Photo by Hailey Hughes
The stage is set with paper shoes and unfinished paintings hanging from the ceiling. ‘80s music blasts through the room and there’s a permanent smell of wet paint and dye. Art teacher Jodie Schnakenberg rants about the bad habits of Lancers and sings along to her favorite songs. This gets her a couple of laughs out of her audience of studio art students. But she’s only the opening act. The headliner finally arrives when freshman Jack Melvin walks through the door and shouts his customary greeting:
“The old Schnaks is back in town!”
This marks the beginning of the second hour comedy show, starring Schnakenberg — affectionately known as Schnaks — and Jack, a freshman with Down syndrome. Their five-minute routine usually includes a couple jokes, including his favorite:
“Did you hear about the Italian chef? He pasta way!”
The two jokesters met last semester in Schnakenberg’s art class, and their mutual love of humor, music and all things fun made them click right away. Jack and Schnakenberg would sing and dance to Bruno Mars – Jack’s favorite – and he would ask Schnakenberg to look up jokes online so he could tell them to the class.
When Jack didn’t have art class second semester, he started to sneak out of other classes to go to visit Schnakenberg. Now, his daily routine includes delivering coffee to her and, of course, entertaining the class.
“That’s called his ‘Schnacks time,’” Jack’s mother Joan Melvin said. “He missed her so much this semester, because he doesn’t have art anymore, that they had to build it into his schedule.”
But their relationship extends far beyond their comedy show. Schnakenberg sees a little bit of her sincere and fun-loving personality in Jack.
“Jack’s just got a real vibrant personality and you always know what you’re getting with him,” Schnakenberg said. “I am totally like that, so I resonate with him.”
Schnakenberg also feels a special connection with Jack because she grew up with a brother who had special needs. Since he passed away, her relationship with Jack has given her the opportunity to reminisce about her brother.
“He couldn’t walk or talk or communicate in English terms so I don’t have any fear of anybody that has special needs,” Schnakenberg said. “Sometimes I lean towards that group just because it reminds me of my brother.”
Jack just enjoys having someone around that he can make laugh. He never fails to entertain Schnakenberg when he starts laughing so hard he falls on the ground or acts embarrassed of her in front of his adoring fans, the girls in the class.
“I think he got a laugh out of [Schnakenberg],” Jack’s father John Melvin said. “If Jack can get a laugh out of you he owns you, and you’re best friends forever.”
And Schnakenberg has the same effect on Jack. She can always make him smile, even if he’s having a bad day. She’s made high school a place that Jack loves.
“It makes my day,” Jack said. “[Even] Mondays too.”
Not only does it make Jack’s day, it’s the main event of class for some students. When the second hour class hears the creak of the door opening, they all turn to see if it’s Jack. Though they have the jokes practically memorized by now, they still sit on the edge of their art stools, laughing along with him.
“As soon as Jack comes in the room, it’s a whole different attitude,” freshman Sarah Hook said. “It’s the best part of my day.”
From his parents’ perspective, Jack’s connection with Schnakenberg is a blessing. It’s comforting that Jack has a person at school that can always cheer him up if he’s having a bad day or make his good days even better.
“I know that she brings a lot of joy to his heart,” John said. “You can just tell she’s got a passion for kids with special needs.”
As Jack goes through high school and beyond, his parents hope he’ll stay close with Schnakenberg. Though he’s connected with teachers before, their relationship is closer than any other he’s had.
“Anytime you’ve got a child with special needs and you see people reach out and go the extra mile for those kids,” John said. “Then you know why these kids are placed on Earth, because they touch so many people.”
Check out a recording of Jack and Schnakenberg’s comedy show here: