During “passing time,” the period between classes at (MHS), senior Michael Korn greets each classmate that passes by. They exchange high-fives, a “What’s up?” or talk of an upcoming football game.
If MHS were the fictitious television bar Cheers, Michael Korn would be Norm.
Everybody knows his name.
On Friday, Korn’s peers at MHS.
But Korn considers his crowning achievement to be his role as the school mascot, Skipper. Skipper leads the crowd at sporting events, pep assemblies and occasional fundraisers.
“I really like to get the students pumped up,” said Korn. Standing by the cheerleaders is nice too, he adds.
As Skipper, Korn dons a giant sailor costume. Think Popeye with a Minnetonka cap and an anchor tattoo, but no pipe.
“They had to make the costume bigger when Michael became mascot,” says MHS specialist Dianna Michels, referring to Korn’s height. He is 6 feet 10 inches tall and wears a size 15 shoe.
It gets hot in the heavy costume, but that doesn’t stop Korn from cheering, dancing and spinning for the crowd.
“He is the ultimate fan,” said Matt Boyce, a senior on the MHS varsity football team.
Classmates describe him as the ultimate friend too.
“Michael is an optimist and always sees the bright side,” said MHS lacrosse captain Teddy O’Reilly. “He can make anybody smile."
Korn says he likes to make people smile and laugh. He added that Adam Sandler is one of his favorite actors.
“Michael truly loves his fellow students,” said Korn’s mother, Janyce Newman. “He doesn’t demand much of his friends. No one needs to be particularly clever, or funny or wear the right clothes – just be friendly. And they are. The students have embraced Michael.”
This is Korn’s fourth year as Skipper. “I was a ball boy for a little while and then got promoted to mascot in ninth grade,” he said. “It changed my life.”
Becoming the school mascot was an especially significant opportunity because Korn has autism spectrum disorder (ASD). ASD is a condition that impairs a child’s ability to communicate and interact with others. Korn didn’t speak until he was five years old.
Making and maintaining friendships is often difficult for kids with ASD. Korn learned to overcome this challenge with the help of his family, teachers and peers.
“Minnetonka schools have been wonderful not only for our regular education children, but for the excellent special education offered,” said Newman. “Michael has benefitted immensely.”
Newman and her husband Jim Korn insisted that their son stay in a regular classroom setting as much as possible.
“Michael learned partly by watching what the other students were doing, which helped him feel like he belonged,” said Newman. “The students mentored and included him.”
Teachers have seen Korn evolve through the years.
“Michael has blossomed since I met him in elementary school,” said Michels. “He greets everyone and I admire his honesty.”
“When he was in my ninth grade algebra class, Michael rarely raised his hand at the beginning,” said MHS math teacher Steve Tuthill. “Now when he’s in a group, he’s one of the leaders.”
Special education case manager Corinne Omberg added, “He’s always visible and brings a warmth to the school.”
As important as his friends are, family comes first. Korn likes to spend time with his parents and siblings at their Shorewood home.
“My dad and my brother are my best guys,” he said.
Korn looks forward to the family’s weekly Friday night spaghetti dinner. He doesn’t mind the repetition. After all, he eats the same thing for lunch every day: buttered toast. And he always eats the crust first.
Like most teens, Korn enjoys video games, television and movies.
Remember the Titans is a favorite.
“I really like Coach Boone in the movie,” said Korn. “He unites the players and he is a hard worker.”
Korn also credits two real-life Minnetonka coaches, David Nelson and Aaron Olivier, as teachers who have inspired him.
Korn’s advice to younger students mirrors his attitude: “Be friendly, have a ton of school spirit, and have fun. Reveal yourself to the world!”
Next fall, Korn plans to attend Normandale Community College.
The new Skipper mascot will have big shoes to fill – literally and figuratively.