because he talks so incessantly that they can't hear the show.
"I've heard him talking to himself," says SaraJo.
Jag wears an impish grin almost constantly. He is bright, humorous and curious. His teachers says he has a way of making people feel comfortable, and it's true. His disabilities are no white elephant in the middle of the room; he throws the subject out there and puts visitors at ease.
"He's pretty good at laughing at himself," says Nordick.
Teachers consider him a leader. Recently, when it was apparent that a classmate was disappointed after making an oral report for the class, there was silence until Jag yelled out, "Best one ever!" The other kids then joined in with their praise.
Jag and his siblings come from the same International Mission of Hope orphanage in India. He was named Jagannath after Lord Jagganath, a Hindu god with no arms or legs. At the orphanage he was a spoiled and pampered favorite and was referred to as "Emperor of the Orphanage" by the workers there because he usually got his way with both adults and other children. He would often sit on the lap of the head nurse as she worked at her desk and dip his thumb in her tea and suck on it.
Enter SaraJo. She had already adopted two children — both girls: Sarisha, 16; Kirsi, 14 — when she attended a camp for adoptive parents and their children in Colorado. During the camp, the parents were shown a video from the IMH orphanage that showed, among others, Jag. She was immediately drawn to him.
"There was a rule that if you were single you couldn't adopt more than two kids, and I had already done that," she says. "But I asked about it, and they thought they might work with me on that."
She began making inquiries in Utah to determine the availability of medical assistance for Jag and ran into myriad roadblocks. She wound up adopting another boy instead, Taj, but after that adoption was complete she saw another video in which Jag appeared again.
"When I saw it, I burst into tears," she recalls. "I felt like I had left my child there. I called my sister who's an attorney to ask her what to do, and she said, 'Stop watching the video.'"
After solving the medical and insurance roadblocks, she inquired again about adopting Jag.
"I went for a fourth (adoptive) child," she says. "They were afraid Jag wouldn't get a family because of his disability, so they let me have him."
When Jag arrived in Salt Lake City in 2001, he was 31/2 years old and spoke only one word of English ("potty"). Three months later he was conversant in English and had an advanced vocabulary. For the first five years of his life he walked on all fours.
In some ways, his view of the world came crashing down at the age of 4. He was riding in the car with his mother at the time and was chatting about monkeys. He asked his mother why they could jump in trees.
"Because their bodies are made that way," she explained.
"Oh, so when I get older I'll be able to jump in trees, too?"
SaraJo thought about this response for a moment and realized what he might be thinking. "Do you think," she began carefully, "that you're going to grow arms and legs when you get older?"
"Yeah," he replied.
For a moment, SaraJo didn't know how to respond. Finally, she gave him the news as gently as she could: "That's not going to happen. This is you. You're going to have these arms when you grow up."
Jag burst into tears.
"He hadn't realized that," says SaraJo, looking back. "I guess he saw the other children and thought he would eventually grow arms and legs. He thought someday he would be like everyone else. He was inconsolable. I had to sit with him for a while. He wouldn't stop crying. He cried himself to sleep. I tried to talk to him about it later, but I guess he worked things out. He didn't want to talk about it. He never mentioned it after that."
On another occasion years later, when Jag once referred to a situation as unfair, SaraJo replied, "Things are not always fair. You should understand that more than anyone.' He said, 'Why?' I said, 'Well, you know.' He said, 'What do you mean?' This kept on for a while and finally I said, "Cause it wasn't fair when you were born.' He says, 'Why? How?' I said, 'Do you think it was fair you were born without hands?' His answer was, 'Well, I can do everything.'"
Sometimes Jag simply wonders what all the fuss is about, disabilities or not. "This is just like interviewing a normal kid," he tells me at one point during our meeting. I couldn't argue that because in most ways that is true. He throws the occasional tantrum and grates on his sisters' nerves like any little brother. Ask his mother if his sisters are patient with him, and she says, "No, they're siblings. They get very annoyed. When he talks he talks loudly and he doesn't stop. His sisters will say, 'Can't you make him stop?!' He talks while the TV is on. He keeps asking questions and we tell him just to watch."
Like other boys, Jag plays video games, chess and cards. He plays with the neighbor boys — ball games, tag, hide and seek (he once hid under a parked car), and they make slight allowances for his abilities when necessary.
"When people get to know him they forget that he might have limitations," says SaraJo. "He'll say to his friends, 'Hey, can you hand me that?' And they'll say, 'You can get it.' And he'll say, 'I can't reach it.' Then they remember — 'Oh, yeah, we forgot.'"
He wouldn't have it any other way.
Doug Robinson's column runs Tuesdays. Please send e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org.