TO UNDERSTAND what makes Sean Canepa astonishing, you need to know two stories about the 17-year-old
senior at Hatboro-Horsham High School.
Sean would prefer we not dwell on the horror of the first story. But without it, the second, transcendent one would never be told.
So let's get it out of the way.
Twelve years ago, Sean was burned over 46 percent of his body in a car fire in Warminster, Bucks County. His dad, Eduardo, who also was burned, was convicted of aggravated assault related to the blaze and was sent to prison. Released this past summer, he was deported to his native Argentina.
"The fire was an accident," says Sean of the explosion that occurred when something ignited three gas cans that had been stored in the car in which he'd fallen asleep, after a night out with his father. "My dad would never do anything to hurt me."
Whether the fire was accidental or intended, the results were the same: It melted Sean's face beyond recognition. And it charred his fingers to the first knuckles.
At the time, the media were all over the terrible tale of the burned little boy. But after Eduardo's conviction, Sean's fate was left to the imagination as other news took over the headlines.
Tomorrow night, Sean will update the world as he shares his second story, the wonderful one, at a Union League fundraiser for the Burn Foundation - a nonprofit that supports burn victims and burn-prevention efforts. For years, the foundation sent Sean to a camp for young burn victims, where his self-confidence soared among kids who looked like him.
In a keynote speech, he will say that he is at peace with what happened to him in the fire. And that it has given him such a clear understanding of the human condition, he actually feels grateful when he looks in the mirror.
"Everyone has hard things to deal with," says Sean, whose appearance - his eyebrows are mostly missing; his nose, lips and ears are deformed; parts of his scalp are patchy - can elicit stares of shock from even the kindest strangers. "They might be dealing with drug addiction or alcoholism or cancer. Maybe they lost a loved one.
"The difference between me and other people is that the whole world can see what my challenge is," says Sean, as we chat at Hatboro-Horsham (where he plays varsity soccer; yesterday he scored the tying goal in a 2-2 game against Central Bucks West).
"I have the most visible representation of what's been going on in my life. If everyone else can see it, they can also see I am happy and living a good life. So maybe they can live a good life with their challenges, too. Once you feel normal to yourself, you can feel comfortable. And once you're comfortable, anything is possible."
Sean hopes to perfect his message of radical self-acceptance in the career of his dreams: He wants to be a motivational speaker. That makes tomorrow night's speech his inaugural live effort.
In it, he will borrow from parts of "Normal," a short, stunning film about his life that he created with guidance from Hatboro-Horsham film teacher Dave Thomas. (To view it, go to www.philly.com/ronnieblog) It took second prize last spring in the Greenfield Foundation's Youth Film Festival.
"I've seen a lot of motivational speakers," says Thomas, himself a former motivational speaker and TV reporter. "Sean's story is as compelling as any of theirs."
Sean's public confidence both awes and gratifies his mother, Adriana Borrello, a physical therapist who lives in Hatboro with Sean (they are both in touch with Eduardo, whom Sean plans to visit soon in Argentina).
"After the accident, I would try to be an example to Sean. I would always say, 'Never give up - do not let anything stop you,' " says Adriana. "But it has gotten to the point where he is an example to me. Every day, he shows me what he is capable of."
He shows students at Hatboro-Horsham, too.
"He's one of the hardest-working kids on the team," says soccer coach Kyle McGrath. "He doesn't let up. We don't make any special accommodations for him."
"He's just Sean," says his best friend, Alex Badulak, 17, who won't even cut Sean a break when it comes to catching a ball, even though Sean has only two working thumbs and stumps for digits.
"I give him a hard time" when he fumbles, Alex says. "It's tough love. It's what you do to your teammates."
Sean smiles and shakes his head. And I realize that in the short time I've spent with him, I actually have stopped seeing his injuries.
All I see is Sean. A normal teenager on the cusp of manhood, both silly and thoughtful, funny and hopeful.
And wise enough to bring an audience to its feet.