Best friends in school have best times together

Concord High School seniors Chris Clark and Jamie Cooper sat quietly near the back of the classroom recently as they listened to their career management teacher discuss diversity in the workplace.

Teacher Brian Floyd listed different forms of diversity, including language, race, religion - and disabilities.

"Or abilities," said Floyd, smiling as he glanced at Chris and Jamie.

As the only two students in wheelchairs at Concord High, Chris and Jamie have bonded. They're practically attached at the hip, said teachers and family.

The pair met in middle school, and they've been best friends ever since.

Chris, 17, has muscular dystrophy, a degenerative disease that weakens muscles, and Jamie, 18, has cerebral palsy, which impairs his speech and causes his muscles to stiffen.

But it's not just their disabilities that brought them together. They both enjoy video games, rock music and wrestling. They're in the same classes, and they ride the same school bus.

Jamie uses a DynaVox, a communication device that allows him to type words using a touch screen. Another touch of the screen makes the device recite what he has typed.

But Jamie doesn't use the DynaVox often when he's with Chris. They've been friends long enough that Chris understands what he's trying to say.

The two have a lot in common, but their personalities differ. In class, Chris is quiet.

"I'm the shy one," he said. "I don't talk much."

Jamie laughs aloud and shouts out answers to questions. He was recently named Concord High's homecoming king.

He jokes back and forth with Floyd, and rolls his eyes when Floyd calls him a "ladies' man."

In June, Floyd got Chris and Jamie tickets to a World Wrestling Entertainment event at Time Warner Cable Arena in Charlotte. They even got to go backstage to meet some of the wrestlers, including Jamie's favorite wrestler, John Cena.

Now arm wrestling contests between Jamie and Floyd, a Concord High football coach, are an almost daily event at the end of class.

"We'll call it a draw," said Floyd in the middle of a recent contest. "How about that?"

Jamie shook his head and continued to struggle against Floyd when another student came up to ask a question. Floyd dropped his hand, and Jamie laughed as he pumped his arms in victory.

"No fair," said Floyd. "She distracted me!"

Chris is more reserved, quietly observing class from beneath his shaggy black hair.

"Chris, what are the three learning styles?" asked Floyd during class recently.

"Visual, audio, hands-on," Chris easily answered.

Chris and Jamie each have a personal assistant who goes with them from class to class.

During a recent quiz, Chris' assistant, Pat Cramer, held up the quiz for Chris to read. He quickly jotted down the answer to each question.

Jamie's assistant, Chris Wilson, held the quiz for Jamie to read and waited for him to tap on his desk to signal his answer: one tap for A, two taps for B and so on.

Jamie said his classmates don't tease him and Chris about their disabilities.

"If they did, I would give them some kung fu," he typed on his DynaVox.

He grinned as he admitted he was kidding.

"It might be a good thing he's in a wheelchair," said his mom, MaryAlice Love, as she laughed.

Chris said many of his classmates at Concord High have been going to school together for years. They know Chris and Jamie, and they're accustomed to seeing them in wheelchairs.

It's when he's not at school that he's bothered by people's comments or stares, said Chris.

He notices people's stares when he's at the mall or when he goes out to eat with his family. His limited muscle function prevents him from eating on his own.

He gets irritated, but he keeps it to himself.

"He isn't a typical teenager," said his mom, Angie Clark, explaining that he's not one for back-talking or complaining. "Most of the time I have to speak up for him."

Chris' disease weakens his immune system, and he's prone to illness. Sometimes he's forced to miss several days of school at a time.

Jamie said school isn't as much fun when Chris isn't around. High school without Chris would be like elementary school all over again, he explained.

"I didn't have a friend to goof off with," said Jamie.

Every now and then, Chris and Jamie take off in their wheelchairs, racing down one of the school's hallways. Their motorized wheelchairs can go up to 9 mph, Chris explained with a grin.

"Sometimes Chris runs me into the walls," said Jamie.

Both Chris and Jamie will graduate in May. Jamie said he'd like to go to college, perhaps at Rowan-Cabarrus Community College.

Chris said he'd like to become a music producer or a chef.

A recent class assignment had students write about their heroes.

Chris wrote about Carolina Panthers player Steve Smith, and Jamie wrote about wrestler John Cena.

Jamie explained that he and Cena both work hard, and he described meeting the wrestler.

"He saw me for who I was, not for just a boy in a wheelchair," wrote Jamie. "He taught me no matter what life hands you, NEVER GIVE UP, always pursue your dream, no obstacle is too tough to accomplish."