At the crowded Christmas party, Santa called out for Danny Boyce. Santa reminded everyone that Danny has a smile that makes people feel alive and good, and besides, he's a musician. He has perfect pitch.
"Danny, where are you?" Santa summoned.
A large man with thick eyeglasses stood up. Danny graduated from Paul B. Stephens Jr. School three years ago. He's almost 25. He returns every year at Christmas. His eyesight is poor. He heard Santa, but couldn't see him, so he ran to the opposite corner, where he remembered Santa had sat for a dozen years.
"Danny, I'm over here this year," Santa boomed.
When Danny returns at Christmas, his teachers cry. The other students — some as young as 5, others nearly as old as he is — cheer him like a hero.
He and all the others — from 3 feet to 6 feet — still believe in Santa Claus.
This is a place where Santa, and memory, reign forever.
• • •
Every day, students wander to the play table where the photos are. Hundreds of photos lay strewn on the table, others in boxes. The students find photos of themselves when they were little. They find photos of others who have graduated after as many as 17 years in the class. They're gone now, but not too far gone, because their images — and the memories they awaken — are still here.
There's Danny when he was little. And Grace, when she was a holy terror and didn't speak. No one in the R' Club gets forgotten. Not even if they get old.
Paul B. Stephens is a public school for children with disabilities. Students don't move on. They start at 5 and often stay until they graduate at 22. The R' Club is a before-and-after-school class where students from tots to 20-somethings work and play at the same tables and, as the years and decades roll along, become bound to one another and to their teachers in ways that only families do.
More photos line the office walls of their two teachers — Greg Gebler and his assistant, Annette Urquhart, have worked together on and off over the past 20 years, "like a bad marriage," Gebler says.
Urquhart began taking photos of the students when Danny was 5, small enough to ride on Gelber's shoulders. She used black-and-white film, and printed 8- by 10-inch photos. Each kid got one for Christmas. The photos are now made digitally and in color, but convey the same thing.
Urquhart somehow strips away each disability to show the real child within. It requires dozens of frames and Urquhart's intimate understanding of each child. At some point, uniqueness, strength and vulnerability come out. It happens in the split instant of a shutter opening and closing.
The outtakes, the extra prints, all go into the box and onto the play table, where the children — at 5, at 10, at 22 — each day find their beauty revealed.
A mother told Urquhart, "You see my child as I see my child."
• • •
Grace Fraker is eager to join Danny on the alum list. She's 21. She has already prepared the invitations for her graduation even though she still has a year to go.
She was born with a usually fatal chromosome disorder called partial trisomy 16. She's one of just 21 people with the disorder known to be alive.
When she entered the R' Club, she was almost nonverbal, not potty trained, and self-abusive. Most of all, she hated being told what to do. She was a "runner," one who would take off anytime she got the chance. She was the opposite of little Danny, who craved affection, who delivered a daily weather report to the class, who had "a thing for the ladies," and for women's nylons.
Grace is now one of those students, like Danny, who have made Gebler and Urquhart's hall of fame — students they will most miss when they leave, students who represent success. Over 13 years, there was never a breakthrough, a single illuminating moment when Grace reached out, or Gebler and Urquhart found a magic key to understanding. It was an inexorable accumulation — a slow, imperceptive forming of intimacy and trust.
The way families do.
But there was an important discovery. Gebler and Urquhart found the magic words to get Grace to do her work, to socialize with other children, to accept their authority.
The magic words:
"Do it for Donny Osmond."
• • •
At the Christmas party, Grace was taller and older looking than Danny. She was smiling in the photo Urquhart gave to her. But it was a guarded smile.
"I'm 21 now," she always reminds Gebler.
Santa called her name. "Where's Donny Osmond's greatest fan?"
Grace's face lit up.
She ran to see what Santa brought her.