Advocating for your school-age child, especially one with special needs, is a two-edged sword.

I have found teachers and administrators to be uniformly dedicated and hardworking. Even though they’re from the government, they are here to help you, unlike that unicorn, the Lazy Bureaucrat, visible only to reactionary radio hosts and others who think they don’t need government.

Unfortunately, as schools are asked to do more with less, the process can be adversarial. That was more of a problem in California, partly because California has bigger budget problems, but also because there’s no there, there, culturally. It doesn’t have the “we take care of our own” sense of community we have experienced here. I got a big dose of that spirit recently at one of the gems of Maine’s school system: Portland Art & Technical High School.

Carol and I took Elizabeth to their open house. She spends half of every day at PATHS in the fast foods program, learning practical, real-world skills. It is an outstanding and popular curriculum, and I was glad to support it, although not so much at an open house.

School functions are usually noisy and crowded; I start hyperventilating if somebody gets within six feet of me. It’s not a good match. Also, Elizabeth currently has an “I love you, please go away” thing happening with me. Our conversations about events usually go something like: “Can I come?”



“I’m sorry, dad.”

“It’s OK.”

“I’m not being mean to you or anything. I just don’t want you to go.”

“I know.”

“I do love you, but sometimes I just want to be with Mom.”

“It’s OK.”

We avoided that dance this time; Carol announced the whole family (i.e., me) was going, and her word is law. We took separate cars, which is a win-win; Elizabeth was not relegated to the back seat, and I was not forced to endure their current favorite CD, “Every Conceivable 80s Pop Anthem Homogenized By The Contestants On A Television Singing Competition.” Volume XXII.

When we got to PATHS, Carol pointed out the principal, Mike Johnson, moving among gaggles of kids and parents effortlessly. He was working the crowd like an alderman, as my grandfather used to say. That may sound like an insult in today’s political climate, but I say it with great admiration. I knew Johnson was an excellent principal from when he was at Portland High School. I was not aware of his skill at making people feel welcome and important while seeming to be everywhere at once. That is a rare ability.

Elizabeth’s teacher, Mr. Divinsky, could make a pretty good living standing in for Billy Joel, but it would be education’s loss. As I understand it, he runs an industrial kitchen and food program for several hundred, while simultaneously training students with a daunting range of challenges to work in a restaurant environment. Despite being pulled in a dozen different directions, and even though we arrived too late to see his formal presentation, he found the time to walk us through Elizabeth’s curriculum individually. I’m not saying I have a man crush on him, but I can’t imagine anybody I’d rather see teaching Elizabeth to multitask.

Earnest musicians serenaded us with classic rock while we waited in line for our hamburgers and hot dogs (cookies courtesy of Elizabeth’s class). I like to think the Hendrix and Clapton were by choice and not because their music teacher said, “Look, there’s going to be a lot of old people there, so make sure you don’t play anything you like.” The students who shared the line with us were bouncy, moving in and out of groups with a fluidity I don’t remember from my own adolescence. It all had a very light and friendly feel, a kind of organized chaos fueled by enough adolescent high spirits to light a major city for a week.

PATHS has a high proportion of students with special needs. I’ve learned to be hypersensitive to how they are treated in an integrated environment. From what I could tell, they weren’t merely coexisting or tolerating each other. In many cases, I was hard pressed to tell which kids had special needs or what they were. That fluidity I mentioned seemed to cross all sorts of lines. Granted, this was an event, not a school day, but it’s impossible to imagine that the sense of genuine good will I felt was something “put on” for the occasion.

Maybe there is nothing remarkable about this. Maybe I missed a seismic shift in social dynamics since I went to school. Or maybe I saw the whole event through the rose-colored glasses of a parent who desperately wants his child to be happy and feel welcome everywhere. Or maybe it really is an example of how Mainers take care of their own. Whatever it is, I’m glad she’s at PATHS.

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Portland resident Mike Langworthy, an attorney, former stand-up comic and longtime television writer, is fascinated by all things Maine. You can reach him at [email protected].