Matthew Sails

by Damon Guy
High Wycombe, Buckinghamshire, England

Matthew Sails

About 10 years ago, I taught a group of children to sail. They were bright, enthusiastic, and as keen to enjoy life as any other children. All, however, had a serious disability. Three were in wheelchairs, paralyzed from the waist down. One was nearly blind and had a deformity of his right arm. Two were able to walk with difficulty, afflicted with cerebral palsy.

The seventh little boy I will call him Matthew. He too had cerebral palsy and was very badly afflicted. His hands and arms were both deformed from disease and inactivity. His back was bent. His face was distorted, and his legs did not work. Even his laughter was a tinkling cough that racked his whole body. Matthew spoke with the help of a letterboard. Slowly and with deliberate determination, his distorted hands pointed out letter by letter what he wanted to say. Sometimes he would try to talk. His voice was so distorted that even his constant caretaker could not understand much of his whispered growl. Yet he was always bright and cheerful and loved to try everything his classmates were doing, both in the boat and in the classroom.

I loved my time with them. They were always so cheerful and full of life. They learnt fast and enjoyed every minute of the classes. But despite all that, I was the one who learned the greatest lesson.

One day, the sailing center was assailed by a storm. The wind howled and the rain came down in torrents. Rather than cancel the session, we decided to work in a classroom. All the children joined in. Just like other children, they all wanted to answer the questions I asked. It was important to get them all involved. I would ask questions of the quieter children to draw them out, too.

Often they would loudly interrupt each other to try to get their answer in first. But when Matthew wanted to answer a question, all of a sudden they all quieted. Matthew whispered and gesticulated at his board. They waited. Matthew struggled with dogged persistence until the answer was spelled out. Then, if I did not understand, one of the other children would work with him until the answer was clear. When Matthew had answered his question, the children magically transformed back into a rabble of noisy and enthusiastic children.

All of these children were heroes in their own way. But the tolerance they afforded to Matthew with his severe disabilities was inspirational. At just 14 years old, these disabled children had learned to afford care, respect, and help to someone less fortunate than themselves.

If the rest of the world was able to learn the same lesson, bigotry, violence, and intolerance would be gone.

Originally published as HeroicStories #25 on June 29, 1999
Available in The Best of HeroicStories, Volume 1.

7 thoughts on “Matthew Sails”

  1. We need to keep working on it. There is a way to point people to compassion and understanding. We simply have to hunt for that way.

    Thank you for this story. I now need to go wipe away mascara streaks so I can go to the grocery store.

  2. Touched again by this story. It’s telling I remember it, even after 15 (fifteen…?!) years. I think the lump in my throat is mainly caused by our (i.e. the fortunate, healthy) attitude towards the ‘others’ (i.e. less fortunate, disabled, etc.). And then comparing that to what Matthew’s classmates, all in the later category in our view, are able to do: show respect, understand differences, know when to put yourself aside and let the other take his time. Indeed, as the author writes, the world would be a much better place if we all acted as they do.

    Thanks for sharing these stories (again).
    Eerk Hofmeester, the Netherlands

  3. I could not agree more with the last sentence, ‘ If only the rest of the world were able to learn the same lessons. ‘ This world would be a far, far better place.


    In response to the “Matthew sails” post on

    I had a similar experience when my son, Gregory entered 2nd grade many years ago. When we really were able to meet with his teacher at parent’s night early in the year. During our meeting I inquired if there was anything we could help her with in the classroom. She said it would be helpful if she could get someone to come to class once in a while to play board games with the kids.

    Since our family played lots of games at home, I asked what kind of games she had. She answered she would really like them to learn to play chess but that she did not know if that was possible. That was right up my alley so I arranged for time to come to class once a week over the next few months. I obtained enough chess sets so every child could have one to take home after the school year.

    One of the little girls in the class was severely disabled, both physically and cognitively. She was wheelchair bound and pretty much was always helped by her full time adult caretaker in the classroom.

    The teacher and the caretaker said that she would not be able to participate but that one of the other children could play for her when the time came. They thought she would have trouble understanding the moves and physically moving the pieces.

    Later that day when my son when came home I asked him about her and what he thought about her abilities. He told me that she could do quite a bit more that the adults thought she could.

    Based on Gregory’s observations, I told the teacher and caretaker that I wanted to try to have the little girl really learn to play chess, not merely have someone else play for her. They agreed to let me try but did not think it was possible. Well it was possible.

    The little girl did indeed have a lot of trouble learning the moves for the game pieces. Often the several of the pieces would get knocked over as she moved. However we kept at it. When the other kids had their turn playing with her, they would encourage her and patiently wait for her moves. When pieces would get knocked out of place they would all pitch in to help reset the positions. Part of learning to play was how to document the moves, so the kids got real good at reconstructing the board when pieces fell.

    The upside of all this was everyone had a great deal of fun and did learn to play chess. Yes, even the little disabled girl. This would not have happened if I had listened to what the adults thought that little girl was capable of.

    Ultimately it was her classmates who made this possible. The kids could empathize and observe much better than the adults as they had no preconceived notions of what a little handicapped girl in a wheelchair could do.

    The teacher, caretaker, and the little girls parents were amazed at the result. Consequently she was included in many more classroom and school activities and I am sure she is living a better life because of it.

    What is the lesson in all this? Never underestimate children and what they can do when us know-it-all adults don’t interfere!


Leave a Comment