Marshall Stewart Ball
Marshall Stewart Ball is a brilliant 22-year-old who touches people’s hearts through a veil of silence. Although he can neither speak nor walk and depends on others for physical help, he is a constant source of inspiration and guidance for people in matters of the mind and of the heart. Having tested at a 12th grade reading comprehension level at the age of 9, his capacity to think and to feel constantly amazes his teachers, friends and family. Marshall knows the meanings and spellings of words to which he has never been exposed. And, even more amazing, is the powerful impact he has on everyone he meets.
His Mother’s Story
From the moment Marshall was first placed on my chest and I could see his delicately curved lips and round baby face, I knew my life would never be the same. It would take years for me to fully appreciate the blessing that Marshall would bring to my life. He would teach me patience. His struggle would become my passion and his life would become my gift. But first he would make me strong.
As perfectly formed as our first child was, Marshall failed to thrive. He couldn’t nurse as other babies did, and that left me feeling a failure only two months into motherhood. Even fattened on formula it became clear that Marshall wasn’t developing as children usually do. He wasn’t making the sounds that infants usually make. He wouldn’t hold his head up and he couldn’t crawl. We decided to love him anyways.
Marshall’s father, Charlie, and I decided that we would not limit our son in any way. After all, no one had been able to tell us what was wrong with Marshall. What if he was listening? What about the Helen Kellers and the Stephen Hawkings of the world? Suppose no one had listened to them?
Charlie and I were crushed by the idea that Marshall would not grow up to be the ideal son we had dreamed about during pregnancy. Nevertheless, we poured ourselves into loving and nurturing this fragile, serene child. We read volumes to Marshall. We talked to him about everything. We took him to zoos, to museums and botanical gardens. We went on picnics by rivers and creeks. We backpacked with him in the mountains. We traveled from Maine to California, stopping any place that we thought would be interesting or educational. And, we were rewarded. Not by Marshall’s bubbling baby words, – he never spoke – but by the expression in his eyes and his rare, precious smile. We treasure that smile more than anything.
And then when our beautiful son was three and a half we learned that he was indeed listening. With Marshall sitting on my lap one December day, I happened to hold a new toy up to his eye level. I was showing Marshall the large yellow buttons that made animal sounds, when all of a sudden he leaned forward and pushed a button with his forehead. I was amazed. Marshall had never used his hands to play so I knew he was making a conscious movement to activate the toy. I asked him if he could the same button again. The sound of the cat’s meow was music to my ears. Brimming with happiness I asked him to push the dog button, the lion, and the goat. He did.
Life changed immensely that rewarding day. Within a matter of weeks Marshall was making choices about everything. He would tell me what color of shirt he wanted to wear or what kind of food he wanted for dinner. We would show him different colors and he would identify them. When we presented pictures of animals he would touch his forehead to the animal we asked for. In fact, we rather quickly began using picture symbols depicting nearly any kind of activity or choice of things. His ability to correctly answer questions was not so surprising – not if you considered that his intelligence was normal. But, as we were soon to learn, Marshall’s ability far exceeded that of the average child.
Marshall was already enrolled in an early childhood program in public school, but I became alarmed when I realized that his teachers might be underteaching him. After all, Marshall still sat quietly, rather uninvolved in his surroundings. He didn’t play with toys, and he didn’t appear to look toward any place in particular. It was only when his picture symbols or items were placed in front of him that he became excited, an excitement he showed by kicking his feet. I decided the last thing that teachers needed was a parent who was trying to tell them about their job, but I was passionate about Marshall’s teacher understanding him, so I began my search for a professional who could evaluate him. Fortunately I found Dr. Keith Turner at The University of Texas at Austin, who had a special interest in disabled children who were misdiagnosed because standard testing often does not work with the severely handicapped. Dr. Turner agreed to evaluate Marshall, but said he wanted the evaluation to be done in our home because that was where Marshall was most comfortable. On Dr. Turner’s first visit, Marshall was videotaped correctly identifying animals from a book. He surprised us by showing us the words lion, giraffe, and snake. Importantly, Marshall also sat in Dr. Turner’s lap and identified pictures for him. It wasn’t surprising that Marshall felt comfortable with Dr. Turner; only minutes after arriving, Dr. Turner was on the floor with Marshall talking to him as if he understood everything. In other words, treating him like a normal child.
