A lasting friendship for North pair

What began as a kind but simple gesture in St. Charles North’s cafeteria is about to go on display for the entire country to see.

At about 10 a.m. today on NBC’s Today Show, the friendship between St. Charles North graduate Zach Hirsch and Graham Jackson, a current North sophomore who has Asperger’s syndrome, will be put on camera, where the relationship is expected to melt viewers’ hearts nationwide in the same way it has around the Tri-Cities.

The Jackson and Hirsch families did not find out that their story had made Today’s final cut until Monday.

By Tuesday, most of the principals involved had flown to New York City; Hirsch, now a freshman at the University of Nebraska, planned to fly out Wednesday.

“We had to be very flexible but none of us minded one bit,” Nancy Hirsch, Zach’s mother, said. “It was just a great story, and I can’t even say it has a happy ending because I think the story just continues.”

The story began last winter, when Hirsch, noticing that Jackson seldom had company at his lunch table, decided to sit with Jackson and strike up some conversation. The two were an unlikely pair – because of Jackson’s condition, a form of autism, he struggles with social interaction, while Hirsch, a baseball and basketball star at North, enjoyed a thriving social circle.

Hirsch, who knew of Jackson through basketball teammate David Johnson, a cousin of Jackson’s, sensed his outreach was meaningful to Jackson, and made their lunch bonding a daily ritual. The conversation often centered around sports, a mutual passion, but extended to school and other normal teenage chatter.

Slowly, Jackson’s mother, Melissa, noticed changes in her son. He no longer was as reluctant to interact with others, and the “How was school?” chat with mom each day often included glowing recollections of interactions with Hirsch.

Melissa Jackson said Hirsch’s efforts “changed everything about Graham,” making him more self-confident and open to friendship.

Nancy Hirsch thought the story was striking enough to enter into Today's "Everyone has a story" contest, in which the show solicits "amazing, life-changing experiences." Follow-up interviews with a Today producer resulted in Monday's approval to be aired, and a whirlwind trip to New York.
Both boys and their mothers expect to be on-air for the live segment. Jackson's newfound self-confidence will certainly come in handy.

“He’s excited,” Melissa Jackson said of her son. “It’s very overwhelming for him but he’s very excited. I don’t think he’s quite sure he can believe it. When I first told him he just kept saying ‘That’s crazy, that’s crazy ... I told him ‘Yeah, it is, but in a good way.’”

While Hirsch’s mother and the Jacksons left for New York on Tuesday, Hirsch is flying separately to minimize missed class time. A baseball player at Nebraska, Hirsch is used to the limelight for his sports achievements, but a national TV appearance is uncharted territory.

Hirsch expects the majority of his friends, be it his old buddies at North or his new ones in Lincoln, Neb., to be tuned in.

“I think the most important thing is [the friendship] helped Graham,” Hirsch said. “It helped him socially, and I would say it’s more about him than me, but I’m real excited that obviously we get to tell our story a little bit.”

Jackson, then a freshman, became a fixture around the North baseball dugout last spring, and many of North’s returning baseball players remain friendly with Jackson at school. Melissa Jackson, a program supervisor for Mid-Valley Special Education Cooperative in St. Charles, said her son has invited friends over, and vice versa, for the first time this year.

Nancy Hirsch said her son’s friendship with Jackson – which has continued through phone calls, e-mails and text messages this year – is more meaningful than any of Hirsch’s many academic and athletic triumphs.

“For me, this is what will take him through life,” Nancy Hirsch said. “Sports will only last so long. This is, for myself and my husband, the proudest time, or moment, in our lives.”

Conversing with strangers remains daunting for Jackson, who no doubt will be nervous for the interview. Those nerves, though, will be balanced by pride – and joy to see his friend.

“He’s just happy to be anywhere that Zach is,” Melissa Jackson said. “If Zach is sitting next to him, it’ll be all good.”