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WINDSOR

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?

"And I've never taken a class from him," Brandt said.

Yet the kid said Whitney was his inspiration. How does that happen? It can't be that Xerxes taught Brandt the topspin lob. It was Xerxes living, not hiding, not whining. Never a curse word. Always "Do this, do that." It's easy to say that, if someone has their brain and body all moving in the same direction and in unison. But to hear it from someone with cerebral palsy . . .

"You're kind of in a state of shock," Brandt said, "when you realize how little you have gone through in life and yet here he is, the way he is, after so much he's gone through, to see what he's done."

Going through stuff like this: Whitney is out to dinner with someone and the waitperson hears Whitney speak. So the waitperson asks Whitney's companion what Whitney would like to eat.

Or waitperson arrives with the dinner check and gives the check to Whitney's dining partner.

His free-form poetry discusses the humiliation.

"What does being referred to as a retard

Do to my psyche

It definitely affects me

What does it do to me

When people hear me

And think I am stupid."

His poems are raw, honest, unflinching.

"Because he is so willing to put himself out there," said Gene Sandwina, Windsor High athletic director, "he has inspired kids to do that for themselves."

Oh, and there might be an adult or two, Sandwina offered, who would respond the same way.

Sure, running hurts, but Xerxes' best marathon time is 4:11. The taunting, the cruelty, that's not any fun either, and he is human and he has his fantasies about what he would like to do.

"I want to tear them a new one," he said

But Whitney pauses, he always pauses, and finds the rose, not the thorn. What's the good otherwise, for Whitney has felt plenty of thorns. So how's this for a rose: Barker at his retirement party said Xerxes was his hero. Or this: In 1993, he gave the commencement speech to his graduating class at UC Santa Cruz and brought down the house.

"You should have seen my leg during the speech," Whitney said. "It was doing this."

Whitney leans on an imaginary podium and his right leg is violently thrusting to and fro, like it's been hit by lightning. Whitney is laughing greatly at this. He is much amused by himself.

"When I order a bottle of wine at dinner," he said, "I have to let someone else taste it for the waiter, otherwise it's like this."

His hand is moving like he's trying to catch a butterfly, darting here and there.

And did you know, he says almost in the same breath, that it takes 4,000 neurons to pick up a glass of water but only 500 neurons to run?

"That's why I run," he said. "I love the true essence of moving, for the joy of it. It rewards dedication, hard work, persistence. I love exercise."

He played tennis all four years at Tomales High School before graduating in 1989. He played for a year at UC Santa Cruz. He plays now, well enough he said, "that I can beat everyone on our (high school) team except the top three players."

He bicycles two to three times a week from his home in Healdsburg. He ran 600 miles one month on a bet with another Windsor Middle School teacher. Once an assistant tennis coach at UC Santa Cruz, his experience shows with his Windsor kids. He started the boys' and girls' tennis programs at Windsor High School.

"I want to climb Mount Whitney," he said and there's a book of poems on that, "Whitney On Whitney."

"I want to travel to every continent. I might go into politics. I want to read more poetry."

Yes, he admits, sometimes after a poetry reading, he'll think to himself, 'Did I really do that?' " But he's Action Jackson. Cerebral palsy is INSIDE his white lines, and one can almost see him almost spit at it, as if to say, "I'll be damned if you'll defeat me."

"Before it's over," Whitney said, "I want to suck the marrow out of my life. I don't want any more sap left in my tree. I want. . ."

Whitney stopped and started laughing hard again. He was mixing metaphors faster than a cement truck does concrete.

"Geez, I keep scaring them (women) off," Whitney said. "I don't know why that is."

Xerxes Whitney giggles like a teenager. He is giving himself a buzz. He is on the move again, this time with his mind, and is as able-minded as anyone with two college degrees. But his demeanor suddenly changes. He doesn't smile. He is as serious as, um, cerebral palsy.

"But what difference does it make how many marathons I run?" he said. "You know what's really important?"

A man who has been kept at arm's length by strangers all his life is asking the question.

"When someone says they are happy to see me. When someone says they are glad I am their friend. When someone says they are glad to have me around. That they have a joy in their eyes as a result of my presence. Now that's the best."

As he said that, I didn't notice the foamy lips or the slow speech. I saw the content of his character, not the quality of his anatomy. I don't know if this is how it always happens after a first meeting with Xerxes Whitney. I suspect it does. And now I understood what Justin Brandt was saying. You don't have to take a class from Xerxes Whitney to learn something.

The one who at a glance dismisses a guy because he slurs his words, he's the guy with a disability.

You can reach Staff Columnist Bob Padecky at 521-5490 or at bob.padecky@pressdemocrat.com.

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