When she adorns an Army uniform, she’s reserved and respectful. Dancing with her friends down the hallways of Kenmore High School, she’s “really girly” and “outspoken.”
“You kind of have to get to know all of me,” Shai’Tayana Tomlin says with a smile that never seems to fade.
Behind that cheerful grin and beneath her iron-pressed Army slacks, there’s more to Tomlin than meets the eye.
She’s the youngest of four siblings, an academic success and a Bridges scholarship recipient. She can swim, climb a 45-foot high wall, Rollerblade and do just about anything that any normal 16-year-old girl could do.
Still, she knows that some people see her and think, “poor girl.” But she ignores the sympathy, because there is one thing that she will never be: disabled.
Being disabled means being told that she can’t do certain things.
“Can’t is just not part of my vocabulary,” said Tomlin, who has marched proudly through life on a prosthetic leg.
Tomlin was diagnosed with proximal femoral focal deficiency, a rare birth defect that affects about one in 50,000 people. Because she was born without a hip socket, her femur never grew.
As a child crawling beneath a jungle gym, she had to learn many things before most learned how to walk. She dragged herself from rung to rung until her uneven legs dangled off the ground.
She has been climbing ever since.
“I have really big dreams,” she says. “I don’t want to be limited.”
A sophomore at Kenmore, Tomlin might be the youngest to receive the title of commanding sergeant major, the second highest rank among 152 JROTC students enrolled in the school’s Army outreach program.
She comes from a military family, with a long lineage of service in the Army. Her greatest inspiration is her great-grandmother, Evelyn Horton, who served as a nurse in Frankfurt, Germany, during the Korean conflict.
“Part of us always went to the military,” Norton, 81, said.
Norton’s late husband, Samuel Tomlin Sr., deployed to Korea and eventually retired from the Army. Their niece currently serves in Afghanistan.
And most of Norton’s great-grandchildren, including Tomlin and her three siblings, have enrolled in the Army’s ROTC program. Each entered as a way to get ahead.
“You want a better life. So you have to do what you have to do to get out of here,” said her mother, Shannon Tomlin, who raises a 7-year-old nephew and a baby grandson. Shannon, who is unemployed, is seeking custody of another nephew through Children’s Services in Cleveland.
The Tomlin family has had its share of troubles.
Shai’Tayana’s brother, Da’Shawn, is serving a 30-month sentence in the Richland Correctional Institution for a felony gun possession.
“I wish he would have stayed in school,” Shannon said of her son. “He got caught up in the street life.”
Shannon hopes the ROTC will keep Shai’Tayana, her youngest daughter, “occupied.”
Growing up with two older sisters, Shai’Tayana was never treated differently for her physical development.
“We don’t look at it as a disability,” her sister, Ta’Keya Tomlin, said. The sentiment is echoed by everyone in the family.
Ta’Keya, 20, also headed the JROTC when she attended Kenmore High School.
The girls, who live with their mother in North Akron, used the district’s open enrollment to attend Kenmore. The school houses Akron Public School’s Army JROTC program, one of four district buildings with military offices. The others are an Air Force ROTC program at Buchtel, a Navy branch at Garfield and a Marine outpost at East.
“Akron’s pretty blessed to have all four programs,” said John Jacob, senior Army instructor for the ROTC at Kenmore.
Jacob, like Shai’Tayana, joined the ROTC to jump-start his education and career after graduating. But he “never expected [the Army] to be a career.” After 25 years of service, he retired in 2009 and returned to head the JROTC program where his life had begun.
Of the 152 JROTC students at Kenmore, Jacob said Shai’Tayana is different, but not because of her “disability,” which is something that he, too, disregards.
“It’s her leadership that’s set her apart,” he said.
And that’s just one of her accolades.
Four medals dangle beneath a patchwork of colors that each represent her achievements. The emblems are awarded for academic excellence, personal appearance, athletic prowess and other admirable traits.
The one accomplishment she desires most is to see the world.
“I’ve already seen Ohio,” she said. “[The Army] is like a new horizon for everything.”
She plans to study technology at the University of Akron after she amasses enough credits to graduate next school year. She has already passed the graduation tests.
After Akron, she plans to attend the Pittsburgh Institute of Aeronautics.
Meanwhile, she debates about enlisting in the Army. Her prosthetic leg doesn’t deter her from signing up. In fact, it never has deterred her from doing anything.
“You don’t have to be the strongest or the fastest or the smartest to be one of the best,” she said.
Doug Livingston can be reached at 330-996-3792 or firstname.lastname@example.org.