Millikan High will not soon forget this year’s Mr. Ram, a distinction similar to Homecoming King. To the delight of all who know him, James Wackerman, a special needs student with Fragile X syndrome, was recognized for being special because of what he can do, rather than what he can’t.
After weeks of preparation and encouragement from the people who love him, this shy, charming 18 year old beamed as he accepted the coveted title of Mr. Ram onstage in front of hundreds of peers. People with Fragile X, which is an autism spectrum disorder, often face communication challenges and social anxiety. James, though moderately intellectually disabled, calmly and joyfully looked out at a bright stadium and a roaring crowd, secure on the arm of his escort Paige Palonis, as he received a standing ovation.
That suspenseful moment before the winner was announced stretched longer than most for Naomi Star, James’ mother, who cried tears of joy.
She said, “It was one of the happiest moments of my life. It was beyond what we hoped for.”
Mr. Ram, named after their mascot, is a high honor for senior male students of Millikan High, much like the female Homecoming Queen. It’s extremely competitive, requiring applicants to be nominated by a teacher, provide five recommendations from past teachers, sign a student commitment and responsibility form, fill out a bio questionnaire, sign a Mr. Ram Contract, and perform a talent for two minutes.
In addition to wearing the crown of the Ram, James also won Best Talent.
He wowed the crowd as a "ringleader" drummer, playing drums as three of his closest Buddies, Kevin Barnett, Jeff Timko and Paige Pelonis, clowned around, danced and tight-rope walked in rhythm to his beats. It fit perfectly with the theme of the night, "The Greatest Show on Earth."
Though it’s more than a popularity contest, James had the tireless support of his peers, teachers, family members and “Best Buddies” behind him all the way.
Best Buddies is a non-profit organization that was started in 1989 by Anthony Shriver, son of the Special Olympics founder and one in a long line of intellectual disability activists. Best Buddies is a volunteer program on over 1,500 campuses worldwide that works to integrate students with mental disabilities into the school community. The club strives to create meaningful bonds through one-on-one relationsips between a special education student and a Peer Buddy.
Kevin Barnett, Jeff Timko and Paige Pelonis are all current or former students that have deeply touched James’ life and gained valuable insight in return. Though Kevin, a Peer Buddy from a previous year, has since graduated high school, he returns to visit James periodically, and wrote in his yearbook: “You’ve inspired me to be a better man every day.”
Whoever thinks high school students are lazy, spoiled or apathetic must not have met this compassionate and composed bunch of young adults. After the initial excitement of being nominated by one of his teachers, James' entourage swung into action, planning events over lunches, rehearsing the talent act, promoting James in classrooms, attending student rallies and mobilizing awareness on Facebook.
“The support was incredible. It shows that friendships can make the seemingly impossible possible,” Star said. “It’s great for James to hang out with these guys, and good for them, too. It helps regular students step outside their comfort zone and enrich the life of someone else. Otherwise, students like James often end up distant, missing opportunities like this.”
2011 marks the first year that a special education student will have won the Mr. Ram competition, and with the highest score to date. The judges were not affiliated with the school, and included a professional photographer, a Goodwill representative and a spokesperson from KIIS FM.
Star said, "As a parent it proved to me that, given the chance, people can see beyond a disability to the person within. It gives me such hope for the future."
James was diagnosed with Fragile X when he was four years old and went through mostly special education programs in public school.
That is, except for music. James is a talented drummer and has been playing all his life, given his first drum set at the age of one by his musician father, Chad Wackerman. He picked it up well as he got older, watching videos and imitating, and has been an integral part of the jazz band for all four years at Millikan, as well as the marching band.
When all contestants were asked to share their greatest struggle in high school, James clearly and confidently stated, “Jazz band is great, but jazz band is hard.”
His mother described James as being naturally upbeat, funny and likeable, and with the support of the Best Buddies program, his caring family and the inclusion from the music program, it’s no wonder this remarkable young man carried on so well despite the pressure of the Mr. Ram competition and high school in general.
Next, he'll be continuing in the Viking Show Band at Long Beach City College and participating in the Adult Transition Program for disabled adults, where he'll learn vocational and life skills.
“It's an unbelievable way to finish out his high school career," his mother said. "We’ve taken to calling James ‘Mr. Ram’ since the competition. Sometimes he says he wants to be called James Wackerman again, but I’ve explained that he’s earned this title for a whole year so he might as well get used to it!”
James was applauded for his talent and personality, instead of being ostracized for his disabilities, and the overwhelmingly positive response from him and his community demonstrates the immense power of friendship, acceptance and inclusion.
Star said, “If Fragile X occurred in my generation, and let’s say we had an uncle with it, he would have been in a mental institution somewhere. But instead, now, we have James winning his high school talent competition. It’s absolutely incredible.”
Fragile X is the most common form of inherited mental impairment and is carried along the X chromosome, affecting about 1 in 3,600 males and 1 in 4,000 to 6,000 females. It may easily go under diagnosed, since it shares many behavioral characteristics with generalized autism, but it is important to recognize because it has the added factor of anxiety, and behavioral treatment may differ greatly. Star is on the Board of Fragile X for Southern California and hopes to spread awareness of the disorder.