It is early morning of what will turn out to be a hot July day. Michael wakes up around 6:40am, and gets ready to go to school. There is no Summer Break, as this is not an ordinary school. But Michael is not an ordinary student.
Michael is nineteen. He loves playing baseball and he’s actually quite good at it. Playing for team New Jersey, he won the gold medal at the Special Olympics USA Games earlier this summer. Michael has a disability and his is of the intellectual type. It is tempting to try quantifying and qualifying the various degrees of disability he may have, but in the end it does not matter. What matters is that Michael is a caring, funny, smart, precious and unique human. And this is a random day in his life.
On this morning, Cheri, his mom, and Michael meet at the bottom of the stairs, hug and mumble some good mornings and how are yous. Michael looks tired, but he prepares his own cereal bowl and eats it while fighting to stay awake. Cheri helps him with cleaning up, taking medications, and giving fashion advice regarding his baseball jerseys. Then Michael waits for the bus.
The school Michael attends accepts students up to 21 years of age. It seems that the classes are not strictly structured by age, but by level of functionality first. The core classes adhere to standards for New Jersey High Schools, and around ages nineteen and twenty, students are transitioned to learn practical skills as adults in a work environment. There are always at least two teachers per class, and class sizes are very small.
In Michael’s first class the task at hand is reading J.R.R. Tolkien’s “The Hobbit”, which does not exactly seem like light reading material. Some of the students are really invested in the story line, while some struggle with keeping up with the notes and preparing for the eventual test. In music class, the teacher uses a clever method called “soda rhythms” and a drum to explain the concept of full, half and quarter notes. The students show some impressive ability to read the sheet music and play rhythms on the drum.
Physical work comes after that. Some of students are also employed in the buildings and grounds department, where they help with whatever is at hand. Michael’s job today is to remove crab grass from the sidewalks. The school does not use herbicides, thus elbow grease, shovels and spades are the tools of choice. Michael works hard during the 90 minutes of his “shift”, but he doesn’t miss too many opportunities to goof off with his fellow students. He proudly mentions that he had taken a safety test a day earlier, and that he hopes to be allowed to use a lawnmower soon!
His next class is a session with the school psychologist.
At lunch, the students at Michael’s table tease each other on who is never going to get a girl, and why. Then a vivid discussion about the meaning of the word “swag” breaks out. But all this is silenced when one of the guys produces a crumpled black and white copy of the new Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movie poster. Long ooohs and aaahs are muttered, and before long lunch break is over.
Back in the homeroom, the importance of recycling natural resources and reducing waste is discussed. And finally, the students start working on their project for parents’ day: an oversized map of New Jersey, with mountains and beaches and forests.
At physical education, students reject playing basketball indoors, and instead opt for touch football outdoors. Again, there is lots of smack talk, not the least from the coaches, but all in good jest. There are some impressive displays of gamesmanship, and lots of laughter all over. One of the coaches mentions that this is the “low” summer period, when most of the higher functioning students attend school. Thus teachers and coaches have more time for the students, and the atmosphere is more relaxed. The highly contested game is decided by a touchdown in the last minute, but in the end no one seems to care about winning anyway.
With this, school is over, and the students are driven home by a flotilla of yellow school buses. Upon arrival at home, Michael is greeted by Griffin, a vivid little dog, his two younger brothers, and a younger sister.
Physical therapy is one of Michael’s lesser-liked tasks. He seriously injured both his ankles before the baseball games at the Special Olympics. He made it through with a plethora of ankle braces and high top shoes, and so far it looks like he will be able to deal without surgery.
Michael visibly tenses up before his physical therapy session, and his body language changes from affable to annoyed, or even defiant, even though he is proudly wearing another baseball jersey. Nevertheless, he braves through all the stretching and strengthening exercises. Towards the end he regains some of his competitive spirit, and really gives it all on the elliptical. His glasses keep sliding down his sweaty nose, but he refuses to stop to put them back up. Instead, he powers through the exercise and requests somebody else’s help.
At the end of the day, I want to apologize for my ignorance, and ask forgiveness for my feeble trials at quantifying Michael, and my peculiar attempts at comprehending who Michael is before I had the chance to get to know him. One particular moment stands out: It was during breakfast, when Michael was starting to pay attention to me, and he posed for the camera and talked to me. Cheri then reminded him that we wanted him to ignore me. He looked at her with a shocked expression, and replied emphatically “Ignore Marco? But that’s rude!” At first I chuckled, but then the weight of his answer struck me in a very powerful way. I think it sums up his gentle and caring character, and it also says a lot about his nurturing and loving environment.
What I learned is that a soul and a character are both too big and too powerful to be limited by physical attributes. Michael is not the sum of his conditions.
Michael, it was a pleasure and an honor spending some quality time with you, my friend. Thank you for sharing your day with me!
This piece was edited by Raymond Ketcham (images) and Emily Kawahara (text).
You can see more of Marco Catini’s work on his website.