Baltimore Sun June2, 2004: Two students show two kinds of success

Atholton: The high school valedictorian and a classmate with Down syndrome shine in different ways at graduation. By Tricia Bishop Sun Staff Originally published June 2, 2004 They sat side by side in the front row, each wearing a green cap and gown, each a portrait of success – in his own way. Atholton High School valedictorian David Reshef graduated yesterday with a perfect grade point average. He received multiple awards and plans to attend the Massachusetts Institute of Technology after finishing work over the summer on his groundbreaking concept for using computers to diagnose malaria. Sitting next to him at the graduation ceremony, held at Merriweather Post Pavilion in Columbia, was Michael Waschak, whose grade point average was never calculated. He’s going to work at a fast-food restaurant busing tables after graduation while attending classes at Howard Community College, where teachers will continue the education he got in high school – teaching him life skills, such as grocery shopping. “Both are success stories on just very different levels,” said Mary Brzezinski, a work-study coordinator at Columbia’s Atholton, who has spent the past few years teaching Waschak how to overcome his shyness and talk to people’s faces rather than their feet. Waschak has Down syndrome, and Reshef is a prodigy. Acquaintances but not friends, both are athletes – Reshef is a star baseball player, and Waschak has won gold medals for swimming and soccer in the Special Olympics – and both are at the top of their games, given their abilities. But Waschak got one up on his classmate: The 19-year-old delivered a graduation speech, while Reshef applauded him in the audience. At Atholton, commencement speakers are selected by a jury of faculty a few weeks before graduation. Reshef never got to audition as Waschak did. He was in Peru at the time, volunteering with his father, an eye surgeon, on a medical expedition. Standing ovation Waschak was all smiles yesterday, fidgeting in his seat and waiting for his name to be called. Five speakers went before him, and Waschak knew what he had to do when his turn came: Be quick, he said in an earlier interview, “because I’m last, and everybody wants to get out of there.” The other speakers advised their classmates to be true to themselves, question everything, grow, change and contribute. Then came Waschak’s turn. He strode up to the podium – where it turns out he didn’t need the stool Brzezinski had brought for him – adjusted the microphone to accommodate his 4-foot-10-inch frame and began, loud and clear: “My job is to say thanks for the seniors.” He thanked Principal Connie Lewis, whose voice cracked earlier as she spoke to the crowd. He thanked the teachers and the other students and the parents, as his own parents wiped their eyes with tissues. And he ended with a thought that earned him a standing ovation: “Thanks for giving us a future.” There was a time when Waschak’s parents, Allan and Kathy Waschak, questioned whether their middle son had a future. Mike was born the second of the Waschaks’ three boys and was diagnosed almost immediately with Down syndrome, which means he has an extra chromosome that has disabled his development cognitively and physically. The Waschaks were beside themselves. But then they got some good advice from a parent with a child like theirs. “Remember,” the woman said, “he’ll be more normal than abnormal.” And he is. He went to the prom this year with his longtime girlfriend, Molly. He shows off his class ring. He swims and plays soccer and dotes on his mom. “He does everything the other kids do, but just at a different level,” Kathy Waschak said, careful to point out that Mike couldn’t have been brought to where he is without the help of his many special educators – particularly Brzezinski, who last week secured Mike his first paying job. Reshef is a part-time member of the research staff at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Lab, where he is working on a design of his own creation for diagnosing malaria in blood samples by using high-powered microscopes and computers. Ability to connect At an awards ceremony Friday, which the Waschaks attended, Reshef was called to the podium repeatedly to accept awards for being a scholar-athlete, for being valedictorian, for never receiving a grade below an A, for his math team performance, and so on. And each time Reshef rose, Allan Waschak thought to himself: “I know that young man didn’t have to have as much help to get where he is.” For Reshef, difficult tasks come easily. For Mike Waschak, easy tasks come with difficulty. Still, Reshef knows he has something to learn from Waschak and the 32 other developmentally disabled kids at Atholton. “They don’t necessarily have the abilities you do, yet you can still connect,” Reshef said. “It’s very gratifying.” After the two-hour ceremony, the nearly 300 teens streamed out of the pavilion and into the sunshine, posing for pictures, hugging their friends, accepting bouquets from proud parents. David Reshef’s mother, Shoshana Reshef, corralled her children and gushed about her graduate son. But she saved a few words for Waschak. “I was thinking of him and my David” while Waschak was speaking, she said. “I was just crying. He was so brave. It was a very humbling and moving experience.” Kathy Waschak, too, gushed about her son, especially the standing ovation he had earned. “It couldn’t have been better, it just blew me away,” she said, as Waschak grinned standing among the 17 relatives who had come for the event. “It showed they respect him for who he is, and that’s important. His job here is done.”

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