Photos courtesy of Michael Barg
You are Michael Barg. You are knocking on an unmarked door on West Grand Boulevard. It is late and dark, and you are having second thoughts about showing up here now to buy an old police car.
A woman answers the door. You start singing “Heat Wave.” Because she is Martha Reeves.
Because you are Michael Barg, you then stop singing (upon request), buy the Crown Victoria Police Interceptor (not hers) and recruit Martha Reeves to come sing and dance with your special-needs students.
You are not Michael Barg, but the students of Ann Arbor Academy — and the bakers of Bays English Muffins and the Yemenis of Roma Cafe and many others — are lucky that Michael Barg is.
Michael Barg hears differently. Both by nature, in the form of an auditory processing disorder that presents as ADHD; and by nurture, the lessons of some diverse and unexpected influences.
Michael heard Martha Reeves live for the first time at a church with Pearlie Louie, who, now 99, is still his adoptive grandmother, if not guardian angel. Winthrop Street with Pearlie was a home away from home when he needed space and ’60s soul music to sort out the admonitions of his Heschel-quoting social worker mom and bipolar dad.
“No picnic of a student,” Michael heard about Ann Arbor Academy when he was angry and disheartened by his public-school experience. To some, it sounded like a 50-mile commute for the stigma of special education. To him, Ann Arbor Academy was a haven — a place where “things made more sense because they met me where I was at and prepped us for what was coming around the corner.”
Michael heard the siren song of Detroit while others marched out of town at a quickening tempo. Rent for his Cadillac Square apartment in 2005 — $517, “including utilities and internet” — came with the newly constructed Campus Martius Park in his front yard. The sounds of people wandering around and wondering what they were looking at motivated him to offer his services as a tour guide, back when faux storefronts were the best window dressing that much of Downtown could muster for Super Bowl XL.
Michael heard something that was definitely not Italian emanating from the kitchen of Roma Cafe, but it didn’t make him “anti-pasta.” Instead, he found himself working side by side with Sam, the legendary waiter, and the rest of the Yemeni staff — hearing about the Teimanim, their Jewish neighbors of yesteryear — and eventually seated at the family table for the wedding of Sam’s son, known to everyone as Samson.
Michael heard about Birthright just in time to sign up before he would have aged out. To his ears, it sounded like a chance to go deeper into community and culture, beyond the duration of the trip.
And when he heard the chaos coming from a special-ed classroom in Migdal HaEmek, he knew he had found people he could commune and communicate with. He taught a class on American Perspectives, tossing a Detroit Lions football to help his students stay focused — and limit other projectiles. As a leaping off point, his students already knew the lyrics to “Mom’s Spaghetti” (Lose Yourself) and what the Lion’s logo stood for (losing).
Michael heard past the revelry of Downtown’s diners, neighbors and commuters — from folks whose neighborhood was otherwise out of earshot. In 2014, he bought the Oakman Party Shoppe on West Chicago, a venture that would prove both “hugely unsuccessful” and “touch a lot of people’s lives.”
The grandson of a Dexter Avenue kosher butcher would make Eastern Market runs — “whole slab of bacon, half-thick, half-thin enough to read the paper through, any leftover hambones in a bag with the bacon rind, wrapped in twine” — for his elderly customers.
He made fresh school lunches for the kids at David L. Mackenzie Elementary-Middle School. He knew the favorite sandwiches for his regulars from Bays English Muffins. He navigated the “nightmare certification” of WIC and stocked quality products for families — without neglecting Twinkies and Rosé Impérial, both available in bulk.
One night, when Michael got stumped trying to balance his books, he posted online, “someone should really teach this stuff in school.”
“Is that an offer?” replied Peter West, his former teacher and adviser.
Michael heard — though he’s still not sure who did the offering.
Hearing his students sing along with Martha Reeves (or possibly the other way around) was a highlight of the nearly two years Michael has been back at Ann Arbor Academy, first as a part-timer and now as development director and electives teacher. But every day is an adventure.
Michael is quick to boast about the school’s multisensory experiential learning: film production (“they cast me!”), metal smithing, woodshop, humanities, American Sign Language (“great for auditory issues and dyslexia”), political theory (“weirdly popular”) and adulting (“life skills class that kids will actually sign up for”).
He hears his students the way Peter (“still my adviser”) heard him.
“They’re learning to navigate a road I have traveled.”