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  • The 40th reunion of my class's graduation from Stuyvesant High School is tonight. For months, I've been trying to express what I learned there. Every time I put fingers to keyboard, I came up empty. I was a pretty awful science student. I was good at math, but really didn't do much with it. I was involved in starting an alternative newspaper, and in our school's musical comedy competition, but it's not like I became a journalist or ever realized my ambition to be the next Stephen Schwartz or Sondheim.

    This morning, it finally came to me, as I mulled over the details of a horrific incident the son of a colleague of mine, who, like my son Aaron, has autism, had suffered through the day before.

    [Earlier today, my son] went into crisis (as I feared might happen).Unbeknownst to me, the school had transferred him to the high school to attend a music concert and placed a staff person who is unfamiliar with my son in charge of him. When it was time to leave, the staff person refused to allow my son to have his raincoat. He wanted to put it on before he left to board the bus. The staff member quickly escalated the coat situation into a full-blown meltdown, complete with restraining him with an audience and causing pain severe enough for him to vomit. [My son] attempted to elope from the trauma. As a result, the staff involved made the decision to transport him from the auditorium on the far north side of the high school, down the hall and around corners, to the furthest south side of the school--by his arms, being dragged the entire length, in a very painful process. Two other teachers who witnessed this were in tears telling me what happened and how it did not have to happen.
  • A lot has happened in the 22 years since my own family's autism story began. It started while I was a senior associate at a midtown Manhattan law firm, bucking for partner. My late wife Michele and I had just endured seven years of infertility, a consequence of the radiation she had received as a teenager to send her Hodgkin's disease into remission--the same radiation that, unbeknownst to us, had triggered cardiovascular disease for her, and would, three open-heart surgeries later, claim her life. Six months on a waiting list to adopt a child from Korea, we received a call from our adoption lawyer. Another couple had walked away from an adoption the day the birthmother delivered. Were we willing to take the child ourselves? With a calm only a prospective new mother could muster, Michele aced the hastily arranged phone interview with the birthmother's mother and grandmother. We spent our last afternoon of solitude racing the aisles of a Westchester baby store for bassinets and diapers, nooks and baby monitors, powder and vaseline. We spent our last evening of possible sleep on the carpet of the unfurnished baby room, methodically working our way from A to Z in the baby name book we had purchased, until settling on the very first one we had reviewed, our Aaron. The next morning, as headlines of newspapers hawked at the toll gate to the Throgs Neck Bridge proclaimed "Hail to the Chief" to cheer Clinton's first inauguration the day before, we drove my blue Ford Escort under a matching morning sky to the hospital where we would pick up my son.

    There was no course on autism at Stuyvesant, and much of the education I have received about it since has fallen under the heading of the often overwhelming, exhausting, determination-testing magnitude of what I and we still need to learn. There have been many tired days, days when it takes effort to remember my goodness, days when the words to help others understand just won't come, days when Aaron has himself been manhandled by school administrators, misunderstood by store clerks and made fun of by peers who simply were afraid of what they did not understand.

    But these days have by far been in the minority. Mostly, when I look back at these 40 years, and the past 22 in particular, what I see is the selfless support of dozens of aides, teachers, and consultants who have given selflessly of their time, effort and energy; of kind relatives, neighbors, friends and strangers, who have found a way to look past Aaron's disability to catch a precious glimpse of who he is; and how a life I never even remotely imagined for myself and thought I was totally unprepared to live turned out to be the life I was destined to have all along.
  • It all crystallized a warm Sunday evening this past May. Aaron had loved the music of Peter Paul and Mary ever since he was a child. (My late wife Michele, herself a wonderful musician, used to sing "I Walk in the Rain by Your Side" to Aaron every night at bedtime.) When I heard that Peter Yarrow was playing at our local theater in Schenectady, NY, I knew we had to get tickets. At a meet and greet right before the concert, Mr. Yarrow was incredibly kind and gentle to Aaron and actually sang a verse of Puff the Magic Dragon with him in the reception room, with Mr. Yarrow modifying the verse on the fly to be "Puff the Magic Aaron". Aaron was besides himself with joy, almost disbelieving that this singer he had seen so many times on worn out VHS tapes and frenetically searched YouTube Videos was right there next to him. With a maturity beyond his years he held the shyness and excitement that he felt in a perfect delightful balance. Little did Aaron or I know that this was to be only the dress rehearsal for the main event. 90 minutes later, in the packed concert hall, Mr. Yarrow called audience members who wanted to sing along to the stage, and at the urging of my fiancée Susan, Aaron and I joined them. Mr. Yarrow masterfully sauntered across the stage as he sang, and in this magic moment held the microphone up to Aaron's mouth to capture the performance the two had essentially rehearsed 90 minutes before. In perfect rhythm without missing a beat, the excitement of the moment barely containable in his voice, with 500 people in the audience waiting in hushed silence, Aaron performed. He received the loudest applause of the night. During intermission, dozens of audience members walked up to Aaron to shake his hand, and tell him how wonderful he was and what a great job he had done. It's amazing what is possible when we take the time, have the patience, and act with the mindfulness to reveal the hidden majesty that is already inside all of us.

    Though I cannot prove it, I am pretty sure this is the one thing I learned at Stuyvesant, though I don't exactly remember when and I can't put my finger on exactly where. I learned what is possible.
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