Yep, Xerxes Whitney is an eyeful. Foam frequently exists around and on his lips. His words always are slow and slurred; a listener must be patient. He walks with a hitch in his gait. His feet sometimes drag, reluctantly following the rest of him. His hands shake. His body kind of fumbles along, his internal gyroscope off true center. He knows he's not George Clooney.
"People think I am either drunk or retarded when they see me for the first time," said Whitney, who coaches boys' and girls' tennis at Windsor High School.
Reactions are predictable to someone with cerebral palsy. Eyes are lowered. Walking pace increases. Some smirk, point or stare. The uncommon so often is uncomfortable.
Sometimes people don't get close enough to know his first name, pronounced "zurk-sees," and that his counterculture dad out in Inverness named him after a Persian king. If they did, they would find that's just the tip of this iceberg, for there is much below the surface.
They have just scurried past a tennis coach, a middle school teacher, a three-time marathoner, a college graduate with a bachelor's in economics from UC Santa Cruz and a master's in applied sports science from Indiana University. They would say, "Yeah, right" if they were told Xerxes gives public readings from his two books of poetry. They would ask you what you're smoking if you told them Xerxes ran a marathon to raise $10,000 to build a climbing wall at Windsor Middle School.
They also might even stop for a moment and wonder what they are doing in their lives.
"He's my inspiration," said Justin Brandt, a senior on Windsor's tennis team.
Whitney, 36, could have tunneled in deep. Cerebral palsy, a neurological disorder that affects body movement and muscle coordination, is very unkind to its host. It doesn't kill. It humiliates.
"I don't want my disability to define me," Whitney said.
Loren Barker, then the principal at Windsor Middle School, and four other school board members had interviewed five candidates for physical education teacher. Whitney shuffled into the room and Barker remembered thinking to himself, "What's this?" But Whitney won them over, interviewing and conducting a teaching lesson the best of all candidates.
"I knew it was a risk to hire him," Barker said. "For the first few months on campus, the kids called him, what's the word they use, yes, a freak. He walked like a freak in their eyes. He talked like a freak to them."
One day word got back to Barker that six boys sat in the back of the room and made fun of Whitney the entire class. Furious, Barker lowered his temperature enough to offer the six boys an opportunity at redemption and understanding.
"I thought about a creative solution to the problem," he said.
Barker made them each go to lunch with Whitney. They found he wasn't to be underestimated. He wasn't dumb. After all, he didn't get those college degrees off a milk carton.
"I talk slow, but I'm definitely not slow," he said.
Within two years, Whitney had turned the situation upside down.
"The kids in his class became very protective of him," Barker said. "They wouldn't let anyone tease him."
Brandt, the tennis player, was in the seventh grade when he began hearing of Whitney. Whitney was becoming legend. A Windsor landmark. Windsor, Home of Xerxes Whitney. After all, how many schools have a man with cerebral palsy who teaches, coaches and read poetry?