Tuesdays from 4:00 until 6:00 are the best two hours of my week. This is the time when the 24 members of Project UP come to Merrimack Hall for their weekly company class. Anything can happen during these two hours and something fascinating always does. Usually what happens is a series of things that are equal parts heartbreaking, touching, hilarious and insightful. Great life lessons can be learned when you spend two hours with 24 teenagers with special needs. This week’s highlights included a romance, a puppy and a group hug.
Katie and Noah have been involved in a relationship for quite a while now and plan to get married when they are 25. While Katie frequently flirts with other boys, which for some strange reason never upsets him, Noah is steadfastly faithful to Katie. This week, when I walked into the lobby to greet the kids, I found Noah sitting on the couch eating a snack and Katie standing in front of him with her arms folded across her chest, wearing an angry frown on her face.
“What’s the matter, Katie?” I asked.
“I mad at Noah. He kiss Kayla,” she said.
I asked Noah if it was true that he kissed Kayla. Between French fries, Noah said that yes, he did indeed kiss Kayla. When I asked him why he did such a thing, he answered, “I dunno…cause she let me?”
Katie puffed herself up and gave me a look that said, “Can you believe him?”
Noah, finally realizing that Katie was extremely upset with him, looked up from his fries, puckered up his lips and blew her a kiss. Keeping her arms crossed, she gave a dramatic fiip of her head and said, “Nice try, buddy.” Just then, Bill walked into the room and Katie took his arm, smiling coyly. “I go with Bill now,” she announced, as she and Bill walked to the stairs. Noah went back to eating his fries but said to me, “She won’t stay mad long.” Sure enough, about thirty minutes into class, all was fine with Katie and Noah.
My son, Austin, got a silver lab puppy two weeks ago. Mello is only seven-weeks-old and, like his name implies, he is a laid back fella. I brought him to class because I knew the kids in Project UP would love to meet him. When I walked into the theatre with the puppy, all the kids broke out into the biggest smiles, exclaiming over how cute Mello is. I told the kids that everyone would have a chance to hold Mello but that I wanted Lexie to see him first. No one objected, willing to wait patiently while their teammate got first dibs.
Now, he may be laid back, but Mello doesn’t like to have his eyes pried open. He is also teething and has the sharpest puppy teeth I’ve ever felt, quick to bite on anything in the general vicinity of his mouth. Not once did Mello try to nibble on Lexie’s fingers; he sat patiently, letting her explore him to her content. Somehow, Mello knew he needed to make a special exception to his “Bite anything near my mouth” policy for Lexie.
Lexie reluctantly let me take Mello over to the circle everyone was sitting in and, one at a time, the teens had their turn snuggling and petting the puppy. A few times, Mello was dropped on his head. Many of them held Mello in awkward positions that couldn’t possibly have been comfortable for him. But he never tried to wriggle away, as he does when anyone in my family holds him in a way he doesn’t like, never put up any objection to the clumsy hand-offs and awkward petting. Somehow, that puppy knew that the kids handling him have special needs and that playing with him was bringing them all great satisfaction.
After the class had gone through their warm-ups, done their across-the-floor work and rehearsed a song, it was time for them to run through a dance number. Hayley plugged her ipod into the theatre’s sound system. The volume was set too high and music blared through the speakers at an earsplitting level. The instant the sound came through the speakers, all the teens – almost in unison – said, “Dana!” and ran to her side.
Dana has a dual diagnosis of Down syndrome and autism. She is non-verbal, having lost her speech around age two. She is highly sensitive to loud noises, reacting to them with heartrending tears. After being together for three years, her teammates know this and quickly recognize situations that might be stressful to Dana. When that boom came through the speakers, they all rushed to hug her, put their hands over her ears, be there for her in an effort to prevent her weeping. Seeing this made me cry and because of this, Dana didn’t.
It was a beautiful sight to see, those teens offering support to their teammate. These are kids who don’t have many chances to be on a team, who are denied access to activities where they can learn to work with others in a group setting, who have limited access to mainstream activities like performing arts programs. They have relished every opportunity that membership in Project UP offers them, eagerly welcome newcomers, excitedly get to know new friends in the program. They go out of their way to welcome each other each week, calling out enthusiastic greetings and offering each other warm hugs. Some of them go to the same school but even if it’s only been two hours since they last saw each other, they exclaim with joy over each reunion. They go out of their way to get to know one another and to keep track of the things that make each other happy or sad, like Dana’s reaction to loud noises. They offer to each other the sort of genuine love and compassion that we should all offer to each other. And we think they are the ones who are different?
Yeah, the kids in Project UP are different from the rest of us. They take pleasure in the simple things, like petting a puppy. The express their feelings to each other openly and honestly, like Noah admitting he kissed another girl and Katie getting mad. They are tuned into the needs of their friends and stand ready to help them whenever necessary. Do we normal folks do these things? No, we are usually too self-absorbed to notice when a friend is in distress; we are too busy playing games and manipulating each other to be straightforward in our communications; and we are way too busy to take time out of our day to relish petting a puppy. If the kids in Project UP are “different,” then that’s what I want to be. What about you?