KENNEBUNKPORT, Maine — There is an ease between Emily Rossics and Marston Poore. As they sit together in the sun, as they have done so many times before, they fit together like two puzzle pieces.
Emily and Marston met in the very first minutes of kindergarten 12 years ago.
"[In] Ms. Cmaylo’s classroom, I sat on the purple square in the back. There was another kid in the purple square in the back," Emily recalled.
That other kid was Marston Poore, and they instantly hit it off.
Emily didn't put too much thought into why she was drawn to him.
"Maybe it was the fact that he was the other kid sitting in the purple square," she said. "He just seemed fun to play with."
"First couple weeks of kindergarten, she’d come home and just tell me about Marston all the time. Every day she’d have a different story about Marston," Nicole Rossics, Emily's mom, recalled. "And, you know, how much fun she’d had with him. One time she said, 'He took off his shoes, and we laughed and we laughed.' She’s just telling these different stories."
Emily couldn’t stop talking about her new friend Marston. When Emily’s mom met Marston’s mom early that school year, she was surprised to learn more about their friendship.
Marston's mom, Jen Poore, remembers it this way: "I very vividly remember meeting Nicole at the pancake breakfast, and she came up to me and said, ‘Oh my gosh, are you Marston’s Mom?' I said, 'Yes, I am.' And she said, 'Oh my gosh, Emily cannot stop talking about her friend Marston.' And I said, 'Oh, that’s so nice, it’s been so nice that Emily is seeing past his disability and taking him in as a friend.' She said, ‘I didn’t know he had a disability.” And I said, 'Oh yeah, he has autism.' That was news to Nicole at the breakfast."
Marston has autism. While he can communicate, it takes a little familiarity to understand what he is saying. Emily and Marston managed to communicate in a way that went beyond words.
"I think it’s super cool to be able to see the world through somebody else’s eyes. I definitely remember that in elementary school, there was one time I brought my water bottle out to the playground, and I was pouring it down the slide because he just liked to watch it. I just thought that was really cool," Emily said. "I feel like a lot of people don’t really notice those things? Like, how water going down a slide really is cool, but once you are able to see that through a different lens or somebody else’s perspective, it’s really cool."
Kathy Cmaylo was their teacher. She remembers watching the two friends.
"Emily was very bubbly and vivacious and excited about learning. And about social situations. And Marston was a little more quiet and clearly observant. And drawn to her because of her energy, I think. They learned how to engage with each other, mostly in non-verbal ways initially," she recalled.
"She would scoot closer to him, and he would vocalize a little bit of uneasiness, and she would scoot back," she added. "When I say it was magical, it truly was."
Jen advocated for Marston to be mainstreamed and placed in a typical classroom right off the bat. She offered to come into kindergarten and talk with the students to prepare them a bit about what autism is, but Cmaylo had another approach.
"She said, ‘I have a different idea. I think we should just treat him like everybody else and see where we go from there.’ And, that’s what we did," Jen said. "And that’s why somebody on the other purple square, like Emily, didn’t see any difference in Marston and began to interact with him right away."
As Emily and Marston progressed through school, their friendship only deepened. They were constant companions, sharing events like Marston’s annual participation in the Special Olympics.
Marston’s family has always operated with the idea of "presumed potential," which is why Jen advocated so strongly to have him in classes with his typical peers.
Jen explained it this way: "If you presume competence, you have to sort of be brave out there in the world with a special needs individual and just sort of say, 'Alright, we’re gonna try this and just see how it goes.' And so that’s our philosophy as a family."
It was freshmen year, the year before the pandemic set in, when Emily invited Marston to the homecoming dance.
"Marston and a couple of my friends went out to dinner beforehand. Then we took pictures at the beach and went to the dance together, and it was just like super fun," Emily recalled.
"Because he was mainstreamed with typical children, it made it so we could go out into the world and do more typical things. We go to church. We go to restaurants. We dare to take him certain places," Jen said. "Other kids that have been more secluded in just special ed classrooms only. They don’t fare so well, I think, out in the typical world. It’s been a gift."
Emily’s friendship, so simple on its face, has had a lifetime impact on Marston and his family.
"She included him. What more do you want from anything to have your kid be part of life and included," Jen said. "Emily has such an effortlessness about her, you know, and nothing fazed her. Meeting Emily changed Marston’s entire life – changed our whole family’s life. That’s the amazing part about the whole thing. Yeah, the magic of it."
Emily and Marston are finishing up their senior year at Kennebunk High School and will graduate June 5.