If you’re just tuning in, Portland Arts and Technical High School is an under-appreciated local institution dedicated to finding and creating appropriate holes for some of the less round pegs, including my daughter, in area high schools.
I’ve written about PATHS recently and feel a bit sheepish about revisiting it so soon, but my experience at the recent Thanksgiving brunch (called a “harvest meal,” for legal reasons, no doubt) put on by the food program there resonated too strongly.
I hope I’m not singling out one school and one program in that school simply because Elizabeth is a student. In my defense, PATHS impressed me quite by accident before she even started there. I stopped off at a nearby Starbucks on my way to the chiropractor – yeah, I’m pretty much a jet-setter – and noticed a striking collage of commercial art. I thought it was a corporate commission, and literally did not believe the person who told me it was a collection of student work from PATHS. (Incidentally, baristas are less enthusiastic about being called liars than you would think. In case you are ever tempted to do that.)
The brunch is food for us and a series of assignments to the kids. They are getting restaurant training, including working with the public. The first person we met was Elizabeth’s classmate, Michael. I usually only see Michael when I drop Elizabeth off at Scarborough High School, pacing the sidewalk, seemingly in his own world until she gets out of the car. He checks the traffic and waves her across the street, half traffic cop, half protective big brother, then goes back to his solitary pacing.
At the harvest meal, he was a shy but gracious host, saying, “Hello, Mrs. Langworthy, and you must be Elizabeth’s father.” Well rehearsed, well delivered. A moment later Elizabeth started to run toward us, caught herself, slowed down and also greeted us like a good restaurant host. I was impressed and touched. Impressed and touched became the emotions of the morning.
After Elizabeth stopped me from going in the wrong door – because suddenly “rules” matter – she ushered us to the cafeteria entrance, still gracious, still accompanied by Michael, our other personal greeter. I was just beginning to wonder what kind of Prussian regime must have been required to instill so much responsibility so quickly when the cafeteria door opened and Mr. Divinsky, the head of the program, stepped into the hall.
“Welcome to our Harvest Meal!”
He beamed. I laughed. Mr. D., as apparently everybody in the world but me calls him, wore a chef’s hat shaped like a cooked turkey. The drumsticks were on top like horns. A bold statement, meeting your students’ parents with your head up a turkey’s butt. (I don’t know: maybe he has political aspirations. Start with a turkey’s butt and work your way up the food chain until you’re ready to run for Congress.) In any case, the visual killed my theory of a rigid authoritarian classroom.
I got my plate from a girl who was given that job to encourage her to be more outgoing (it was Elizabeth’s job, too). Down syndrome, autism, physical and developmental disabilities were all represented on the line. A different student served each dish. Behind the servers were the teachers – encouraging, reinforcing, praising and somehow finding time to exchange pleasantries with parents. They were a well-oiled food-service machine. I think the only time the line slowed down was when I stopped to deal with my sensory overload. Fortunately, Elizabeth and Carol kept me moving; these same kids had to serve the rest of the school.
When you know how much energy it takes for one special needs child to meet his or her challenges, it can be overwhelming to see a group of kids with a broad range of developmental issues work together to accomplish a common goal. It is more poignant when that goal is to serve the people who spend so much time serving them. Seeing their concentration, and their pride when it comes together, can be almost too much to bear. Or maybe it was just me. All I know is waves of emotion broke over me as I went down the service line.
The food was a pleasant surprise, by the way. It didn’t top the food I remember from Thanksgiving at my grandparents’ house, but it was good, and it was a lot better for me. I grew up in the Midwest, where butter is a spice. Also, I did not have to eat with my extended family, whose guiding principle seemed to be that arguments come and go, but resentment is forever. So we always ate our turkey with a side of thinly veiled hostility and a big bowl of tension for dessert. The dynamic at PATHS was different. For one thing, everybody seemed to want to be there. Also, the kids generally seemed to feel pretty good about themselves.
My mind has gone back to that “harvest meal” several times in the last week or so, and it always makes me smile. So to everybody associated with the event, and especially to the kids, I offer my sincerest “harvest.”
Mike Langworthy, an attorney, former stand-up comic and longtime television writer, now lives in Scarborough and is fascinated by all things Maine. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter: @mikelangworthy.