John Nolan's arm winds up and flashes downward like the hammer of Thor, and from the word board in his lap comes a unique philosophy -- a blend, he says, of Hume, Hegel, H.L. Mencken and W.C. Fields. But after his experience during the past 4 1/2 years as a student at the University of Maryland, he speaks of elements added from Nietzsche: strength and survival.
With his ability to transform impulse into movement hampered by cerebal palsy, Nolan can't speak clearly and must use a wheelchair to get around. To him, though, these are not handicaps as much as personal circumstances -- and everyone, he says, must contend with personal circumstances to make it through school and through life.
While more than 2,000 graduating seniors crowded into the University of Maryland's Cole Field House last week for a mid-year graduation ceremony, their classmate Nolan stayed away from what he dismissed as "such rigamarole." Instead, he spent the day packing in his Ellicott Hall dorm room, enjoying a few last laughs with the friends he has made at the school.
"I will miss the people here more than the institution," Nolan said.
There are plenty of people who said they will miss Nolan. At the huge College Park campus, a place students often complain is overflowing with people but lacking humanity, students said they found themselves drawn to Nolan for his wit and inspiration. Among the throngs of students struggling to make it, they said, there was Nolan, cruising along in his electric wheelchair, making it as well and, most importantly, making it in style.
Paul Chandler met Nolan in a philosophy class two years ago. Nolan, one of the few who actually read the texts, "never hesitated" to supply answers -- or remarks that would leave the professor red-faced and the students howling, Chandler said.
Chandler recalled a professor once demanding to know what philosopher could be quoted as saying: "I am what I am." To which Nolan spelled out on his word board: "Obviously, Popeye."
Chandler and Nolan came to be good friends.
"I feel like I learned a lot just by being around him," Chandler said. "He's always optimistic, which really suprises me. He has so much to do in a day. I've learned from him how to be patient."
Chandler, a fellow philosophy major who has several semesters left to complete, was visiting often enough that he gradually replaced the student volunteers who would come to help Nolan eat and dress. Nolan lived alone in his dorm room, but needed assistance for some functions.
He and Chandler would go to the movies, hit the bars once in a while and spend countless hours talking of mythical battles from the Illiad to Star Wars, with Chandler calling out the words Nolan expressed by pointing to letters charted on the board on his lap.
(The board displays numbers, letters and common words; Nolan points at it with his hand to communicate. He can speak slightly, but with great difficulty.)
In dormitory life, where students tend to make friends who have similar interests, jocks and intellectuals alike would immerse themselves in debate in Nolan's dorm room, his friends said.
One day, when the dormitory baseball team was down one player, the jocks asked Nolan to step in. But when they got to the field, the umpire thought it would be impractical to let him play, Nolan recalled with an impish grin. "Don't make waves -- unless you enjoy trouble," he said, describing what happened next.
The next day's campus newspaper featured a front-page story about university sports officials "barring" a "disabled" student from the game. That afternoon, the umpire changed his mind and Nolan got to play, wheeling down the baselines on drives from pinch-hitters.
"If that would have been a movie," Nolan recalled, "I would have won the game."
"Actually," Chandler nodded, "they were slaughtered."
And that, Nolan said, has been the essence of his University of Maryland experience: "Real life," he called it.
For Nolan, real life has included the condition he was born with 24 years ago.
"When I was in my mother's womb, my oxygen supply was cut off for a little while," Nolan explained. "The motor function of my brain was damaged."
That being that, he has proceeded to enjoy life's adventures. Everyone has his own problems, Nolan said, and he's no exception. If there's been anything to "overcome," he said, it's been getting people to look past the wheelchair and word board and discover who he is -- and that's not been much of a problem at all, given Nolan's style.
Wielding a sword, he has taken classes in fencing and the martial art Akaido. ("I'm a homicidal maniac," Nolan confided. "This is just a cover.") When the high-rise dorms held wild, beer-soaked beach parties out on the lawns, Nolan was there. "The girls love me," he said.
"I am an atheist by preference, but I have this contrary belief that we all have some function to serve something greater than ourselves . . . . Part of my function is to open people's minds," he said.
"I hope I don't sound like Tiny Tim, because I hate that little SOB. He hopes everyone saw him in church because that will remind them of the one who healed the lame," Nolan said. "That is being obtrusive. That is taking advantage of one's crippledness. Tiny Tim is a cripple because he thinks like one. I am a disabled person who can do a lot."
Nolan has attained a B average through his battered word board. Friends recall how he got them to slip carbon paper under their class notes to make him copies, and always did the reading. The Maryland Rehabilitation Center in Baltimore, where Nolan starts this month on a job working on computer programs, outfitted his dorm furniture with larger handles, and gave him a helmet with a steel rod that he used to type his term papers. Chandler recalled one of those papers. It was on the subject of "the Sidekick."
" Carl Jung wrote about archetypes, and John said the sidekick should be one of them," Chandler said. "The sidekick helps the hero realize things he wouldn't have realized otherwise."
Nolan began to spell out an example, "p-a-t-r . . ."
"Patroclus! Right. He was the sidekick to Achilles in the Illiad. He made Achilles realize the Trojan War was important."
"l-a-n-c-e . . ."
"Lancelot and Arthur, right."
"Dr.-w-a . . ."
"Dr. Watson and Sherlock Holmes."
"Mr.-s-p . . ."
"Mr. Spock and Captain Kirk . . .Tonto and the Lone Ranger . . .Soncho and Don Quixote," Chandler read.
Then Nolan pointed to his friend.