He could feel the phone constantly vibrating in his pocket, calls coming in wondering where he was and if he was going to come. He couldn’t take the phone out in the middle of the program, but he didn’t need to, anyway. He knew who was on the other end, and his mind was racing, counting down the moments until he could run out of the room to join her.
At a luncheon honoring outstanding student-athletes (emphasis on student, in this case) at Mississippi State, the track and field star was attempting to keep two promises and be both places he had assured people he would be present. Finally, in a room full of honored athletes, distinguished administrators and over-busy coaches, it was his turn to speak and be recognized.
“They got to me and I said, ‘Hi, my name is Dustin James, yada yada yada, I have to go tutor Debra Ann, do you mind if I go?’”
Debra Ann, 21 years old, has in very short time become an important part of Dustin’s life, as the pair gets together at least twice each week. Dustin, while competing for MSU’s track and field team, is working on his degree in special education. Debra Ann, whose favorite food is chicken and favorite books are written by Dr. Seuss, has Down syndrome.
Dustin and Debra Ann began working together this semester after he was approached last fall about taking over for her then-tutor who would be busy student teaching this semester. It was one of those tutoring sessions Dustin was determined not to miss when he made his quick exit from lunch, grabbing a Gatorade and a bag of chips on his way to the door.
“The last thing they saw was me running out.”
Their schedule remains flexible, often having to work around Dustin’s track training and competition, but the two generally get together on Tuesdays and Thursdays, working on reading, learning about coins and going on adventures around town, often to the supermarket.
“I’ll say, ‘Hey Debra Ann, where’s the chicken?’ She’ll walk me over there and point at the chicken.”
The bigger point of what Dustin and Debra Ann are doing on those excursions is to help her learn how to handle various social situations, though she’s already quite personable, Dustin says, calling her “super fun and energetic and outgoing.”
Working with Debra Ann was something Dustin was initially nervous about, having never worked 1-on-1 with a special needs student before, but the experience is also something he’s deeply passionate about. While many college students are still wondering what to do with their lives, Dustin has known his dream since middle school and has been hard at work ever since to accomplish his goals. He has the notion that perhaps he’d like to be a principal one day, but specifics such as those can be figured out later. What he truly cares about, and what he hopes his career focuses on, is helping people.
“My goal,” he said, “is to, one, graduate, and two, just help students. Help somebody. I don’t have a set goal, as long as I’m in the classroom and I’m able to help somebody.”
His supportive and philanthropic nature, his track coach Steve Dudley says, comes from his parents, and similarly, it’s a family connection that first led Dustin down this path. Growing up, Dustin had a cousin in California who rarely talked, only speaking when prompted. When Dustin’s cousin would come stay with his family on visits in the summer, the two would spend hours every day hanging out together, Dustin naturally gravitating toward him, and the cousin to him.
Dustin’s mother still remembers watching her son before a track meet one summer around the time he was a freshman in high school. A little boy walked up to Dustin before his competition began and just started chatting away. Dustin happily conversed with his new friend, while the little boy’s mother also watched, smiling the whole time. After the conversation ended, Dustin’s mom asked if he knew that the boy had special needs, Dustin replying that he had no clue.
“I didn’t know. I just thought it was a cool little kid coming to hang out. It was fun.”
In high school, Dustin started helping out in special education classrooms as part of his school’s inclusion center. By the time he got to college, he was well on his way to making the needs of others his life’s priority.
Oh, and he was a pretty talented athlete, too. Now a junior at MSU, Dustin is in the middle of the best season of his track career, competing in the 400-meter run and the 400-meter hurdles, setting personal bests along the way. His coaches say the same determination he shows in helping others away from competition is evident when he steps onto the track to run.
“He works very, very hard,” Dudley said. “He has a real vision of what he wants to do in life, and he’s gonna do whatever he’s got to do to accomplish what he wants in life. So many people, kids and adults, talk about what they want to do, but they’re not really invested in the process to be able to get there. Dustin James is not one of those people. He understands there’s gonna be a process and he’s invested in it.”
Dustin takes his training and running for MSU very seriously, just as he does his sessions with Debra Ann, but he keeps the two worlds separate in his mind. He sees the correlations in the hard work required for special education students to grow and learn, and the dedication needed for track athletes to compete and win, but big picture, he knows that one battle is far more important than the other, and that’s how he lives his life.
“Track is a thing where you’re working toward a goal, whereas, in special education, the goal is life. There is no end game,” he said. “The life of the student is so precious, and it doesn’t end. Track will end for me one day. It’s gonna happen. Track ends for everybody. But that goal of life, it just keeps going.”
For now, that goal is focused on Debra Ann who, Dustin is proud to say, has made great strides in her reading ability lately, learning to recognize periods at the end sentences, when to turn the pages and how to pronounce so many of Seuss’s fantastical words. There are many people with similar circumstances to Debra Ann, though Dustin would be quick to say there is no one just like her, but he hopes to impact as many as he can with whatever time he has on Earth.
Said Dudley, “It doesn’t matter if he’s scoring points or not. He’s a person that you want in your program so the other kids can take note of that example.”