FRENCHTOWN – Makenzie Bergman saw him standing there near Frenchtown High School’s front doors nine days before the prom.
Students filed past Jacob Pace, the “teddy bear of Frenchtown High,” and said, “Hey, Jacob” and “What’s up, Jacob?” and “Yo, Jacob.”
You couldn’t miss him if you tried. At 6 feet 4 inches, he towers above his classmates, a big, roomy kid. Maybe that’s why Jacob, a comic-book collector, admires the Incredible Hulk above all those other superheroes. But while the Hulk wears a menacing grimace, Jacob wears a near-constant grin.
Bergman, a Frenchtown sophomore, was looking for him that Thursday. She had a question.
“I had been wanting to go to prom, but in my religion you can’t go until you turn 16,” she said. “But if you really want to go, you can go as friends with someone else. I wanted to go really bad, and so I asked him.”
“Jacob,” she said, “are you going to prom?”
“No, but I want to,” he said.
“Perfect! Because I want to go too. Will you go with me?”
Jacob Pace is a kid of few words, but the words are always honest. The 16-year-old has autism – pervasive developmental disorder, specifically – which makes the world outside and the people who inhabit it difficult and even frightening to navigate.
So it was a testament to Frenchtown High School’s special education department – and Jacob’s bravery – that his answer came so quickly.
And it was a testament to the compassion of Frenchtown High School’s students and, again, Jacob’s bravery that on March 17 – prom night – the teddy bear of Frenchtown High wore the crown of Prom Prince, overwhelmingly given the honor by the junior class.
How did that feel, Jacob?
Jacob sat down for dinner at the Ranch Club in Frenchtown, dressed to the nines in a black tux and maroon tie, two leaves of green fanned out in his corsage. His date was gowned in her mother’s wedding dress – maroon with white lace. Jacob ordered a steak burger; Makenzie had the sirloin. With them were Phil McLendon, special ed teacher (chicken fried steak) and Jacob’s mother Rebecca Pace (steak).
Three of the most important people in Jacob’s life were there with him to spend a special night together.
And Jacob, despite his growing independence, needs them. His disability blunts his ability to socialize and communicate normally, to build self-identity and self-awareness in a world that can seem chaotic.
McLendon, who leads the school’s life skills classes and its special education program, knows well the challenges that life has thrown Jacob.
“I have an 11-year-old son with autism, and I’ve always said, ‘If my son grows up to be like Jacob, I will be very happy,’ ” said the man most Frenchtown kids call “Mr. Mac.” “I have a great student in Jacob, but I have also inherited a great friend.”
Jacob grew up in Frenchtown, so most of his classmates are ones he has known most of his life. Familiarity and routine are healthy for a child with autism, but they wouldn’t be nearly as poignant if Jacob didn’t have students who genuinely care for him, and approach him as one of their own.
And because they do, Jacob has grown beyond every expectation.
“He takes great steps,” said McLendon. “Some of the steps are bigger than others, some are smaller. But he’s always walking forward.”
And Rebecca Pace has seen developmental growth in her son that has surpassed even what Jacob’s physicians told her to expect.
“Jacob has a really good life and he is happy, OK?” she said. “That is really important to say. But it’s also been lonely in terms of friends. So his group at school is really important, because outside of that, there are few.”
Few friends to share his love of video games and of comic books. Few friends to be there for him when he pedals down the road on his three-wheel bicycle. Few friends to share his dream of one day working at Hastings in Missoula. Few friends to celebrate the fact that he was just allowed to take the driver education program at Frenchtown.
But the ones he does have, like his eighth-grade friend Jaden, who shares lunch with Jacob and hugs him around his thick neck, are precious. And then there is his big sister Sarah Pace, who is 18 years old and a dance instructor at On Center Performing Arts, where Jacob is a welcome guest because all the girls there consider him a friend.
Then there are Jacob’s friends in the Frenchtown kitchen, where he works as part of his life skills class.
Every day, Jacob is there to wash apples and oranges and clean dishes and prep the kitchen for the lunchtime onslaught of his own classmates.
With him are the lunch ladies of Frenchtown, who have trained Jacob and watch him methodically and unerringly perform his duties, always with an “excuse me” when he needs room, or a quick hand to hold a door, or even the latest gossip from the halls of Frenchtown High.
“I call him my informant,” said Anne Bashor, a Frenchtown paraeducator and one of Jacob’s mentors. “Every morning I come in and he tells me everything that’s going on.”
Kitchen employee Angie Handford has known Jacob since he was “this high,” she said, while holding her palm near her knee.
Besides the fact that “he got big,” she said, Jacob “has always been the same – just so sweet and innocent.”
“He’s a very gentle giant,” added employee Barb Gaut. “He’s very easy to work with. You couldn’t ask for a nicer young man than him.”
After dinner, Jacob and Makenzie walked into the Frenchtown High School gym together, matched perfectly in maroon and black and white.
Mr. Mac was there too, as was Jacob’s mother Rebecca and Jacob’s grandparents.
Rebecca Pace was snapping photos with her phone. She wanted to freeze this moment in time, because she couldn’t quite believe it was happening to her son.
Jacob is in the school’s mixed choir, but he’s still too reluctant to actually get up on stage and sing in front of an audience. So during choir concerts, he serves as an usher or ticket-taker.
For him to walk arm-in-arm with his date in front of his entire school, then, was something of a miracle.
“Two years ago, there is no way he would have walked in front of anyone,” she said. “Two years ago, this would not have happened.”
What happened next made Rebecca Pace shout to the gym roof and nearly collapse, and the prom couples leap to their feet.
Jacob was voted the Prom Prince of Frenchtown High.
“I just screamed,” said Rebecca Pace. “I had my parents on both sides of me and I grabbed their legs and just screamed.”
But Mr. Mac knew. Not much of a surprise to the guy who works with Jacob every day, who describes him as a “stud” and a “celebrity” and “the giant teddy bear of Frenchtown High School.”
“I’m surprised he didn’t have six or seven girls on each arm,” said McLendon. “Makenzie was a lucky girl that night.”
Lucky, and kind, and a real friend to a boy who needs real friends.
“Once I met Jacob, we have been friends ever since,” she said.
When Jacob, the Prom Prince of Frenchtown High, is asked who his best friend is, he doesn’t say much. He’s a boy of few words.
His eyes move to the left, where his prom date of March 17 is seated.
“Who is your best friend?” a reporter asks again.
Reporter Jamie Kelly can be reached at 523-5254 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.