Dr. Turner became a friend. It was so wonderful finding this kind man who appreciated Marshall as much as we did. Over the next year or so Dr. Turner spent many hours videotaping Marshall. He developed a protocol for Marshall, giving him thirty seconds to answer questions before they would be marked wrong. He taped Marshall working on games and problems with his speech therapist, Dee Dee Ramos Barrera. And eventually, with the help of Dee Dee, a standardized multiple choice test was modified to fit the now familiar two-by-two-inch block format, so that Marshall could use his head to answer the test questions. The results were amazing. Marshall basically tested out of this standardized test. He was two standard deviations above normal. A five-and-a-half-year-old who was on at least a third-grade level. By this time none of us were surprised by the incredible gift in an unexpected package.
I then began to notice that Marshall would try to tap on his display boards with his right hand. I told him that if he wanted to try using his hand to indicate choices I would try to help him. So began the process of learning how to use the homemade alphabet board. I decided that I would use his familiar two-by-two-inch letters and arrange them in the order that he had learned them. In hindsight, it might have been better to arrange them like a keyboard, but I thought it would be logical for him to find the letters as he had learned them in the alphabet.
Marshall had a significant amount of muscle weakness, so I decided to try supporting his elbow in my palm, relieving some of the work of his upper arm. In other words, I was creating a personal fulcrum from which he could pivot his elbow and move his lower arm to point to a letter. At the beginning I would just ask Marshall to try to touch a particular letter like the A or G. After a while, however, Marshall figured out that if he shifted his weight or leaned over in one direction he could help move his arm to the part of the board he wanted to reach. And quite by chance I discovered that if I gave Marshall some upward pressure from his elbow into his shoulder he would be able to push out with his arm more easily. Many years later I learned that the upward pressure I was giving Marshall is actually called proprioseptive feedback and is a frequently used treatment in therapy. Evidently the pressure in Marshall’s shoulder would trigger a signal to the brain, which would then send a signal back to the muscle allowing it to push out. Even today I’m not sure how this feedback system really works, but I do know it helped Marshall become more accurate with his pointing.
Since Marshall was, by this time, an accomplished reader, it was not surprising that he could already spell fairly well. When he didn’t know how to spell a word he would point to the first couple of letters and then he would tap the Q, which meant question. I would then figure out that he was trying to spell a new word and would encourage him to just try to spell it the best that he could. Sometimes the word was easily deduced and yet, at other times, we might sit for an hour struggling over a word like “jagged” or “juxtaposed.” Within weeks of using the new alphabet board Marshall was writing in sentences and even creating poetic lines. One of Marshall’s first poems, “Altogether Lovely,” was written within two months of learning how to use the alphabet board. Marshall still receives letters from people telling him how this poem inspires them.
Once Marshall found his voice, which came through his finely chiseled delicate fingers, our life changed radically. Never again would we wonder about his thoughts. Now we were amazed by them. The understanding that he seemed to naturally possess was inspiring, if not shocking. He became our teacher, the one we sought on nearly every issue of importance to our family, that others sought for guidance and solace. I wish I could share here just how Marshall has changed our lives, but the story is too great to be contained in these few pages. I can say that Marshall, through his simple profound words, has touched hundreds of thousands of lives around the world. After the release ofKiss of God, a book that was compiled for his father as a Christmas gift, Marshall began receiving thousands of letters and e-mails that he attempted to respond to as he could. In fact, his life became a daily ritual of listening to letters and writing the many who sought his words. When asked how he felt about all the attention he has received on national television, in magazines like Time and People, in newspaper articles and in radio interviews, Marshall succinctly wrote “Words teach.”
Marshall has asked me to help him teach, to help him give love. I am compelled to do so. You will find conversations in this book where he asks me to help him and where he asks others to help. Just today some family friends, Jim and Kathy Field, dropped by and Marshall, after inscribing several books for their friends, said he wanted to talk to them. He very directly asked them to give love to others, particularly to “battered man.”
In these pages, Marshall’s thoughts are shown in block print while questions or comments by others or me will be seen in italics. I’m certain, as you read, you will realize Marshall’s message, whether by miracle or gift, will speak directly to you. And you will know that he wants you to teach also. He wants you to give A Good Kiss. That is, kissing with your heart.
To arrange an interview or to receive a review copy of A Good Kiss, contact Thoughtful House Press, 1854A Hendersonville Road Ste. 222, Asheville, NC 28803.
Shared with my by Dr. Habib Sadeghi