Before the hugs and the handshakes, before Vice Principal Rob Ditch read the names, and before Principal Fritz Peters sent the eighth-grade class of Wood River Middle School into summer with one more pat on the back and encouraging words, Diesel Ward became a “speech speaker.”
With his arms shooting upward in excitement past his Led Zeppelin-like locks, Ward delivered—and occasionally sang—the keynote address at the eighth-grade advancement ceremony Thursday morning.
“When Mr. Peters asked me to speak today, I asked, ‘Why me?’” Ward, who is on the autism spectrum, told his 270 classmates. “And then I asked, ‘Why not me?’”
For those close to him, the moment was at once quintessentially Diesel—joyous, animated, punctuated with song—and, knowing where he’d come from, hard to believe.
Standing in the wings, Mike Stemp, a special-education teacher specializing in the Autism Spectrum Disorder Program, remembered the young boy he met at Woodside Elementary School seven years earlier. That kid was drawn in on himself. His conversation, when it came, was repetitive and stilted. He had to learn to speak to other people. He was an altogether different person, it seemed, than the one on stage before hundreds, the one crediting Stemp with driving him to this day.
“I don’t know what I’d do without him,” Ward said. “He helped me make it to the end.”
Twenty feet to the side, half obscured by the green-and-white banners that papered the gym, tears welled in Stemp’s eyes.
“He’s pretty amazing,” Stemp said afterward. “It’s fun to see all the growth, all the maturity. That’s not unique to Diesel. But with him, you can’t even compare. He’s just so different now. It’s hard to put into words.
“In my role, there’s a lot of pressure, sometimes. You want everything to go as well as possible, but so many details need to go right. It’s a lot of work—a lot. A lot of my life is tied up this. It’s a big deal.”
Stemp was humble in the face of Ward’s praise. He’s part of a complex team, he said, too numerous to name one by one. Ward was among the first students to enroll in a revamped A.S.D. program, which he began in a developmental preschool at age 3. Stemp’s colleagues, Ward’s parents, his two sisters, even his peers deserve credit.
And so does Ward himself.
“He’s a hard-charger,” Peters said. “All three years, he kept growing, kept learning. He came here so shy, and now he’s singing on stage. He’s just a fine young man.”
That’s why Peters—who’s been known to join Ward in hallway duets—picked the 13-year-old to deliver the address. And why Ward won a Citizenship Award for his time at the Hailey school. Peters remembers one of their first interactions, at an assembly early on in Diesel’s sixth-grade year. Same room, almost three years earlier. Music poured over the P.A., and Peters noticed a boy, dancing by himself in the stands. Peters asked Ward to come front and center—and when he did, the middle school dance party began.
“They fell in love with him right then,” Peters said.
Diesel still has his challenges. He can be set in his routines, and dedicated to his quirks, Kory Ward, his mother, said.
“It hasn’t been easy,” she said. “We knew early on it wasn’t going to be an easy road. Autism is a lifetime diagnosis—he’ll always deal with it. But it’s about giving him the tools to live with it, to live his most successful life. To see this kind of culmination—to see him celebrated that way? We never thought he’d get to that point.”
On Thursday, every mention of the name Diesel Ward spiked applause. At an age dominated by cliques and the cult of cool, Ward’s classmates let Diesel be Diesel—and they love him for it. For that, he loves them, too.
“Thank you for letting me sing and dance in the hallways,” he told his peers. “Thank you for letting me play basketball at lunch, and for laughing at my silly jokes, even when they don’t make sense. Living with autism isn’t easy, but you all make it so much better.”
To borrow Ward’s favorite quote, “In a world where you can be anything, be kind.”
Next year, Stemp will go loop back to Hailey Elementary, where he’ll take on a new group of students. Diesel and his twin Jette will join their older sister Sailor at Wood River High School. The set will change, and so will some of the players. But the support of the class of 2023, roused to a standing ovation by Ward’s speech, will be right there with him.
“As a parent, it gives me so much hope,” Kory Ward said. “If we all had the innocence Diesel has, the world would be a better place. He’s not tainted by the things that get to the rest of us. He’s a sweet kid—a good kid. We see some bright moments, and we see some dark ones. Days like this, though, remind you it’s all worth it. I couldn’t be prouder of my son.”