Paola Ketter was persistent: She repeatedly invited the assistant principal at Kamiak High School to come hear her play the piano during her free class period last year.
Frank Foster, a busy man with a campus of 1,700 students, finally found the time and went, expecting two-fingered “Chopsticks.” What he heard was Chopin.
“I just thought, ‘Oh my, Lord.’ It was so beautiful,” Foster recalled. “I was totally amazed.”
Paola has been surprising people for 13 years - since a Washington woman rescued the underweight and brain-damaged child from a crib in a Colombian orphanage.
On Friday, it was Paola’s turn to be surprised.
She assumed she would be performing John Tesh’s arrangement of “White Christmas” for classmates and Rotarians at an afternoon holiday program at the school.
Instead, the 65-member South Everett/Mukilteo Rotary Club, which had heard Paola perform last spring, presented her with a new baby grand piano.
There were tears all around, and John Bosch, Rotary Club leader, said he nearly lost his composure when telling Paola the mahogany piano was hers to keep.
Foster said Paola’s story “debunks the myth that people who look different, or act different, are somehow not as capable as the rest of us.”
Last summer, Tesh invited Paola to his Seattle concert and listened to her play before his performance. He also contributed $2,000 to the Rotary Club’s fund-raising effort for the piano.
Paola was “dealt one of life’s worst hands” and yet has become “an outgoing, happy-go-lucky young lady who has earned the respect and admiration of students and staff,” Foster said.
Paola was abandoned as an infant in the streets of Cali, Colombia.
She had developed meningitis, which inflames the lining of the brain. Her condition went untreated, and her brain compressed and deformed because of a buildup of fluid.
At age 4, she was unable to walk, talk or eat solid food. She weighed just 18 pounds. Her world was a crib, where she lay listening all day to the radio in the orphanage.
Paula Ketter saw Paola’s photograph in a national magazine and decided she wanted to adopt the girl. When they got home, she realized she had underestimated Paola’s difficulties.
She worked with the girl for 14 to 15 hours a day. Then, one day, when Ketter was in the kitchen washing dishes, she heard a familiar song coming from the family room.
Ketter thought it was “Sesame Street” on TV. It was Paola playing “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star” on her toy piano.
Paola learned to play music she heard on a record player, and she later went on to take music lessons, during which she mastered difficult pieces such as “Swan Lake” and the score from “The Sound of Music.”
She learned with her ears as much as her eyes, and still can’t read music.
The original toy piano had been a way for mother to communicate with daughter. It became a way for the daughter to reach out ot the world, Ketter said.
Today, the piano is Paola’s love.
“It is her love, and it is her soul,” Ketter said.
Paola played her new piano late into the evening Friday.
“This is so wonderful,” she said between songs.