I met Maxford Brown on a fall Friday morning in Mrs. Poort's homeroom at Seattle's Eckstein Middle School.
Like everybody else, I fell in love with him immediately.
He walked straight over to me and shook my hand enthusiastically.
He has wavy, brown hair and horn-rimmed glasses. His left eye squints when he looks at you, and it adds a certain sweet, earnestness to his way.
He's a little guy, an 8th grader with Down Syndrome, and there's a certain old-school appeal about his look. For some reason, I kept imagining him in the 1930s playing marbles on a dirt lot somewhere with his hat turned around backwards, as if he might ball up his fist and say, "Why I oughtta...." at any moment.
He was carrying a sheet of paper when we met. I asked him what it was.
"It's a script," he said.
"What's it about?" I asked.
His answer was immediate. "A mascot for the school."
Maxford, as it turns out, has a thing for mascots. He always has. He is friends with the guy who dresses up as Harry the Husky. He has pictures of himself posing with all sorts of mascots. There's a great one with him and the Mariner Moose.
His Special Education teacher, Mrs. Gedansky, knows all about it.
"One of the first things he told me is, 'When I grow up I want to be a professional mascot.' That was his goal."
Sitting there talking in Mrs. Poort's room, I wanted to know more.
"How come there's no mascot?"
Maxford's words are a little tough to understand. He has a speech therapist, and has to fight the urge to race through his sentences.
"They do but... it's the Eagles but... they don't have a costume yet!"
Maxford has a little brother named Zach. And like all siblings of special needs kids, he is mature and wise beyond his years.
"Most of the time he's really like, nice, and happy. And he has a good attitude and he's a good kid," Zach says.
Zach has been hearing his brother talk about mascots forever.
"He wrote a letter when he was in 6th grade," he says.
That letter is the "script" that Maxford was holding. He's been carrying it around and practicing reading it out loud, because he's hellbent on submitting it to the powers that be, for the third straight year.
It was obvious, sitting there in Mrs. Poort's classroom that Maxford considers it to be his masterpiece. So I asked him to read it to me.
"Dear leadership and ASB," he began, "my name is Maxford Brown. I'm an 8th grader at Eckstein. I think we should have a team mascot for the Eagles. One reason we should have a team mascot is to make school more fun..."
The letter goes on to list the reasons for his request, not the least of which is that Maxford sees a future for himself as a professional mascot.
"In conclusion," he says, holding the letter with both hands and squinting hard, "Eckstein would be a better place if we had a mascot."
He pulls the paper down from in front of his face and stares me square in the eye, as if to say, "Whatdya think about THAT!"
He submitted the letter in 6th grade, and then again in 7th grade.
But he had trouble in that 7th grade year, in the form of Acute Flaccid Myelitis.
One day he was swimming and running, competing in Special Olympics. The next he was paralyzed from the neck down, in I.C.U. at Seattle Children's.
He spent 40 days in the hospital. When he finally got out, he'd lost use of his left hand and needed a brace on his left leg. The school mascot project was shelved.
Maxford didn't know that the money for the costume had already been approved, and that they were just waiting for him to get better.
He just knew that there was still no mascot. "Nobody responded back to my letter!" he said.
Later on that same day, there was a spirit assembly scheduled for 6th period.
Maxford was one of the very first kids to show up. He took his place in the front row, crossed his legs, peered out through his glasses and waited.
There were wonderful things afoot that Maxford knew nothing about.
Mrs. Poort had taken over as the A.S.B. leadership advisor at the beginning of the year. And she heard about Maxford's epic quest.
"I went and ordered the costume," she says. "We have the money. This has been approved, so we're going to make this dream happen his last year here."
She opened up the closet in her room, and there in a box on a shelf was an eagle costume. If only Maxford knew!
The Roosevelt High School cheerleaders were on hand for the assembly. There was music playing as the rest of the student body streamed in, and that special energy that happens when kids have been freed from their classes.
When they were all seated, and the music stopped, a boy stepped up to the microphone, and something extraordinary happened.
"We'd like to start the assembly by acknowledging a fellow student of ours who we have a very special surprise for," he said.
A girl stepped up to the mic and said, "Maxford, will you come on down?"
Maxford's eyes widened and he shot out of his seat like a Jack-in-a-box. The place erupted in cheers. Everybody knows Maxford, and everybody likes him. How could you not?
He stood up there in front of everybody. And in walked a pair of costumed bears from Roosevelt High, and they were carrying a big cardboard box, the same one that had been stashed in Mrs. Poort's closet.
