The dance: Noah went to the high school dance, and took the lead

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Young adults often have no idea where the unknowns of their future years will take them.

My wife and I both grew up in the Pittsburgh area. I graduated from Aliquippa High School in 1969 and Becky from Belle Vernon Area High in 1970. We began dating following my graduation from Duquesne University and married a few months after Becky received her degree from Edinboro in 1974.

Career responsibilities led to moves from the Pittsburgh area to West Virginia, Michigan, the Chicago suburbs, elsewhere in Illinois and Iowa. Earlier this year, 39 years after our wedding day, we moved back to our Pennsylvania roots.

One key reason for doing so concerns a 14-year-old young man, anxious for the arrival of his 15th birthday on Jan. 1. His name is Noah and he is our son.

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When one meets Noah, one encounters an adolescent who sits tall and handsome in his wheelchair, required due to the spina bifida which impacts his life. Knowing him better, one realizes he is shockingly smart, certainly not to be trifled with during any game of "Wheel of Fortune" or "Jeopardy."

From my perspective, Noah is a young man more open to human interactions than anyone I've ever known, constantly wanting to give old friends and new acquaintances a hug at the beginning and end of each encounter. It is a trait we are urging him to more selectively reveal during his teenage and future years.

Becky and I became parents later in life. We first were Noah's foster parents when he was a fragile 3-month-old baby with special needs. We adopted him before his first birthday, when I was 48 and Becky 46.

We decided early this year that Noah would benefit by a relocation from Iowa back to Western Pennsylvania, where Leheny and Taylor relatives abound throughout the Pittsburgh suburbs.

Noah now is a freshman at Belle Vernon Area High School, which his mother attended more than four decades ago. The school is accessible to wheelchairs and offers a significant advantage over his former school in Iowa. Because the nearest school in Iowa was not accessible, Noah was bused a round trip of 15 miles each school day, which made it hard to take part in evening activities with friends and classmates. But here, in Pennsylvania, some classmates live only blocks away.

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Noah recently surprised us by saying he wanted to go by himself to the homecoming dance. In the past, Noah usually avoided crowds. The noise level at group functions consistently made him uncomfortable. But now he really wanted to attend this dance, and Mom and I said all right.

So on a Saturday night we took Noah to the high school gym minutes before the dance began, and his mom wheeled him inside the gym doors. She then exited quickly, as Noah had requested. She asked him to call us on his cell phone when he was ready to leave.

Perhaps for future dances we will go home and wait, or stop at a restaurant for a meal, followed by leisurely nibbling on dessert and sipping coffee. But not this time. After Noah entered the gym, we entered the school parking lot, concerned that if again the teenage clamor made him uncomfortable, he might simply decide to leave.

Becky and I waited in the car, watching a video on a portable DVD player. One hour became two, and two hours became three, with us still in the parking lot while Noah navigated the mysteries and pleasures of the teenage dance.

He did not leave early. As 11 p.m. drew near, girls in runway-model dresses on the arms of young men in suits and tuxedos began to exit the gym.

Soon came Noah. Wheeling out in his black pants, white shirt and tie, he sat even taller than usual in his wheelchair. We noticed immediately that someone had placed a boutonnierre on his right arm. His mother went to help him into our car as he shared goodbyes with fellow students, most of them two or three years older than he.

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As we drove home, Noah shared how glad he was that he had decided to go. "At least 40 girls" had danced with him, he said. "I might," he said, "go to the next dance, too."

I couldn't help but recall my time as a high school nerd. Too reluctant to attend a high school dance. Afraid I might not fit in. Afraid to take a chance.

Now I consider our son, with so many obstacles to face, as far more courageous than myself. A challenge I chose not to walk into, he wheeled into with a smile on his face.

I wish that gym could have had a one-way window for Becky and I to look through that evening, our presence concealed so as not to embarrass our son. I think of us watching as he guided his wheelchair in rhythmic movements to the music, on his own or with a girl at his side. I wish we could have seen him take the lead ... in the exquisite dance of his own life.


Andrew Leheny is a freelance writer living in Belle Vernon.

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