Michael Costanza, Jr., didn't speak until well into elementary school. But on Thursday night, the graduating senior hopes to say a few words to his classmates

NORTH PORT — Michael Costanza Jr., a featured speaker at North Port High’s graduation Thursday night, is rocking to and fro on the back porch, humming and cooing to himself as if stoking an internal dialogue. He probably sounds the way he did to a handful of teenagers in a neighborhood gym a few years back. When the kids started laughing at him, Michael Sr. dismounted from his stationary bike and approached them.

“I said, 'Guys, what’s so funny? I love jokes; can you let me in on the one you just told?' They all became silent and the one pumping iron said, 'No, we weren’t telling jokes.' I said, 'Y’know, I wish I could laugh like you guys.' I said, 'You see over there, that kid? That’s my son.'”

From outward appearances, Michael Jr. is oblivious to his surroundings. But at age 18, he notices and hears everything, even if it isn’t immediately apparent.

Michael Sr.: “I said, I wish my son could be like you, hanging out with his friends so he didn’t have to be here with dad. But my son can’t do that, and you guys were laughing at him. They’re like ‘No, no, no,’ and I’m like yeah you were. But I’m gonna teach you something about my son that you can’t do. The kid says, ‘What’s that?’ I said, 'Hey Mikey, come over here. I wanna show you how brilliant he is.'”

On a table nearby is a Career Excellence Award certificate from North Port High, citing Michael Jr. as the Student Volunteer of the Year for 2019.

“I said to the kid, 'When is your birthday?' The kid says the date. I said, 'Michael, what day is that?' Michael gives him the day.” Michael Sr. puts the same question to his guest. “When is your birthday?” Answer: April 12. “Michael,” he calls to his son, “when is April 12?”

“Sunday,” Michael Jr. correctly replies.

“I went down the line, just like that, with every one of those kids. And he can do it all day, 20, 30, 40, 50 people in a row. I try to trick him with Leap Year — he’ll say no, there’s no February 29 in 2021 or 2022 or whatever the case happens to be. Don’t ask me how he does it. I don’t know how he does it.”

Michael Jr.’s handshake is soft and furtive, quickly withdrawn. Eye contact — a mere glance, along with a quick inward smile. Dad says his son’s mind is a sponge that scans and archives whatever he sees. “We were at this Walmart in Port Charlotte,” his father begins. An impatient customer was demanding help with finding “some household item, mothballs or something.”

“Out of the blue, Michael says something like ‘Aisle 6, bottom on the left.’ I hear this lady go, 'Yeah, OK.' I say, 'Listen, ma’am, if my son told you there was an item on Aisle 6 bottom row left, go there, you’ll find it.' She takes off, comes back and says, 'I found it, right where he said it was.'”

Dairy Queen, Port Charlotte, five years ago. Michael Sr. can’t get Michael to tell him what he wants. But a server watches Michael moving his fingers so she bangs on the glass and tells dad his son wants a S’mores Blizzard. “I said to her, 'You mean to tell me you just communicated with my son in sign language?' She said, 'He’s fast, but he’s good.'”

Dad wanted to thank his speech therapist, “Miss Janie,” for teaching Michael Jr. sign language. “She said, 'Well, I didn’t really teach him sign language.'”

Miss Janie is Janie Knight, of Step Ahead Speech Therapy in Port Charlotte. She began working with Michael Jr. around kindergarten/first grade. Twenty-three years in speech pathology, and she has never had a client more “unique.” He was nonfunctioning when she met him. Within a few minutes of their first meeting with parents Michael and Kelly, “he had pulled every toy out of my cabinet.”

Unable to coax spoken words from Michael Jr. until he was 8 or 9, Knight tried signing, something a little more kinetic. She says her sign vocabulary was rudimentary, and they didn’t go deep with it. But something clicked. “The first sign word he gave me was ‘more,’” she recalls. “I thought I was going to cry.”

Today, Michael Jr. can talk, he can read, he can write, and he excels in math. Knight calls him a “very coachable” student who “wants to please anyone he’s working with.” For his fastidious work ethic in the NPHS cafeteria — cleaning tables and trays, sweeping the floors, restoring things to their proper places — he was cited as the school’s best volunteer.

A few weeks ago, several teachers wondered if Michael Jr. might be interested in addressing his class of 2019 at Thursday night’s graduation ceremonies. Dad worked with him on what he wanted to say. When he passed the audition, says dad, there wasn’t a dry eye in his small audience.

Michael Jr.’s speech isn’t long, maybe 41 seconds. But within that span is the culmination of 18 years of effort that seemed doomed to failure on the front end. And on the eve of the big event, Michael Jr.’s rocking from his seated position is getting more pronounced as he processes the conversation nearby. His humming is louder, too.

“He’s lit up right now, he’s happy. You know what he’s happy about?” Michael Sr. asks. “He’s excited about graduating and giving that speech. He’s not here right now, he’s already on stage. ‘Hey Michael! Where you going after graduation?’”

No hesitation. “Applebee’s.”

“Applebee’s,” says his father. “That’s what he’s thinking about.”