And then, amazingly, here came the Mariner Moose himself, strutting out with a purpose, and he was carrying the most beautiful eagle's head you've ever seen!
The place exploded! The moose made a quick lap around the room, waving the eagle's head and revving up the crowd.
He stopped right next to Maxford, and he held the eagle head high above Maxford's head.
Maxford's glasses were down on his nose and he was frozen, with his eyes wide open and looking above him. He looked like he'd just seen Santa Claus.
Slowly, the Moose lowered the head down until it rested on Maxford's head. The little guy with the sweet, earnest way about him had been transformed, and the student body at Eckstein Middle School howled its approval.
The assembly continued as Maxford retired to the locker room with his Dad and The Moose to don the rest of the costume.
Once his furry feathers were on, and his yellow bird-leg pants, he stopped for a moment to describe what he was feeling.
"This is my dream to be this mascot for my school. This is my dream forever. And to just become... famous. I'm famous."
There was happiness in Maxford's eyes, but there was something else too.
At the height of his glory, just as all his dreams were coming true, Maxford was suddenly, inexplicably nervous.
A few minutes later, the door opened, and the Moose charged out.
And then behind him, walking slowly, came Maxford. Somebody had handed him a huge sign that said, "Noise!" He tried to get a good grip on it but it kept bumping into his bright yellow beak. He stopped for a moment to reposition the sign, but it got caught in the eagle's mouth. Bravely, Maxford soldiered on.
Finally, with much difficulty, he was able to hold up the "Noise!" sign with both hands. But that presented a new problem. The sign was now positioned squarely in front of his eagle face. The kid had done the impossible: he'd become blinded by Noise!
With tiny, mincing steps, quite possibly shaking inside his furry feathered costume, he walked out into the gymnasium towards the roar of the crowd. Eckstein Middle School's new eagle was frightened.
The Moose, sensing apprehension, touched him on the shoulder, and then somebody finally, mercifully took the Noise! sign away from him.
At last, through his horn-rimmed glasses and the open beak in front of them, Maxford could see. A little.
The kids were going wild, urging him on.
Maxford kept lifting the sides of the eagle head with both hands so that he could see better, but it gave the impression that he was plugging his ears. And so he stood there, motionless for the most part, plugging his eagle ears, unsure of what to do.
At one point the Moose actually took him Maxford by the hand and led him around the gym floor. And then, in a moment of true mascot brotherhood, he taught his young eagle friend a trick.
It was as though the crowd no longer existed. The Moose stood in front of Maxford and flapped his arms up and down like a bird.
Slowly at first, Maxford responded, flapping his own arms. And then he did it faster, with more conviction.
It was at that very moment, with the two of them there on the floor flapping their wings... that the Eckstein Eagle truly took flight.
They started playing a crazy song about ice cream and cake over the loudspeaker.
There was a line of kids on the gymnasium floor, and they all started dancing. The Moose was dancing too, and right next to him was Maxford the Eagle, wings flapping and yellow bird feet moving. The cheerleaders were dancing too, and so were the kids in the wooden bleachers. It was a full-on party, and quite possibly the single defining moment that Maxford Brown had dreamed of for three long years.
When the song was over Mrs. Poort ran over and looked up into his open beak. "You good?" she said. He nodded. "You're doing great!"
The assembly was finished now, and the students started streaming out of the gym.
And that is when the hugging started.
First it was a Roosevelt cheerleader. "I love you!" she said.
Then a friend. "Good job Maxford!"
Then a teacher. And his brother Zach.
A special needs friend hugged him hard and for the longest time she refused to let go. She understood.
His Dad said, "You did good, buddy!"
His Mom said, "That was awesome!" And they hugged.
There were kids gathered around him, trying to get a picture.
Another teacher grabbed him and peered straight into the gaping beak. "Congratulations, buddy!"
They all knew they'd just witnessed something rare and wondrous: a dream come true.
Afterwards, when the Eckstein Eagle had transformed back into Maxford Brown, standing outside the locker room in the empty gym, the kid saw Mrs. Poort.
He had a very important question to ask. "Can I take it home?" he asked.
"Yes!" she said.
And Maxford was filled with joy. He did a little jittery happy dance right there on the spot and he pumped his fist. "Yessss!" he said. And then he broke into a big grin and opened up his arms. Mrs. Poort gave him one last hug and said, "You are the best. You deserved that."
And of course, he did.
And that, my friends, is the story of how Eckstein Middle School's mascot learned how to fly.
The place was built in 1950. And even if it stands for another hundred years, this much I can promise you: it will never, ever have another mascot as sweet and earnest and proud as its very first one. The amazing and irresistible Maxford Brown.