“Go outside and play!” was Mrs. Anselmi’s daily command to her three children. Alan was the middle child with his older sister and younger brother. They were a tight-knit family with lots of cousins and neighborhood kids to play with. Alan was always active, playing a wide variety of sports.
“When I was a kid,” recalls Alan, “my T-ball and Little League teams were horrible! It wasn’t fun to lose all the time… but I learned to appreciate sports. Not the winning but the playing… being part of the team.” Alan describes himself as a well-rounded, natural athlete – “but I was never the standout, never ‘The Guy.’ I was just always there, being in the right position, helping ‘The Guy’ and the team succeed. I just loved being a part of the team!”
He tried everything. Baseball, football, volleyball, and Ultimate Frisbee (which he considers “the greatest thing in the world!”). In high school, the track and field team needed a pole vaulter. They didn’t have to ask Alan twice. “OK, I’ll give it a shot.” And he found out he was a pretty good pole vaulter.
He followed his sister to Bridgewater State, and admits, “I didn’t know what I wanted to do when I got to college. I gravitated to physical education. There were classes about movement, the science and mechanics of it. There was a volleyball class. That was the class! Playing volleyball. I’d have a 9:30am class, and I’d tell my friends, ‘I’m off to play volleyball now!’ It was right up my alley.
“I started to learn more and more, becoming more educated about how the body moves, how the body works. And I just fell in love with it. I had always had an innate understanding of how to do things. What my body was doing. And how. What I needed to do, whether it was throwing a dart or a Frisbee, catching a pass, hitting a pitch. Now I was learning the science behind it, how the body works. And I knew I was on the right path.
“It wasn’t until my final semester that I did an internship in an Adaptive Physical Education program. And that was it. Wow. This would be my perfect job! I was working with individuals with special needs, some with disabilities – and doing gym class, which I loved. Being able to help other people understand how their own bodies move… that was it. That’s what I wanted to do!”
However, finding a job in that field was another thing. It wasn’t even really a “field” yet when Alan graduated in 1998. Adaptive physical education was in its infancy at that time. As was the push for inclusion in schools: kids not just attending school, but being included in typical classes – including gym class.
It was also the time when autism diagnoses began to soar. Now all of a sudden there was this diagnosis… it wasn’t a physical disability… it wasn’t a mental health disability… it was something in-between.
Alan remembers the harsh reality of being a college graduate. “I couldn’t live in the dorm anymore. And I didn’t really want to go back to living with my parents. One day, I saw a help wanted ad in the newspaper for a job at May Institute. It was in one of their residential houses. OK, I’ll do it.
“I loved working in the house. When the kids came home, they weren’t in school anymore. But we would help them in a structured, educational way to be as independent as possible by doing household activities, brushing their teeth, keeping their rooms clean, doing chores.
“My role was to help two students every night, either at dinner or doing chores, going on community outings. And it opened my eyes to how lucky I am to be able to be in control of my life. It was humbling and it made me grateful for my family, my education, my job, my health.
“And now I was able to help these individuals, who will need help for the rest of their lives. Even though they would never be fully independent, I could help them become as independent as possible.”
Alan worked in that May residence for three years; then two job opportunities opened up. He could become a residential House Manager. Or the Physical Education teacher at the May Center School. “I took it. And BOOM! This is it. My job. What I want to do. The May gave me the freedom to do things my way and design the program. They put a lot of trust in me, and it enabled me to build this really terrific physical education program at the May Center School.”
There can be a high burnout rate in this type of work. But amazingly, Alan has worked at the May for almost 18 years! He is one of the staff members whose responsibilities bring him into regular contact with pretty much everyone at the school. He knows how tough the work can get at times, and he feels a special responsibility to be there for his colleagues in a supportive way.
“My longevity here lets me see the bigger picture of why we’re doing what we do here. Plus, I work with all of the kids here at the school. We’re up to about 150. They may be in 20 different classrooms, but they all come through the gym. And I work with all of the teachers and the administrative staff. I can relate to all of them. I understand the challenges they face. And they trust me. So I’m glad to be able to help out in that capacity, even if it’s just being a cheerful, upbeat presence in the classroom. Or knowing that all a teacher needs is to get outside for a 10-minute break, so I’ll ‘sub’ in the classroom until she returns.
“I just love my job so much. I love the work that I do here. Right now we’re doing gymnastics, I’m out there rolling around, doing wheelbarrows with the kids – and I’m loving it! I think this natural enthusiasm for what I do translates in unspoken ways to the kids and the people I work with.”
Alan is part teacher, part cheerleader, part teammate, part coach, and part friend to the kids. “People know when you’re faking happiness. These kids know right away if you’re not being sincere with them. If you’re not happy about being at work that day, they pick up on it. Now, I could sit in the gym all day long doing my ‘gym stuff’… but I like dropping into the classrooms, seeing if people are OK.”
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