CullmanTimes.com - Cullman, Alabama

June 18, 2013

Called 'Next Stephen Hawking,' teen is perfect on math exam

Physically challenged freshman visits classroom for first time to celebrate exam results


CNHI News Service

LEWISTON, N.Y. — There's a wall on the third floor of Lewiston-Porter High School dedicated to celebrating perfect scores on state mathematics exams.

A new name joined the growing list Tuesday, which brought a smile to the face of everyone involved. Matthew Minderler, a 15-year-old freshman at the school, scored his 100 on the Integrated Algebra exam a few days ago.

"I thought I did OK, but I was excited," Matthew said of learning his score. "I thought I got most of them right."

But Matthew's story isn't typical of teenagers his age. He'd never seen his classroom at the school before Tuesday's ceremony, never met his teacher face-to-face. He'd never had pointless conversations at lunch with his buddies.

Matthew suffers from Spinal Muscular Atrophy, a childhood form of muscular dystrophy, and has been wheelchair-bound since he was 3 years old.

"He was diagnosed at the age of one," his mother, Cathy Minderler, said. "We were told he had seven more years to live. He's doubled that."

He can barely speak and uses a ventilator system to deliver medicine allowing him to take deep breaths. His mother keeps him at home as much as possible to avoid coming into contact with germs and illness to keep him safe.

Still, while his body has betrayed him, his mind is as sharp as any other student's. Maybe even more so. And though he's hardly been in the building – he attended once early in the year to have his yearbook photograph taken with the rest of his classmates – a dedicated team of teachers helped ensure his intelligence shone through on his test.

Classroom teacher Jennifer Wanamaker, consultant teacher Vicki Way and home instructor Joyce Copeland made it their mission to provide their student with the best education experience possible. It's not an easy task to accomplish, so they reached into their bag of technology to find a way to reach Matthew in ways impossible only a few short years ago.

Skype, a mobile conferencing program which allows for video calls, brought the student stuck at home in his wheelchair into a setting he had never experienced before. Suddenly, he was part of a group. Suddenly, he was being called on to answer questions for everyone else to hear.

"To do well is difficult," Wanamaker said. "To get a 100 is outstanding. Throughout the entire year, I could hardly write a question to stump him. By the fall or early winter, we said to each other 'He's the next Stephen Hawking.'"

"This team of teachers are really amazing," high school Principal Paul Casseri said. "They've really gone the extra mile. And his mother tries to give him as close to a real experience as possible. His story is incredible in my eyes."

His education shifted with the inclusion of the Skyped lessons, his mother said. He went from a student receiving one-on-one instruction all the time, with very little interaction with people his own age, to needing to pick up on things he may not have noticed before.

The approach clicked with him and the opportunity to interact with other students helped him tremendously, she said.

"Sometimes being at home, he'd get to do one-on-one, which is great," Cathy Minderler said. "But when he did Skype into the class, it gave him a different perspective. There's some things you pick up on in that situation you wouldn't have noticed the other way.

"I've been adamant about him receiving a Regents diploma. I know he can do the work. It's just about beating the time constraints. Skyping helps. He can focus on that two times a week, where that's what he does during the day."

Three other students received perfect scores on the exam and will be honored by the school in the fall.

As for his other classes, Matthew's still in the process of taking exams in both English Language Arts and social studies, though his mother isn't anticipating anymore 100s. Next year brings his toughest challenge when regents science works its way into his home. His mother said she was concerned the coursework, complete with a number of laboratory requirements, would overload him this year, so she held off.

Outside the classroom, Matthew is a considerable speed freak. He's a sports fanatic who enjoys watching as much NASCAR racing as possible. His wheelchair comes with a specially designed computer, which he uses to tap into some of the online features NASCAR television broadcasts provide.

He's also a fan of hockey and is cheering for the Chicago Blackhawks and Buffalo-born Patrick Kane in this year's Stanley Cup Final.

The computer, which is also what he uses to Skype with his class, has given him the opportunity to be his own person more so than any other component in his life.

"It gives him an opportunity to do things for himself," Cathy Minderler said. "Using the computer, he's been able to adapt well. And he uses it for everything."

Matthew's illness has taken its toll on everyone in the Minderler family. After the diagnosis and witnessing the destruction of his child's muscles, Matthew's father left the family.

His mother remained by his side, together with Matthew's older brother, Steven, 19, who is about to begin classes at the University at Buffalo in August. She admits it's a commitment which requires numerous sacrifices some people simply aren't comfortable making. But then she looks at her son, she said, and all of the negativity disappears.

"No, I'd never take any of it back," she said. "There was a lot of fighting, but then there's Matt. I know him as a person, I experience his life with him. He's a person. And what a great person he is. I don't see him as the disease, I see him as a person.

"Some in our family don't see him as that person, they can't see him like that. But I do, and I love him."

Story provided by the Niagara Gazette.