Reigns Along With a King
Autistic student wins hearts--and prized homecoming crown--at
Culver City High.
by Cara Mia DiMassa and Zeke Minaya, Los Angeles Times,
October 24, 2004
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crossed his fingers and squeezed his eyes shut as he listened to
the announcement that confirmed his dream: This Culver City High
School senior, an autistic youth enrolled in the campus' special
education program, was named homecoming king after a landslide
Fireworks exploded as last year's king plopped a fake gold crown
on David's head. And the crowd in the bleachers cheered wildly.
For the 2,096 students and teachers of Culver City High, Mason's
reign as homecoming king tells of a remarkable bonding that has
taken place at their school between a small group of special
education students and the rest of the student body.
"Even though this school may seem like it's, you know, all about
football and all that, we have more respect than you think,"
said 10th-grader Paul Corker. "The homecoming king contest here
is not a popularity contest. We don't just give it to football
stars. We give it to people who deserve it."
Autism is a neurological condition with symptoms that can limit
a person's ability to communicate, form relationships and
respond appropriately to the environment. It affects each
individual differently and to varying degrees.
One in every 166 U.S. children suffers from an autism spectrum
disorder, according to an estimate by the Centers for Disease
Control and Prevention and the American Academy of Pediatrics.
Children with autism typically have trouble speaking, playing
with others and following instructions.
David, 17, has some problems expressing himself and forming
social relationships, said teacher Doreen Donahue.
"But he has overcome all of those things in such an amazing
way," Donahue said. "He has captured the hearts and imaginations
of all the kids at the school."
His special education program has focused on teaching him how to
interact with others, including taking some classes with
"David is extremely popular, extremely well liked," said the
school's principal, Franca Dell'Olio. "Of course the kids are
going to elevate him to the king status, because he is just like
them…. These students have moved beyond tolerance to
David, who is in a class designed for students with moderate to
severe disabilities, was nominated to the court by one of his
classmates. He had competition; contenders included a football
player and a youth involved in student government.
But classmates helped him color posters and hang them around
campus. His sister, Tamae, a junior, appeared on a video telling
other students why they should vote for her brother and
"appreciate him as much as we do."
Some students in the mainstream program say they knew David
before the campaign as a 6-foot, 4-inch gentle giant who loves
sports. Others met him during his campaign. "He is obviously
someone special," said senior Anna Brito, a David supporter.
"He's just a really nice guy."
David's mother, Sherrie Johnson, said she wasn't surprised when
her son made the final cut last week, assuring him a spot on the
court. She was in the stands Friday night for the announcement,
fighting back tears.
Wearing a black tuxedo with a gold tie, David led his fellow
sovereigns in renditions of "My Girl" and "What's Going On"
before they rode onto the field in a limousine. He soaked up the
loud cheer that welcomed him when he stepped out of the limo and
then strutted down a red carpet toward a small stage along the
When he heard his name, David's face un-scrunched, his fingers
unlocked. His eyes opened wide, and he mouthed the words "Oh my
God" over and over.
Tamae Mason said that her eyes started watering the moment she
heard her brother's name. It took her a while to gain her voice,
she said; "I was trying to say 'Yay, David!' but it was coming
out air for the first minutes," she said.
"He was so excited," said homecoming queen Vanessa Rodriguez.
"He kept saying, 'My dream came true, my dream came true.' "
Once he was surrounded by family and well-wishers, David crowed
a bit. "I am the king!" he cried out. Then, overcome by the
emotion, he cried.
"He wouldn't take the crown off," said his mother Saturday. "It
was so awesome. David is still riding high."
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