Wright’s Law is only twelve minutes long, but it has been viewed almost two million times on YouTube and Vimeo. Director Zack Conkle begins the documentary in the classroom of Jeffrey Wright, his former physics teacher at Louisville’s Male Traditional High School (now co-ed). Announcing a “test question alert” as a robot might, the innovative Mr. Wright immediately commands the attention of his students.
The film then flashes to segments of him performing wackyand what appear to be rather riskyexperiments, with fire and cinder blocks and sledgehammers, before everything turns out safe and sound. This is Mr. Wright’s way of revealing the mysteries of science in a highly entertaining but educational wayand his students love every minute of it. “He’s probably one of the teachers I’ll still remember when I’m seventy-five years old,” says an appreciative pupil.
Just when we think the film is going to concentrate on Mr. Wright’s gifts as a teacher, however, it shifts focus. When school is over, we watch him help his young son, Adam, into a specially-designed vehicle, and then care for him at home with his wife and daughter. Confined to a wheelchair, Adam also wears a protective helmet and receives therapy for an extremely rare condition known as Joubert Syndrome, which fewer than five hundred people in the world have.
Adam was born blind, breathes abnormally fast, cannot speak fluently, and can’t control his muscular movements. He needs round-the-clock care, lest he harm himself. If he becomes anxious or scared, he pounds his fist into his face, or bangs his legs into his wheelchairnot because he wants to, but because that’s how his body reacts under stress.
All this is an enormous challenge for Mr. Wright. One way he deals with it is to share Adam’s story with his students, who have their own struggles to overcome. Once a year, Mr. Wright delivers a lecture about the meaning of life, beginning with how, after the joyful birth of their daughter, he and his wife welcomed a son:
When Adam came along, we didn’t think it was going to be a boy . . . and all of a sudden, a boy pops out, and I’m thinking wow, this is coolnow I got a girl and a boynot that I really caredbut you get all the dreams of . . . I’m going to football games, I’m going to baseball games . . . whatever it be, yeah, I’m going to be there for my little buddy.
But when he learned about his newborn son’s condition, that vision fell apart. Knowing that his child would face an uncertain future and undergo intense suffering, he was shattered. In his annual talk, he is searingly honest:
All those dreams of watching my son knock a home run over the fence went away. And talk about getting pissed at God. . . . I was pissed. Because, you know the whole thing about where the universe came from? I didn’t care. What I cared about is, Why? And [I said to God], you can pick on me all you want, but when you pick on my little boy, that’s wrong. A totally innocent little baby, and you’re making him do that? I started asking myself, what was the point of it?
It took his four-year-old daughter Abbie to change his perspective. One day, as he watched her playing with her younger brother, Mr. Wright saw Adam clutching at dolls, as his sister held them aloft. He didn’t understand how this was happening since his son, after all, was blind. But then he realized that Adam could seethat his eyes were fine, but that the part of his brain that was supposed to allow his eyes to see wasn’t workinguntil then. Something had suddenly clicked.
Mr. Wright can’t explain what happened, any more than the doctors can, since so little is known about Joubert Syndrome. But he thinks it has something to do with how his daughter treated her brotheras a totally normal child. After that, a second unexpected event happened: Adam was able to learn sign language to the point where he could communicate what every father longs to hear: “Daddy, I love you.”
At that point, Mr. Wright knew that he had a very intelligent sonone who could interact with the world but just couldn’t control his body. He also began to appreciate all the things we take for granted in life, big and small. The fact that healthy people can sit down in a chair and get up so easily again “is a miracle.”
The lessons Mr. Wright has learned from his special-needs son have been passed on to his students. As a physics teacher for over twenty years, he has taught about the “how” in life, and now he is beginning to understand and communicate the “why.”
“There is something a lot greater than energy,” he tells his class, moving from the scientific to the philosophical. “There is something a lot greater than entropy. What’s the greatest thing?”
“It’s love,” his students reply.
Conkle’s documentary has won a gold medal in a national competition run by the University of Missouri, and Mr. Wright has garnered international attention, appearing on numerous television programs. He was even invited by the government of Turkey to give lessons in creative teaching: They flew him into Istanbul, making sure child care for Adam was paid for, too. “I guess it’s the Good Lord’s way of telling me, hey, your son has touched a lot of people’s lives,” Mr. Wright told me.
But Adam still has many hills to climb. After he was born, the doctors thought he might live only a year, and now that he is thirteen, they still don’t know what to expect, and neither do the Wrights. “We had a rough Novemberwe were in the hospital three times,” Mr. Wright reveals. But every time he is tempted to slip back into grief, Adam’s courage lifts the whole family up because he loves life so much and “absolutely loves school.”
As he moves forward, there are two things in particular which give Mr. Wright additional hope. The first is the witness of Pope Francis, and how much he has embraced the afflicted, in ways that have electrified the world. “When I saw him hold up that disabled boy and embrace him in St. Peter’s Square,” said Mr. Wright, “I just lost it,” as indeed even some usually reserved reporters did. It was as if his own son was being affirmed.
The second sign of hope is how many young people have rallied around Adam, even as adults still feel somewhat awkward: There remains a cultural fear and lack of understanding toward special-needs children and the disabled. But, “it is the young people who are always the first to speak to him, and feel most relaxed around Adam,” says Mr. Wright. “They have a natural inclination to treat people as equals.”
Just like his own daughter did, on that amazing day her little brother emerged from the darkness, and saw light for the first time.
William Doino Jr. is a contributor to Inside the Vatican magazine, among many other publications, and writes often about religion, history and politics. He contributed an extensive bibliography of works on Pius XII to The Pius War: Responses to the Critics of Pius XII. His previous articles can be found here.