Elopement — Oregon Humanities
Grant High School in northeast Portland is America’s quintessential high school — Roman columns, red brick, sprawling lawns — now oddly modernized with voter-approved extensions and earthquake updates. At the end of class, each day, students still emerge from between the old columns. But on the side of the school, in a quiet corner near the community garden, there’s another exit, a place where the bail money hasn’t quite reached: a pair of painted metal gates. , neither old enough to be charming nor new enough to be elegant. But they have a story, at least for my family.
These are the same mundane doors my wife, Jennifer, walked through one afternoon in 2013, ready to pick up our fourteen-year-old son. It is at this exit, which is calmer and less chaotic than the main entrance, that the specialized educators take the disabled pupils to the parents who are waiting. That day, a paraeducator guided the school’s ninth grade life skills class. Jennifer looked beside her, behind her, beyond her.
“Where’s Morgana?” she asked.
The para’s face went blank. Then it fell. A member of staff ran towards the school shouting – the only distinct word being Morgan. Other staff scattered among the bewildered students. Someone called the police. At home, a few blocks away, my phone rang. It was Jennifer calling.
Morgana was gone.
Morgan spends her days going through guitar manuals. He watches YouTube videos of old player pianos endlessly performing Chopin’s “Cat Waltz,” Saint-Saëns’ “La Danse Macabre,” and Jelly Roll Morton’s ragtime songs. He is fascinated by maps, but does not remember his own address. He knows what the road signs say, but not what they mean. He was able to read a clock for a long time, but we believe that he only late begins to relate it to the idea of time. When he utters a full sentence – always a directive, without independent clauses, without a second sentence to follow – we shower him with praise, because it is an achievement.
He carries a cell phone in his pocket, although he does not know how to use it. But that day, the tracker wasn’t locking: it just showed a giant circle, several miles wide, indicating he was somewhere in the northeast quadrant of Portland. I frantically re-entered follow requests, but nothing worked. Teachers dispersed from high school; then our next-door neighbors joined in, rolling block by block on bikes, shouting Morgan’s name.
What we didn’t know was that Morgan was away. He was, in fact, already miles away from us.
There is a name for what happened. Most people would call this getting lost or wandering off, but in the autism studies literature, the term is “runaway.” With its romantic connotations, it’s not really the right word. Jennifer and I fled, but it didn’t send anyone into absolute terror for our lives.
Although elopement is familiar to parents and caregivers of children with autism, there are relatively few studies on it, and they largely involve elderly patients with dementia. A 2016 study in the Journal of Pediatrics found that 38% of children with autism and mental disabilities had run away in the previous year alone. (In contrast, the rate in nonautistic children after age eight was “almost nonexistent.”) Other factors pushed the risk even higher: being male, having lower levels of social ability, and functioning less good in communication. These factors describe someone who is at the highest risk of running away; they also happen to describe our son.
We don’t know what he might think of all this. Morgan’s thoughts are largely her own, though her emotions are quite visible. He is thrilled by a banjo; he is upset when the Wi-Fi goes down. But many of his emotions and motivations do not manifest from any apparent source. If we ask it, it sends us back the wording of the last clause of our question, as if we’d screamed into a canyon.
Jennifer kept calling Morgan’s phone. He didn’t know how to answer it, but she dialed the number again and again anyway. Finally, she got an answer.
“Hello?” A woman’s voice. “This is Officer Nowak.”
Morgan had taken a TriMet bus to our local jail – literally to the end of the line – and a guard was trying to figure out who he was.
Our best guess is that he followed a group of children heading for the front doors unnoticed by the aides – through the three blocks of sports fields, after soccer practice in fall, past the runners sprinting on the track, past the tennis courts, all the way to an oak-shaded stop on the 70 bus route. And there he boarded, no ticket, no fare, no notion silver, and saw his neighborhood eclipse — as faux 1920s Tudors transformed into modest 1930s bungalows, then angular mid-century ranches, then modern block swathes of commercial buildings. Just as we called the police, it hit an overpass, skirted freight train tracks and descended into a hinterland of light industrial buildings, silos and hoppers and scraped loading docks. Then the buildings thinned out and his bus crossed the floodplains, where the end of the city itself was: the river.
