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Chris Rodriguez is greeted by a classmate during a visit to his school, Crocker Highlands, on Tuesday, April 1. (Aric Crabb/Bay Area News Group)
OAKLAND

In the lunchroom, by the elevator, in the school yard, they formed a crowded half-circle around Chris Rodriguez.

"Hi Chris."

"Hi Chris."

"Hi Chris," voices called out — maybe a bit too quickly.

Although Chris has yet to return to school on a regular basis, he paid a visit to Crocker Highlands Elementary School for his 11th birthday. It was the first time he had been to school since Jan. 10, when he was shot and paralyzed by a stray bullet while taking an after-school piano lesson.

On April 1, his classmates celebrated Chris' birthday with pizza, oversized cupcakes and a deafening rendition of "Happy Birthday!"

For some, it was the first time they had seen Chris — their solidly built, ever-confident, athletic classmate — in a wheelchair.

"When some of the kids came up to me, they didn't know what to say and stuff," Chris later recalled, back at home, when his dad broached the subject. "It was like they felt kind of weird about it."

He understood, he said. In fact, he added, he might have felt the same way, before it all happened to him.

"I felt OK with it, because I know it will happen," Chris said. "Maybe it's a little kid, and he didn't ever see somebody in a wheelchair before, and they ask me a question, like 'What happened?' I think it'll be easy to tell them so that maybe they understand more."

The violent event that occurred after a gas station robbery across the street from Chris's music school grabbed headlines and moved people far beyond the Bay Area to send donations and support to the Rodriguez family.

Police say 24-year-old Jared Adams fired a shot into the air that tore through the wall of the boy's North Oakland music school. Adams' trial has been set for June 23.

On March 11, Chris left Children's Hospital Oakland for his family's new, wheelchair-accessible rental home in the East Oakland hills. He has spent his days resting, playing video games and building his upper-body strength and balance in sometimes grueling physical therapy sessions.

Recently, an electric piano arrived at the family's doorstep, a donation from the Yamaha Corp. It was the same model Chris had been using on the afternoon his life changed. For a few days the instrument remained in the living room, silent. His father, Richard Rodriguez, said his son seemed to be uneasy, at first, about playing again.

Then one afternoon, Chris asked his dad to turn it on. He played his favorite song, a simple tune he knew by memory, but not by name. He has been practicing regularly ever since.

Because of his interest in drumming, piano and the recording industry, Chris will likely audition this spring for a spot at Oakland School for the Arts, a performing arts charter school for youths in grades 6 through 12.

Chris plans to return to Crocker Highlands later this month, at leastpart-time, for the rest of his fifth-grade year. The transition might not be easy, but it is vital to his recovery, said his mother, Jennifer Rodriguez.

"The more normal his life is, the better," she

said. "When he feels independent, I feel good. So going to school, I think, will be really good for him."

His mom added, "There will be some frustrating days, and we'll just deal with it."

Chris said he looks forward to his old routine, though he knows it will be different than it used to be. Crocker Highlands is built on a hill and has four levels, so it's not an easy place to navigate on wheels.

In the lunchroom last week, as Chris's classmates took their seats on the long bench tables, Chris hung back, as if unsure of what to do. After a moment, someone suggested he slide his chair up to the end of one of the tables, where it would fit.

Fred Burns, Chris's former basketball coach and physical education teacher, plunked himself down next to Chris, and the conversation drifted to Crocker's championship-bound YMCA basketball team. Chris played one pre-season game, which Burns, known to the kids as "Coach B," recorded on video.

As the cafeteria emptied, the two made their way to the school yard, via elevator.

"Still got them good hands on you? I got a football — wanna play catch?" Burns asked him, as they walked outside. 

"I was nervous," Burns admitted earlier. "I didn't want to say the wrong thing."

Chris has his own worries. On a scale of 0 to 10, he says the pain in his legs sometimes rates an 8 or 9. It used to be most acute at night, but now it tends to strike during the day, despite

the medication he takes to control it.

"I don't want to disturb the class, and I also don't want to be kicked out of class because I screamed in really bad pain," he said.

Julie Nocent-Vigil, Chris's homeroom teacher, said she and her colleagues aim to help Chris heal in any way they can.

"I think, right now, it's just a matter of making sure his needs are met," she said.

One of those needs, Chris said, is to be treated like the regular kid that he is.

Through his ordeal and the subsequent news coverage, Chris has acquired a minor celebrity status. While he has enjoyed the generosity of supporters — floor seats at a recent Golden State Warriors game, compliments of Baron Davis, for example — he seems bothered by some of the attention he has received. He said strangers sometimes approach him when he is out in public, encounters he described as "weird."

Chris says he doesn't mind "setting an example to stop violence," or talking about his disability. But he doesn't want to be celebrated — he brusquely ordered his classmates to stop clapping after the birthday song. Chris says he doesn't mind ``setting an example to stop violence,'' or talking about his disability. But he doesn't want to be celebrated _ he brusquely ordered his classmates to stop clapping after the birthday song _ and he doesn't want anyone's pity.

``It's actually kind of fun rolling around,'' he said. ``It's kind of like driving, I think.''

He said that if he could spread one message to people about his disability, it would be this: ``People in wheelchairs can do everything that you can, just in a different way.''