My return to high school and a day with an extraordinary girl was off to a bad start.
But at least it felt familiar.
I was late to meet Krista Musar, stuck in morning traffic on Westerly Parkway and on my way to being tardy. Old anxiety surfaced.
State College Area High School had invited me and other local residents to its first Educational Shadow Day, a chance to follow a student and learn about contemporary high school life compared with whatever prehistoric era when we sat in classrooms.
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My invitation instructed me to report at 7:45 a.m., and here I was, pressing to arrive on time, just like in my teenage days. Minutes late despite my rush, I dashed into the South Building and met Chris Weakland, dean of students, who assured me all was forgiven.
“We’ll just take it out of your lunch money,” he said.
With that settled, the day could properly begin.
English teacher Jeff King, who sits on an action committee responsible for integrating the school with the community, gave me a quick briefing. Organizing the day to coincide with National Education Week, the committee asked eight local residents to follow eight students, two from each grade.
“We wanted to promote the school,” King said. “I think there are so many great things we do. We need to get people in here to see them.”
I saw a few by my student’s side.
Krista, from College Township, just turned 16. Personable and intelligent, the ninth-grader leads a full life, going horseback riding and visiting Disney World, in spite of Weissenbacher-Zweymuller syndrome, a rare congenital disorder that left her with physical and speech disabilities.
Throughout her days, she moves with a motorized wheelchair and communicates through sign language and a computer tablet that voices her typed sentences and programmed responses.
On this morning, Krista led the way, along with her pediatric nurse Deb Heckman and her sign language interpreter Chrissy McCloskey, to the Wild Dream Team special education room and the wonderful world of teacher Jenny Lee and her staff.
Lee and paraprofessionals Rudy Burruss and Patti Rearick run a cheery culinary training institute out of their two classrooms, giving their students skills for possible transitions to food service jobs and more independence as adults.
“So education becomes very functional,” Lee said.
Every day in addition to their other classes, students follow a professional-style checklist — tidy hair and fingernails, timely reporting to work stations, cleaning up. For their work, they earn “wages” that can be redeemed for pizza, iPad and laptop time and other rewards.
My visit coincided with a special lesson.
The Wild Dream Team students were in the midst of making Thanksgiving dinners for local families in need, an annual tradition, with food donated by faculty and staff.
Pumpkin rolls awaited for the day’s focus, but first, Lee conducted a quick vocabulary review. One utensil used previously on about 100 pounds of food was a vegetable peeler. Onions or potatoes, McCloskey asked Krista while signing.
Potatoes, Krista signed back.
New words followed: butter, vanilla flavoring, extract, cinnamon and others. Lee assigned different duties.
“Sam and Krista, one of your jobs today is to learn how to use the can opener. You’re my can openers,” Lee said. “We’re all going to learn to crack eggs.”
Little tips popped out in rapid fashion. It’s best to pour flour and confectionery sugar out of their bags into bins to prevent spillage. Baking powder and baking soda are not the same.
And then Lee imparted wisdom.
“You make mistakes in the kitchen. It’s OK. That’s how you learn,” she said, recalling a seafood chowder doomed by a roux made with confectionery sugar instead of flour.
“Guys, making a mistake is part of life. The biggest thing when you make a mistake is to own up to it.”
Accompanying Krista daily, Heckman has seen plenty of learning from the Wild Dream Team staff’s instruction. She also has witnessed ample patience, humor and love.
“Some of these kids, you wouldn’t believe how they’ve blossomed since they hit this room,” she said.
During third period after gym, the six students continued their baking workshop in place of their normal English classes. They gathered around Lee, who demonstrated preheating their oven and then moved on to a necessary appliance.
“Here I’m going to use my ... vacuum cleaner? My Cuisinart? What is this?” Lee said.
A mixer, the class replies.
“Do I leave it plugged in or not plugged in? Which is safer?”
The eggs provided another teaching moment. What do you do when bits of shell fall into the bowl?
Answer: You lower your shell magnet.
“Shell attracts shell. No more dipping with your fingers,” Lee said. “That’s your nugget for the day. Take it to the bank. Impress your friends.”
Later in the day, students discovered how to tell whether their creations were ready.
“When your baked goods have a jelly belly,” Lee said, jiggling a pan of pumpkin-colored batter, “it’s not done.”
Here’s what I picked up from my enjoyable day at State High, beyond the realization that I still have punctuality issues heading into middle age.
I went home privileged to know more about amazing students like Krista, who daily overcome obstacles to sharpen their minds.
“Let’s do a little bit of work,” McCloskey said to Krista before they dived into an afternoon math session to solve arithmetic problems.
From a lunchtime tour of other parts of the South Building, I learned how far high school has come from my youth.
State High’s Career and Technical Center program includes a state-of-the-art drafting classroom with two 3-D printers and a training cafe where students serve meals prepared in a commercial-quality kitchen. The fitness center would be the envy of many commercial gyms.
Mostly, I came away reminded of how lucky we are, as a community, to have such caring and dedicated teachers.
Lee, Burruss, Rearick, McCloskey, King, adaptive physical education teacher Mark Baney, fitness center director Diane Swauger and everyone else I had the pleasure of meeting: They all pour themselves into the responsibility of shaping young lives.
“I saw a lot of work getting done today,” Lee said, topping the day with praise as warm as the fresh-baked pumpkin rolls. “I saw a lot of people stepping up.”
When I tucked into my own holiday meal, they all gave me several more reasons to be thankful.