When Jennifer got there, Morgan was sitting in the empty bus with the driver and Officer Nowak, laughing. Half of one of his shirt sleeves was missing, just torn off. We never found out what happened to him – or, for that matter, exactly what happened to him.
There was no explanation from the school. There was no excuse, really. We wrote up an incident report, emailed the district superintendent, and decided to keep Morgan at home, refusing to send him back until we could get an answer, a guarantee. We sat around a crowded table in a tense meeting, with our social worker venting anger at the school, the school venting anger at the district, and the district manager gently diverting it all into a hundred useless directions, like a glittering disco ball.
We want one-on-one supervision for Morgan during transitions between classrooms, we told them.
“Yes,” the district manager told us, “he’ll be in the crosshairs of a staff member.”
“From a member of staff,” Jennifer corrected her. “He will have a staff member assigned specifically to him.”
“Yes,” accepted the official without really agreeing. “He will be in the crosshairs of a member of staff.”
“From a staff member assigned to him.”
“Yes, in line with…”
We told them we would bring a lawyer to the next meeting. The district official disappeared, and Morgan was back at school the following week.
He still disappeared from time to time anyway; once he appeared on the playground of a nearby kindergarten. The following year, on his first day of tenth grade, Jennifer and I walked into the school, and he happily frog-hopped us, completely alone, down a long, empty hallway. When we came back with him to his class, there was no one there. They had gone to a ceramics class. We sat waiting with him for five minutes, ten minutes, in such disbelief that we just laughed in disbelief.
We knew it wasn’t just us. Four days after Morgan’s trip to prison, an autistic boy named Avonte Oquendo walked out of his school in Queens, New York, alone. His substitute aides did not know his demands; the school guard did not see him leave. When the first night and then the second night of reporting passed without him being found, I struggled to keep my eyes from gushing. When Avonte’s remains were discovered in the East River, I went to Morgan’s room and hugged him. He pushed me away, then asked for my Grover impersonation at sesame street. News is not a thing for him.
One day I walk to the Grant High stop and get on the 70 line bus – the 2:57 northbound, the same one Morgan took – and ride it to the end of the line , looking out the windows, reflecting on his longest adventure in the world alone. At the end of the trail, the street briefly becomes rutted and shaken with bones, then we come to a stop. Up the road, just a few hundred yards, is the Columbia River. It’s not a calm body of water. A few weeks before Morgan came here, a technician swimming near the opposite shore disappeared below the surface; it was another week until they found the body.
But here, in front of the Columbia River Correctional Facility, it’s incredibly quiet. The prison is adorned with razor wire eights, as if a child had drawn them on the building. Portland International Airport is nearby, and every minute or two the air is ripped with the sound of a plane taking off. Then it’s silent, except for the constant wind from the river – wind in the overgrown reed fields and in the old apple trees overturned with fruit. There are no trespassing signs everywhere, although opposite the prison entrance a wild overgrowth of bushes has completely engulfed one of the signs.
As I wait for the next return bus, I watch a middle-aged prisoner in a brown jumpsuit cross the road with a young guard. The two women wield long metal garbage collectors and rip branches – leaning over the No Trespassing sign, they very deliberately root themselves in the trees, then drop something into a white carrying bag.
“I’m so glad I got to work with you today,” the woman told the guard.
When they come back, I call them. “What is growing there? I ask.
“Italian plums!” said the guard. “Here, take one.”
“Blackberries too,” adds the other woman. “They are good and ripe right now.”
They leave the wild and re-enter the apparatus of the state – from record-keeping, to government wards, to those watched every moment, and yet once so close to a boy who did not know he had terrifyingly broken free.