Jack Higgins' peers made an unusual gesture of support.
Putnam County is located in New York state, not far north of Manhattan. With only 99,000 inhabitants, it doesn’t usually appear in the news, being overshadowed by the importance of New York City. Recently, though, it got the attention of news networks and social media because of an unusual and touching event. The protagonists of the story are the students, faculty, and staff of Carmel High School.
The motto of this high school, written on banners over every entrance, is “What’s best for kids.” It’s what motivates the entire academic community, from the principal to the teachers and the students themselves. Something they did earlier this year, inspired by that attitude, shows that it truly is possible to make a better world.
For eight years, Jack Higgins was part of the Carmel High School academic community, in their program for children with special needs. He has severe autism, which made it a challenge for him to complete his studies and graduate. One of the symptoms of his condition is that he is highly sensitive to noise. His classmates are quite familiar with his difficulties, and they’ve always been ready to try to accommodate him at school. They’ve grown up together, they respect each other, and they support each other daily.
This year, the time finally came for Jack Higgins to graduate. Throughout the last year of his studies at the school, he and his classmates have looked forward to the day of graduation as a great landmark in their lives, as it truly is. As the date approached, they got their caps and gowns for the graduation ceremony, they prepared for their parties, and did all the other things that teens do on such occasions.
Jack’s parents, Pat and Barbara, wanted their son to be able to participate in the celebration, but they were concerned. Because of his autism and his sensitivity to noise, they didn’t think he’d be comfortable participating in a long ceremony full of applause, shouts, music, and spontaneous cheers, in a crowd of hundreds of people. They were worried it would be overwhelming, so they consulted one of his teachers.
Soon, the principal got involved. In an email to CNN reporter Allen Kim, the principal explained that he asked himself — keeping in mind the school’s motto — what was best for Jack. He felt it was important that the young man and his family be able to participate in the ceremony and have that memorable experience of walking up to receive his diploma. So, he consulted with the staff and Jack’s parents, and they agreed on a proposed solution.
On the day of the graduation ceremony, Jack’s parents went to the auditorium along with their son. They trusted that the crowd of students, staff, and family would come through for Jack—and they did! At the beginning of the ceremony, the principal mentioned that the school’s ideals included compassion, and then he made a special request. He announced that Jack would receive his diploma at the beginning of the ceremony, before anyone else, and asked that all the students and guests refrain from clapping and cheering, and that instead they use a “golf clap” (clapping very lightly without making noise).
When Jack came up to the stage, all of the students, teachers, and families present showed their joy and respect for his accomplishment, either with noiseless “golf clapping” or by raising their hands in the air and twisting them back and forth (applause in sign language). When Jack turned to leave the stage after receiving his diploma, the students spontaneously rose in a silent standing ovation—something that the principal later called an “amazing compassionate gesture” that was their own initiative.
Jack walked back to his family through a crowd of smiling classmates, teachers, and families, all standing and showing him their support. The respectful silence was kept until he and his family left the auditorium, and the ceremony continued as usual.
Videos of that moment went viral on social media and on news networks. Seeing such restraint and respect from group of teenagers towards one of their peers with a disability is moving, and inspires hope for the future.
With the exception of Jack himself, and his family, perhaps the person who was most touched by the students behavior was Carmel High School’s principal. In his email, reported by CNN, he wrote, “I have been lucky and blessed to see some really remarkable things in my 31-year career but this so far has to be the most incredible. But as much as the students rose to the occasion so did Jack. Since Jack is very limited verbally, how overwhelming was if for him with a large crowd and expectation that it would be loud? It was so brave of him to take that walk which must have seemed like forever and he did it with grace, class and strength.”
Those teen students—both Jack and his peers—can teach a lesson to all of us, adults included: a lesson of compassion, respect, and courage.