- AL Reading Service
Just months before starting his freshman year of high school, Cole Phillips lost his vision to glaucoma.
When he entered Bentonville West High School in Arkansas in the fall of 2016, he met Rugenia Keefe — or, as Phillips calls her, “Miss Ru” — a paraprofessional who attended classes with Phillips for the next four years.
“As any normal teenager, you always get worried about trying to fit in,” Phillips, 18, told Keefe, 54, in a StoryCorps interview recorded last month. “And, as if being blind didn’t make me stick out enough, I was like, I don’t want some lady following me around everywhere. I’m trying to make friends, not lose them.”
“But by the end of the year, we started to click,” he said.
Keefe and Phillips grew close over those four years. So, when Phillips was assigned to record a StoryCorps conversation for his senior project, choosing who to interview was an easy decision.
Keefe said Phillips is easy to be around.
“You’re like peanut butter — you get spread all over, and it sticks,” she said.
She also remembers being tickled by his dark humor.
“I’ll never forget, when I couldn’t go up the stairs, and I was like, ‘Oh, I’m getting old.’ And you’re like, ‘How old are you, Miss Ru? Because I’ve got three more years of school. I just want to make sure you’re going to make it,’ ” Keefe said.
In November, Keefe had to stop working with Phillips because she was diagnosed with stage 3 colorectal cancer. She and Phillips have been separated since then, as Keefe is still undergoing treatment.
Meanwhile, Phillips’ school has been working remotely during the coronavirus pandemic. He’ll officially graduate in mid-July, but he’s already received his diploma.
“I hate it that I wasn’t able to spend enough of my senior year with you in it,” Phillips told Keefe. “If this were to be our last conversation, is there anything you would want to say to me?”
“Oh, Cole, you saved my life,” Keefe said. “Four years ago was a dark time. I had a drug addict in my family. And you gave me a purpose to get me through. I was there to help you. But, in the end, you were saving me.”
“There were so many times that things were so bad and you would put your hand over my wrist and you were like ‘Miss Ru, it’s gonna be OK,’ ” she told him.
Her optimism inspires Phillips.
“Even when you were going through such a hard time, you were somehow always caring about everybody else around you,” he said.
One of the things Keefe taught Phillips about is “sirsee,” a Southern term for an unexpected gift or surprise that’s used in South Carolina, where Keefe was born and raised.
“It’s when you want someone to know how much you appreciate them in a caring way when they don’t expect it,” as Keefe described it.
“Out of all the sirsees that you gave me throughout high school,” Phillips said, “you being in my life was the biggest sirsee that I could have asked for.”
“I told you not to make me cry,” Keefe said.
“I think you should get half my diploma,” Phillips told her.
“You earned every bit of it,” Keefe replied. “I love you. And thank you for getting me through high school.”
Phillips and Keefe have every intention of remaining in touch after he graduates from high school. This fall, Phillips will be attending the Honors College at the University of Arkansas.
Audio produced for Morning Edition by Jey Born.
StoryCorps is a national nonprofit that gives people the chance to interview friends and loved ones about their lives. These conversations are archived at the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress, allowing participants to leave a legacy for future generations. Learn more, including how to interview someone in your life, at StoryCorps.org.