Longform

The Halo Club

E-e-e-e-e-o-o-o," squeals Kathryn Benton, a brown-haired moppet with vivid blue eyes and a wide smile. With a rigid hand she paws through a book of laminated pictures of family, friends, and teachers created for Kathryn by her special-education teacher, Holly Clemons.

It is almost noon on a school day in early April, and Clemons has asked Kathryn where she wants to be at this moment. Sitting at a small table in the brightly decorated special-ed room, which resembles a typical kindergarten classroom except for the bean bags where the wheelchair-bound children sometimes sit, Kathryn flips through the photos with a fierce determination.

She stops at a Polaroid of Mrs. Davie, the fourth-grade teacher in whose class Kathryn spends almost half her day.

A volunteer buddy and helper from Mrs. Davie's class picks up Kathryn in her classroom every morning to participate in the class' meeting. The children gather in a circle and throw a Koosh ball to one another and talk. The meeting ends with a fierce game of hot potato to energize the students. Kathryn returns to the class for gym, art, or music. She has lunch with the class and remains with them for social studies, science, and recess.

Now, Kathryn clearly indicates to Clemons she knows exactly where she is supposed to be--back with Mrs. Davie's fourth-grade class. After Kathryn singles out the teacher's picture, Mrs. Davie's class of 22 students stops by to pick up Kathryn for lunch.

Kathryn slaps all the children's hands, lets out another squeal, and lights up like a jack-o'-lantern, all toothy grin and sparkling eyes.

But when she gets to Emily Faber, Kathryn throws her arms around her and positions herself by Emily's side. Kathryn is attracted to Emily like a magnet to metal.

Though Kathryn shares a mutual affection with almost all of the class members, and each child has a chance to volunteer to be her special buddy each day, there existed a special bond between Kathryn and Emily from the first time they had met.

They are two vastly different children: At 10 years old, Emily is a bright student who was chosen for the McKinney school district's talented-and-gifted Star program. Students who are selected for the prestigious Star program at Glen Oaks Elementary leave their regular classrooms for an entire day each week and meet in a separate building behind the school, where they work on more challenging, higher-level tasks.

But shortly after the school year began, Emily dropped out of the Star program, in part, because of Kathryn. "I don't get to see Kathryn all day," she had complained to her mother.

Kathryn, on the other hand, is two years older than Emily, but mentally much younger--though how much younger is not quite clear. Kathryn suffers from Angelman syndrome, a form of mental retardation with an unusual pattern of characteristics that has just recently registered on the medical radar screen.

Like others diagnosed with Angelman--named for an English pediatrician who discovered the syndrome in 1985--Kathryn has an almost perpetually sunny disposition; she cleaves to others with an unabashed enthusiasm. She also can be as meddlesome and frenetic as the most rambunctious 2-year-old; and she suffers from a sleep disorder that can be so disruptive she must be locked in a bare room at night to keep her from being stimulated and out of harm's way.

Kathryn is a messy eater, often drools, and frequently has to be reminded to put her tongue back in her mouth. But perhaps her most prominent trait--and one that makes her relationship with Emily that much more unusual--is that she does not speak.

And yet it is Emily who is always thinking of ways the class can better include Kathryn in its activities. Emily is always reminding Mrs. Davie not to leave Kathryn out, and always controlling the often recalcitrant Kathryn. Emily knows what Kathryn needs, even though her young friend can't express it herself.

Kathryn might not be able to speak, but Emily understands her friend perfectly.

Emily helps Kathryn through the lunch line. Back at the table, she helps Kathryn open her drink. They sit at the end of a long Formica table, in a little cluster of Emily's closest classmates--the ones who don't mind that Kathryn, in Emily's words, "is a very messy eater." When a visitor Kathryn recognizes comes by the table, Kathryn points a finger to an empty chair, indicating she wants the visitor to sit down. When the visitor hesitates, Kathryn pulls on her purse to insist she stay.

Emily's friends ask her questions about Kathryn. One wants to know why her hands shake. Emily matter-of-factly explains it's due to her anti-seizure medication, which she recently has stopped taking because her shaking was so bad she couldn't even hold her lunch tray.

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Ann Zimmerman

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