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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

As they squeezed into an old elevator while their friends ran up the stairs, as they watched volleyballs whiz over their heads while others jumped to reach them, fifth-graders at Crocker Highlands Elementary School thought about their classmate, Chris Rodriguez, who returns to school later this month in a wheelchair.

For two days, the children took turns maneuvering wheelchairs of their own, borrowed from a local organization. They used the chairs to wheel around the four-story school — to art and music classes, to gym class and to Chris's favorite, the schoolyard.

"When I was in the elevator, I thought, 'What would you do if the elevator broke down?'" wondered Francesca Pemberton, 11. "I didn't really know."

Chris, who celebrated his 11th birthday at the school last week, was paralyzed Jan. 10 when a stray bullet went through the wall of his music school. Police say a robbery had occurred outside the building, and the suspect had fired an errant shot.

Chris can move his upper body, but he is not expected to walk again.

Now, he is learning to do everything he used to do, but as he has said, "in a different way."

"I think it's going to be a real big change for all of us, seeing Chris in a wheelchair," said EmmaKern, 10.

Liz O'Brien, a parent of a Crocker Highlands student, coordinated the class wheelchair exercise with Chris's mother after learning about an "ability awareness" program operating at a school in Palo Alto.

The Bay Area Outreach and Recreation Program in Berkeley loaned Crocker Highlands the wheelchairs — typically used for wheelchair basketball — last Thursday and Friday.

The chairs gave the youngsters an idea of the limitations a disabled person can face.

Dierdre Carson, 11, described how she felt in the schoolyard when a volleyball flew above her head, just out of striking range.

"I really had an urge to push myself out and start spiking the ball," she said. "It's really hard to just stay there."

At the end of the second day, as part of the training exercise, the children reflected about the experience.

"I think it's a great way to teach empathy," said Karen Cucharski — known as "Ms. Ski" — who taught Chris last year. "As we know," she added, "this is not an age known for its empathy."

In the fifth-grade social hierarchy, Chris was known by many as a dominating figure — a tough guy who was not to be pushed around. His basketball coach, Fred Burns, described him as a "big boss on campus."

Some of his classmates said he seemed tired and pale last week, which worried them a little bit. But they said they also noticed a personal attribute they hadn't before: a kinder, softer side.

"He was much more open," Francesca said. "He seemed a lot more calm and mellow."

After a pause, she added, "I think that's the real Chris."

Contact Katy Murphy at kmurphy@oaklandtribune.com or 510-208-6424. Read her Oakland schools blog at http://www.ibabuzz.com/education.