Trae Caster sat in the front row of the dimmed auditorium, a set of drumsticks resting in his lap.
Around him, classmates at Trinity High School hooted and hollered to mark the last day of school.
But perhaps no one had more to celebrate than Trae.
As an infant, Trae was violently shaken by a baby sitter and left with cerebral palsy, impaired vision and learning disabilities. On Saturday, the 19-year-old joined more than 600 of his classmates as he walked across the stage to collect his diploma.
"I'm not sure I really thought we would get here," said Trae's mother, Melonie Caster. "There were so many times I didn't know what would happen or where we would end up."
Trae's vision comes and goes. He walks with an uneven gait and requires assistance navigating Trinity, a sprawling, college-like campus made up of separate buildings on 54 acres.
He struggles to form words and is difficult to understand for people who do not know him.
But he also plays drums in the band, high-fives classmates in the hallway and refers to cute girls as "Fergies," in honor of his crush on the Black Eyed Peas singer.
On occasion, he is known to break spontaneously into the Wobble, a popular hip-hop dance.
"Nothing stops Trae," said Landen Oster, a friend of Trae's and drum major. "He does whatever it takes to make sure he is treated like any other student."
A difficult life
That was not always easy.
Trae was only 11 weeks old when he was shaken by a licensed caregiver.
About one-quarter of infants with shaken baby syndrome die from their injuries.
Those who survive may live in a vegetative state or have other problems, including permanent brain damage, paralysis, blindness, deafness, learning disabilities and behavioral difficulties.
Doctors said Trae would likely not survive, but they were wrong. Just after doctors turned off the ventilator, Trae took a breath. At 3, he took his first step.
Trae's caretaker never faced criminal charges, but his injuries led to the creation of Trae's Law -- legislation that extended the statue of limitations for injury to a child, disabled or elderly person from three to 10 years.
As her son grew older, Melonie Caster wanted him to stay in a special-education class because she thought he would be safer there. Friends and family persuaded her to include him in a regular classroom.
"I was terrified, but I realized I had to let go," Melonie Caster said. "I had to do what was best for Trae, and he deserved to go to school just like everyone else."
Trae began transitioning to a regular classroom in the third grade. By sixth grade, the transition was complete. But as Trae neared high school, his mother worried.
How would he get around Trinity? Would teachers understand him? Would students make fun of him?
Almost immediately, Melonie's fears were eased. Trinity -- a school that prides itself on its diverse and eclectic student body, where the football team famously performs the Haka, a Polynesian war dance before games -- proved a perfect fit.
Trae joined the band and excelled in classes, earning mostly As and Bs. This year, he traveled to South Padre Island with other seniors and attended prom, wearing black tuxedo and red vest and dancing all night.
Trinity officials say they work to do whatever necessary to place special needs students in regular classrooms. In some cases, that means offering modifications, such as more time for assignments, books with larger print or computerized tests.
Trae never missed band practices, even on sweltering August days when some students could not help but complain.
"Trae is a conqueror," assistant principal Stephanie Millar said. "If he wants to do something, he will get it done somehow, someday."
'He inspires us'
Not everyone has been so accepting. During one football game, a parent from the opposing team shouted during the band performance, "Get that freak off the field."
Band members were stunned. Some cried. Trae continued to play, never looking up once.
After the performance, another band member tried to make Trae feel better, telling him, "I don't know what you're upset about. He was talking about me. I tripped on the field."
Trae's face broke into a wide grin.
"Trae is the spirit of this school," said Richard Atkinson, a teacher's assistant who works closely with Trae. "Any time there's a celebration, Trae is right in the middle of it. People feed off of him. He inspires us."
After graduation, Trae will return to Trinity High School to attend its adult transition center, where students learn life skills, such as money management and grocery shopping. He then plans to attend business courses at Tarrant County College.
Someday, he wants to own his own video game warehouse arcade.
But first, Trae will wear his cap and gown, walk across the stage at the Fort Worth Convention Center and graduate. As usual, those in attendance will be asked to hold their applause until the end.
Melonie Caster said she will try to control herself.
But "some things," she said, "are worth breaking the rules for."
This includes information from the Star-Telegram archives.
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