Driving to an all-night grocery in Brownsville, Texas one night in 1974 in their VW bug, auto mechanic Raul Espino, his pregnant 16-year-old wife, Ana, and their 11-month-old son, Raul Jr., were smashed broadside by a teenage driver. Ana lost her baby and lingered near death for days. Raul Sr. was only banged up. But little Raul Espino had a broken spine, broken neck, broken arm, punctured lungs and eight shattered ribs. He survived, but at great cost: He is almost totally paralyzed, and spinal damage has rendered his body unable to adjust to changes in the temperature around him. Now 7, Raul flushes and gasps instead of sweating in the heat and shivers uncontrollably if the weather turns cool. “To perform appropriately, Raul needs to be in an environment that will not present a significant temperature change,” his doctor, Carlos Monterrez, explains. That means that the air around the boy should remain in the 68-72° range. The Espinos have air conditioning at home, but Raul’s classroom at the Egly Elementary School has none. The school’s solution to the problem has led Raul’s parents to threaten a federal lawsuit: Raul has been placed in a small, air-conditioned Plexiglas box.
Brownsville authorities defend Raul’s 5′-square, 7′-high container on the grounds that if they air-conditioned his entire classroom, every class in the school and city would want air conditioning—and they can’t afford it. But the Espinos fear that the box might make their son feel as if he is being treated like a freak. “All kids like to gossip and fool around,” Ana says quietly. “That’s part of the educational process that makes a normal child, but he’s kept apart. They just don’t want to give in.” The Espinos plan to file their suit imminently. Meanwhile the school district is so adamant in its stand that it has even turned down an offer of $5,695 from a woman in Pennsylvania to air-condition the first-grade room. “She was told that she’d have to air-condition the other 732 classrooms too,” Ana reports. School superintendent Raul Besteiro, who designed the box, says: “The last thing in the world that I want is a bunch of doctors writing letters and saying various children have asthma and need to be in air conditioning. I’ll end up spending all my time in court.”
Raul rarely needs the box during Brownsville’s mild winter, but in sultry spring and fall, temperatures in the 90s keep him enclosed. The crude speaker on his box makes it hard for Raul to understand classroom discussions—and when the teacher leaves her desk microphone, he can’t hear her at all. So far, hearteningly, Raul has been treated well by his classmates, who have decorated the box and vie for the chance to use an extra chair the teacher occasionally places in it to cut down on Raul’s sense of isolation. A bright child with a quick smile and straight A’s, Raul says he doesn’t mind his confinement. “Sometimes it gets like the North Pole in the box,” he says (the air blows straight on his back), “but it’s okay, I guess. I don’t have to stay in it all the time. And,” he adds, grinning, “I have lots of new friends.”