By Crystal Burns
Trenton Special School District staff got a special treat at the annual kickoff luncheon last week.
HK Derryberry, a 27-year-old blind man from Brentwood who also has cerebral palsy, and his friend and mentor, Jim Bradford, shared their life-changing story with employees, moving teachers, administrators, and staff to belly laughs and tears.
Bradford met HK in a Mrs. Winner’s in Brentwood in 1999. HK was nine years old, and every weekend he sat in the eating area of the fast food restaurant where his grandmother, Pearl, who raised him, worked. Bradford hadn’t intended to go to Mrs. Winner’s that day. He had finished his Saturday routine of playing tennis with friends and craved a cup of coffee from Starbucks, but at the intersection, he took a left turn to Mrs. Winner’s instead of a right to Starbucks.
“Today, I know that God was my GPS that morning,” Bradford said.
HK caught Bradford’s eye, but Bradford admitted he didn’t know how to strike up a conversation with a child or adult with disabilities.
“I tried not to look at a person with a disability for fear they would catch me staring,” he said.
Bradford found out that HK sat in the restaurant from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. most weekends because Pearl couldn’t afford a babysitter. HK attended Tennessee School for the Blind on weekdays and had been enrolled since he was three years old. Bradford introduced himself to HK, but the boy couldn’t carry on a logical conversation. They spoke briefly, and Bradford told HK he hoped to see him again.
“I was committed for the next 17-and-a-half years,” Bradford said. “I thought about him all week.”
Soon, Bradford was spending about an hour with HK every Saturday. After about a year of weekend visits, he asked Pearl if he and his wife, Brenda, could take HK to church with them on Sunday.
“He immediately became one of the most famous people in our church,” Bradford said.
During their Saturday visits at Mrs. Winner’s, Pearl began taking her breaks with HK and Bradford.
“I heard stories like I’d never heard,” Bradford said.
HK wasn’t born blind or with cerebral palsy. His parents’ lifestyle choices led to his disabilities.
His mother dropped out when she was in the seventh grade, and his father quit school in the 10th grade. When his mother was just 19 and pregnant, she picked up HK’s dad for a night of partying. The couple’s car hit a 150-year-old oak tree head on, ejecting HK’s mother from the vehicle.
She was airlifted to Vanderbilt University Medical Center where doctors told her mother that she was brain dead. Her unborn son was alive, and the grandmother chose to deliver HK. She, however, has never seen her grandson. HK’s father, who escaped the wreck without serious injuries, also abandoned him, leaving his mother, Pearl, to raise HK.
“She’s done a great job with HK,” Bradford said.
After HK was born, he required open heart surgery. He was left on oxygen too long, and his retinas didn’t develop, which caused the blindness. He also had a stroke that caused his brain to bleed, leaving him with cerebral palsy.
“In life, I have always been considered the underdog,” HK said. “People tell me things I can’t do without complimenting me for the things I can.”
Doctors told his grandmother HK would be confined to a wheelchair all his life and that he would never graduate high school.
“On June 12, 2012, this little underdog pulled a major upset,” HK said proudly. He received a regular education diploma from the Tennessee School for the Blind.
“Anything in life is possible if you work hard, determine what your capabilities are, and maintain a positive attitude,” HK said. “Always be positive.”
Doctors now call HK a “living miracle.”
HK and Bradford were two years into their friendship when Bradford learned of HK’s astonishing ability to remember dates. At first, it was a party trick. HK would ask someone he was meeting for the first time for his/her birthday and tell the person the day of the week he/she was born. He could also recall what he was doing on that date in a certain year.
HK has hyperthymesia or super autobiographical memory. He can remember everything that has ever happened to him since he was four years old.
“He’s the smartest kid I’ve ever met,” Bradford said.
His unique ability can make for some awkward conversations. Bradford said that once when HK accompanied a group of friends to Backyard Burger, the cashier recognized the little boy because he had worked at Mrs. Winner’s with Pearl. HK remembered him, too.
“Aren’t you the one that got fired for smoking marijuana?” HK asked.
As HK and Pearl let Bradford into their lives, Bradford began attending IEP (Individual Education Plan) meetings with them. HK was struggling in school, but one teacher believed in him and committed to tutoring him. Another taught HK to read Braille with only one hand, which Bradford said took “the patience of Job.”
“After that, there was no stopping HK Derryberry,” Bradford said.
Through his friendship with the Bradfords, HK has done things he never thought he would. He goes snow skiing in Colorado every year. He drives Bradford’s pontoon boat and attends Tennessee Titans games. He’s made friends with Alan and Denise Jackson, and he’s a successful motivational speaker.
“[Mr. Bradford] quickly changed my life,” HK said. “He let me do things normal boys my age did, but I had never done. Mr. Bradford let me borrow his eyes. He told me he loved me. He told me he was proud of me. He told me I could have success in life.”
In 2016, Bradford wrote a book, “The Awakening of HK Derryberry: My Unlikely Friendship with the Boy Who Remembers Everything.” It received an Audio Book of the Year award earlier this year and comes out in paperback on September 5.
Bradford and Pearl have established a trust fund for HK to provide for his future, and proceeds from the book and his speaking engagements benefit the fund. Visit hkderryberry.com for more information, and HK asks that everyone who hears his story like his Facebook page.
Michele Elliott, TSSD supervisor of Teaching & Learning, booked Bradford and HK for the kickoff after hearing them at a conference she attended.
“I’m always looking for motivational people to come in to start our school year,” Elliott said. “What a difference one person can make in another person’s life! That’s the message I wanted for the teachers.”
Bradford’s parting words to the staff were encouraging.
“Always be on the lookout for your HK, somebody that needs a good friend,” he said.