Mission High School student Ed Almengor plays the guitar in the school cafeteria Thursday, December 10, 2015. (Mike Koozmin/S.F. Examiner)

Mission High student with autism embraces rock star status on campus

In the midst of the typical lunchtime chaos in the Mission High School cafeteria, a group of students gather each week at a table near the entrance to sing and dance like no one’s watching.

But people do watch — and often chime in — when the Best Buddies Club bursts into song. The club, comprised of around 15 students both with and without special needs, provides some of the most heartfelt and profound moments for students navigating the tricky path of high school.

At the center of the impromptu lunchtime concerts is 17-year-old Ed Almengor, a self-described musician with the ability to teach himself new instruments and sing in perfect pitch. His musical talent has earned him the title of campus rock star, and has thrust him into what is undoubtedly a challenging spotlight during school performances and assemblies.

Ed has autism, a condition that makes communication and social situations difficult. But that’s the farthest thing from the minds of Ed’s friends when they dance and sing along to the Beatles’ tunes he strums on his guitar at lunchtime.

“My favorite artist is the Beatles,” Ed said on a recent Thursday when he took a short break from playing his guitar. “I play tunes for everyone at school during lunch.”

Encouraged by educators, Ed’s friends in the Best Buddies Club danced in the cafeteria that day to his performance of John Lennon’s “Imagine.” Mission High Principal Eric Guthertz, making his rounds in the cafeteria, paused to admire the music and unity among the students.

“I’ve seen [Ed] out in the courtyard at lunchtime when he doesn’t have as much of an audience, and he’s actually leading himself through an entire rock ’n’ roll show,” Guthertz recalled. “He’ll say, ‘Ladies and gentlemen, Ed!’ and then he’ll come up and start playing, and he’ll play a couple songs and go, ‘Thank you, thank you very much!’”

Rami Aweti, a special education teacher who introduced the Best Buddies Club to Mission High in the 2009-10 school year, said music has helped Ed emerge from his shell and develop friendships with other students, even when relationships present challenges.

“The biggest thing I’ve seen him change is his comfort with social dynamics, and a willingness to be more flexible with things that can happen on a day to day basis,” Aweti noted. “If a relationship doesn’t go the way he wants, he used to take it really hard on himself and he’d be very upset. I think he’s really come into himself; he’s very confident with who he is.”

When asked to describe himself, Ed replied with a modest yet thoughtful answer.

“I love to dance and hang out with my friends at school,” he said after pausing for a moment to craft his response. “Everyone can know me better by being polite.”

He added that he recognizes his musical talent and that learning songs comes quickly to him, a sentiment quickly echoed by his music teacher.

“I think he has perfect pitch,” Osvaldo Carvajal, who teaches music at Mission High, said of Ed. “This is something that not everybody has. It’s a gift.”

Carvajal said that Ed’s ability to hear if a chord or note is wrong benefits other students in the class because Ed will also offer to help them find the correct note, often with a sense of humor.

“He’s amazing; once he remembers something, he never forgets it,” Carvajal said. “He knows hundreds of songs by memory.”

When Aweti watches the Best Buddies students singing and dancing with Ed, it reinforces the importance of the club for Aweti at Mission High, where educators strive to promote social justice.

The Best Buddies Club, offered at schools throughout the U.S., encourages students and volunteers to team up in a partnership that ultimately evolves into a natural friendship.

“The whole idea is that we create an environment where people are understanding each other,” Aweti explained.

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