Zachary Serra was the first to get a certificate in Monday's graduation ceremony at Bluffton High School.
To see him smiling in that sea of 287 green caps and gowns brought a great sense of accomplishment to Zach's mother and her parents. And it left one of his earliest teachers with a clearer perspective on life.
Zach's certificate signifies the end of a public school education that began when he was 3 years old. But he never had a chance to finish first in his class because he has a rare form of epilepsy called Lennox-Gastaut Syndrome.
He came into the world on Mother's Day 21 years ago, weighing 9 pounds, 12 ounces and measuring 23 inches long.
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"We were expecting him to come out walking, you know," says his mother, Gay Propst of Buckingham Landing near Bluffton.
Instead, he was like a dishrag without the power even to suck a bottle.
After a time, he was diagnosed with the rare syndrome characterized by frequent seizures, multiple seizure types and cognitive dysfunction.
Zach can walk and, even though he cannot talk and has the cognition of an 18-month-old, he's friendly and social. He has big brown eyes and "what he can tell you by looking at you is amazing," his mother says.
At a party for friends and family to celebrate his 21st birthday and graduation, Gay Propst said, "God has used my precious son, who has never spoken a word, to teach me (and many others) about what is really important in this life -- how to love unconditionally, how unfair it is to judge others and how to smile."
A SPECIAL TEACHER
Lindy Aragon is a big part of the village it took to raise Zach.
"I first met Zach as a 3-year-old in an early-intervention program at Hilton Head Elementary School, where I was a special education teacher," she wrote in an essay about what Zach's graduation meant to her.
When special education students who lived in Bluffton were moved to Michael C. Riley Elementary School, Aragon moved with them.
"That year, Zach was a member of my class. It was a magical year of my students being fully included socially in school," Aragon said. "Zach had many friends. The third-grade children would vie daily for a place to sit at our table in the cafeteria, for an opportunity to assist in feeding Zach his lunch, or for the chance to help him on the playground.
"Zach will never know the impact he had on his peers. I later interviewed many of these children as part of a research project I was doing. It was quite evident from their responses that 10-year-old Zach had been one of their greatest teachers that year."
For the past eight years at H.E. McCracken Middle School and Bluffton High, Zach has been blessed with the one-on-one attention of Beaufort County School District para-professional Betsy Dowling of Sun City Hilton Head.
"Ms. Betsy was Zach's lifeline," his mother said. "If there was anything that he could participate in, she had him there."
Quality of life has always been the top goal for Zach, Propst said. Support has come from teachers, students, the school district, family and their church, First Baptist of Bluffton.
Propst has been a single mother since Zach was 2. The rock beneath them has been her parents, Phil and Ethel Propst of Hilton Head.
Phil Propst was the first civil service mail carrier on Hilton Head in 1965, when all of the island and Buckingham had 465 mailboxes. Ethel's roots in the community run even deeper. She's a daughter of Mose Hudson, a woods rider for Honey Horn Plantation when most of the island was a hunting preserve. He ran the state ferry from Buckingham Landing to Hilton Head, and when the swing bridge was built in 1956, he was the first bridge tender. Gay and Zach live on her granddaddy's old pasture, near the banks of Mackays Creek.
As Gay has worked full-time as office manager for Hilton Head Hospital Physical Rehabilitation Services , Phil and Ethel Propst have kept Zach every afternoon and taken him to countless appointments. It's part of the old Beaufort County pluck that tackles hardships with no self-pity.
"They have walked every step with us ... never growing weary and never saying it cannot be done," Gay Propst said.
Now comes a new chapter in their lives.
The Beaufort County Department of Disabilities and Special Needs has a nice new facility near Beaufort, but Gay is uncomfortable putting her son on a bus to go there.
She will cut her work hours back to 32 per week. Professionals have been hired to watch Zach and keep him active in local programs available to him.
"God hasn't left us in 21 years, and he's not going to leave us now," Gay said. "We're excited about his future."
Lindy Aragon -- Zach's teacher when he was 10 and his friend when he's 21 -- was left saying, "It's easy to get selfishly caught up in our own struggles in life."
Zach's graduation helped her put it in perspective.
"I will be inspired, forever," Aragon said, "by the model of support and faith set by his courageous family, who insist that it is God who actually carries not only Zachary, but them, when they cannot walk themselves."