SALEM, Ore. (KOIN) — It’s not common for a high school orchestra to have a piano player, but when McKay High School orchestra teacher Jim Charnholm first heard Ruben Flores-Hernandez play he had no other option than to carve out a spot for him.
Today, Charnholm isn’t the only one to recognize his pianist’s talent. Ten colleges have accepted Ruben, adding scholarships for his music ability. It’s the result of a long journey for Ruben, who will be the first the person in his family to attend college.
As a kid, Ruben said his dad, a Mexican immigrant, would take him pick in the fields. The lesson: to show his son the importance of an education, and why he needed it.
“He would say the reason I bring you here is I want you to see you’re privileged to be born in such a prosperous country and you have an opportunity to pursue an education and successful career,” Ruben recalled.
Ruben listened and eventually became a standout student, as well as a musician.
Then, last year, he started losing his vision and some of his hearing. It hit him hard, he said.
“Things started getting really difficult to do,” he said. “I remember nights when I would look down at my homework and strain eyes just so I could read.”
Ruben’s loss of vision is progressive. He’s learning brail and started using a cane to navigate his hallways. He also relies on his memory and brain power. As a testament to the latter, he recently memorized the first 2,136 digits of Pi.
Math and music are both of Ruben’s passions. And his fellow students have taken notice, as well.
“When they get back on the bus after performances they’re chanting his name: ‘Ruben, Ruben,’ and it’s a lot of fun to watch,” said Charnholm.
Charnholm said Ruben is a major reason why McKay recently placed third in the state orchestra compeition.
For Ruben personally, though it would be easy to view his progressively fleeting vision and trouble hearing as setbacks, he said his health issues have only fueled him on his journey.
“Through all of this I realized that my vision impairment, my hearing impairment isn’t a disability,” he said, “but more of a challenge that I can and will overcome.”