The time of their lives

by Brian Clarey

When the graduation procession begins at McIver Education Center Monday night, the Homecoming King, Chris Lowery, stays in the hallway while his classmates in the Class of 2013, in red graduation caps and gowns, make their way to the front of the stage.

He just can’t deal with it.

“He’s a routine kid,” says McIver Principal Sara Nachtrab, “and this is not his routine.”

Lowery’s unusual psyche falls deep within the autism spectrum of developmental disorders: low cognition, difficulty with communication — Nachtrab calls him “very, very autistic” — a host of physical issues that make every moment of his life more challenging than, say, mine.

McIver’s been good to him. The graduation program notes that he learned to make sandwiches here, that he’s got a great laugh, that he’s loved: “As we send Chris out into the broader world, we only ask any future caregivers to remember that his needs are not so alien… the universal desire for affection and security, as well as opportunities to prove his self-worth.”

He passes through tonight with three classmates, each with equally compelling narratives.

H’Too Eh’Soe is a Burmese refugee who spent years in a Taiwanese refugee camp before coming to the United States with her family and entering McIver in 2007. “She’s non-verbal,” Nachtrab says, “but she definitely gets her point across.”

Tina Hemric is the oldest of six children.

Her father Lance says her time at McIver changed everything.

“She can talk,” he says, “get her thoughts across.” He’s hoping she’ll get a spot at Lindley College, a day program for special-needs adults, and then he’s got a place for her in the family business.

Anna Stalter — homecoming queen, head cheerleader and valedictorian of the Class of 2013 — has been here since kindergarten. Now 22, she graduates with a service-learning diploma signified by the green cord around her shoulders, and through a Guilford County program, Project SEARCH, has landed a paying job upon matriculation at Friends Home retirement community.

How many graduates can say that? The four of them are the last class to graduate from the McIver Education Center, which will close after today, to be replaced by two separate facilities — one for K-8 on the campus of Hairston Middle School and Falkener Elementary School and a 9-12 at Ragsdale High School.

It’s the latest development in a program that began in 1953 with the Special School, which held its first commencement in 1955 on land donated by Greensboro College.

A new building came up in 1957, built with $50,000 of donated money corralled by the United Fund of Greensboro. The program outgrew the space by 1959, when it was moved to rooms inside Vandalia Elementary School, then Lindley Elementary School in 1961. It found a home here on Summit Avenue in 1969.

Nachtrab’s been here since 2011; she’ll continue at the Ragsdale facility in the fall, the Christine J. Greene Education Center — the other has yet to be named. Her enthusiasm for the new buildings overcomes some of the emotion she feels about this old one. It’s really all about the kids.

“You look at these children and their families and the struggles they go through,” she says. “It’s just inspiring. It’s amazing.”

On graduation night, the students of the McIver Handbell Ensemble ring their colored bells according to the cards Catherine Pressley holds up in time with a recording of “America the Beautiful.” The exercise helps with color recognition, task completion and listening skills. The group is in its second year, and they’ve already played a gig at the mall during Christmastime. Mid-song, Tina Hemric stops to wave and blow kisses to her daddy.

A projector throws images of the Class of 2013 through the years as the ubiquitous Green Day graduation anthem plays: Eh’Soe dancing with her long, black hair in a braid; Tina on the cheerleading squad; Anna and Chris as Homecoming King and Queen.

It’s something unpredictable/ but in the end is right./ I hope you had the time of your life….

After the diplomas have been handed out — Lowery’s mother walks across the stage to accept his sheepskin and brings it to the seat he’s staked in the back of the auditorium — and after the commencement speaker, Robin Drake, who heads the exceptional-children department of Guilford County Schools, has made her remarks, it’s time for the principal to make her goodbye.

Nachtrab uses a quote from Ivy Baker Priest: “The place which may seem like the end may also be the beginning.” Her voice cracks on that last beat. She’s not alone.

And then it’s over. Family and friends gather around the individual members of the Class of 2013 and slowly, very slowly, move to the hallway and then make it, step by step, to the reception in the cafeteria, where it smells like cookies and cake.