Jewell Cardwell

News of disco queen Donna Summer’s death was being announced on the radio as I pulled into Canal Fulton’s Northwest High School’s parking lot to attend its May Fiesta dress rehearsal.


Imagine my surprise when I walked into the auditorium and found out the whole production was bathed in a ’70s and ’80s disco fever theme. There was a spinning disco ball, and costumes and tunes from Lipps Inc.’s Won’t You Take Me to Funkytown, the Village People’s YMCA and Gloria Gaynor’s I Will Survive.


Dance steps flowed from the Temptation walk to the bump to the hustle.


Things were poised to get even more interesting as I focused on one young man who had really stepped outside of his comfort zone to do all that he did.


Nate Johnston is his name.


His is a feel-good story on a number of levels. For starters, it spoke volumes about what a person— viewed by conventional thinking as “different” — can accomplish


when he’s supported


by a dedicated family


and remarkably accepting


teachers, especially special


education director Michael Capes and musical director JoAnn Pitzer, schoolmates and friends.


Nate, 18, is a junior who has been diagnosed with autism.


Autism is a complex developmental disability, defined by the Autism Society of America as “impacting development in the areas of social interaction and communication skills. Both children and adults with autism typically show difficulties in verbal and nonverbal communication, social interactions and leisure or play activities.’’


Even so, there was Nate — front and center and in all of his glory — singing and moving and a-grooving to the lively disco beat.


OK, he wasn’t always in lockstep with everyone else.


But that’s not the takeaway here.


The point is that he was up there, participating, smiling and obviously having a great time. And he was being embraced and accepted at every turn.


Even more amazing was Nate’s big dance number.


A solo performance at that.


Talk about the courage that it must have taken to be out on the stage by himself, right in the public eye as the curtain opened.


For his soft-shoe debut, he reached high, tapping into Michael Jackson’s Beat It from the King of Pop’s platinum Thriller album.


Instructor on hand


On one side of the stage, hidden behind the curtain and out of view of the audience, was Tori Fox — one of his private dance instructors — who was acting out the steps for Nate to watch as he went along. Call it an insurance policy the gloved one had on the side to make sure panic didn’t set in.


Tori — who is a freshman at the University of Akron, where she’s majoring in dance and special education — operates Dance House studio in Medina with her sister Lindsay. Nate is a student there.


Nate’s very proud mother Susan — who had been there to encourage her son every step of the way — captured all of his moves on camera. (His father is Scott Johnston.)


“He likes the arts and he has been able to use drama, acting and music to help him recover language and skills,” Susan Johnston said.


“He has been in three school plays and he has been in the choir program since he was a freshman. And it’s really enhanced his high school experience.”


She credits the dancing as playing a pivotal role in her son’s development.


“One of his classmates who graduated last year and her sister who helps with the choreography wanted Nate to take dance lessons so he could be upfront on stage and build his confidence.”


“He has been taking dance lessons with Tori … at Dance House in Medina weekly since August. They are so patient with him.”


This is not to say that each person with autism will be able to do what Nate does. Just that they have the opportunity, with the right kind of support, to write their own script, refusing to be defined by what academics or clinicians say is possible.


In other words, living their lives with question marks instead of periods.


Nate’s dancing, his mother was quick to acknowledge, “is average but he sure looks GREAT in his Michael Jackson costume.”


“When you consider that most people affected by autism are not able to imitate or cross midline well and Nate is accomplishing this because he is trying so hard to dance,” she said. “It is great to watch him at his lessons doing all these things he is not supposed to be able to do.”


Northwest High’s assistant principal, Scott Burnett, in talking about Nate — who takes a combination of regular and special education classes (depending on the courses) — applauded his perseverance. “He has been very successful here, where lots of students with similar disabilities are placed in more specialized programs.”


Dave Cooper, Nate’s case manager since his freshman year, agreed, crediting Nate’s parents for his drive.


“He’s involved in lots of activities, including helping out as assistant manager for the boys basketball team,” Cooper said.


“So the social piece is there.”


Why Michael Jackson?


Nate Johnston — if you haven’t guessed it already — is a huge Michael Jackson fan. And not just because he loves the genius of Michael’s music.


He believes the two share a bond, Susan Johnston explained:


“He relates to Michael Jackson because he feels both missed their childhoods. Michael because his music career took off so fast and Nate because of autism.


“I asked Nate how he [Michael] changed the music industry. Nate said because he invented the moonwalk. Nate doesn’t quite have the moonwalk down.” But that didn’t stop him from doing his own version on stage for all the world to see.


So what if Nate’s mastery of the moonwalk wasn’t perfect?


Maybe it should never be.


After all, Michael Jackson’s moonwalk is a highly stylized dance technique that presents the illusion of the dancer being pulled backward as he attempts to walk forward.


That’s not Nate Johnston.


He has made too many giant steps forward to ever glide backward.


Jewell Cardwell can be reached at 330-996-3567 or jcardwell@thebeaconjournal.com