Chants of “J.J.” grew louder and louder until voices thundered off the walls of the Union Station ballroom in downtown Indianapolis.
Though the official announcement for Center Grove High School’s prom king hadn’t been made yet, it was clear who the popular choice was.
J.J. Kubancsek, a senior, was who everyone wanted to see wear the crown.
The fact that he had Down syndrome and was in the school’s special education program didn’t matter to his classmates.
Kubancsek was voted almost unanimously as the prom king at Center Grove this year. What started as an effort by fellow senior and Kubancsek’s peer mentor, Claire Cross, took off throughout the school as a gesture of respect for a student who might otherwise be overlooked.
“It says that kids here aren’t as self-centered as people think we are,” Cross said. “Kids here really do care. They were willing to give something up that typically is very important just to let J.J. have a moment in the sun.”
With a beaming smile and boundless energy, Kubancsek is a student who makes an impression wherever he goes. He’s quick to give a fist bump to passing classmates or teachers and carries himself with a self-confidence beyond a 19-year-old student.
Kubancsek fancies himself as smooth as James Bond and signs “007” behind his name whenever he can.
He can follow a conversation and communicates with yes or no answers. Though he doesn’t speak in long sentences, it’s easy to follow his mood or his wants through his body language, Cross said.
“He’s always happy and always smiling. He’s so goofy,” she said. “He’s always ready to crack jokes.”
Cross and Kubancsek know each other through Center Grove’s Best Buddies program, which pairs special needs children with other students in the school.
Though she is not paired with Kubancsek, Cross often interacts with him during meetings. She had become friends with him during the Rainbow End program, a swim club for special needs children.
Cross was his peer tutor, meeting with him every school day to talk about important life skills, such as cooking and interacting with other people.
“Claire and J.J., they click,” said Gary Kubancsek, J.J.’s father.
It was during a Best Buddies Thanksgiving meal at the Kubancseks’ home that Cross brought up her plan for prom. She asked Gary and Holly Kubancsek for their permission to take J.J. Kubancsek to the school’s annual spring formal dance.
“I was just floored. Holly and I always hoped that someone would take him to a dance of some sort. So we were honored,” Gary Kubancsek said.
But Cross had an even better idea. She was going to make a push among her classmates to vote J.J. Kubancsek in as prom king. She took a picture of the two of them from Best Buddies and posted it on Instagram with the hashtag “#JJforPromKing.”
“It just blew up. It got so many likes and comments from people,” Cross said. “Everyone loves J.J., so it just grew from that.”
With the help of friends, she made posters to hang in the school and seeded her Twitter feed with messages about J.J. for prom king.
J.J. Kubancsek’s parents were unaware of the campaign to make him prom king until being tipped off by Essential Skills teacher Kellie May.
“We didn’t think it would ever happen, and we didn’t care. We were more interested with him getting to go to prom and have a great time,” Gary Kubancsek said.
May also made sure Holly and Gary Kubancsek knew when he actually was voted in as king. The results of the vote, taken by the entire senior class, were overwhelmingly for J.J. Kubancsek.
The class wouldn’t find out until prom on May 9 who had actually been voted. But May wanted the Kubancseks to be present to see their son crowned.
“Even some of the junior class, who were only voting for prince and princess, wrote him in,” May said.
At the prom, J.J. Kubancsek wore a black tuxedo with red vest and bow tie, classing it up with a cane and top hat. He and Cross, in her long red dress, made a striking pair on the dance floor.
“It was hands-down, the best night of my life. And it will stay that way for a long time,” Cross said. “J.J. and I danced it out. If it had a beat, J.J. was dancing.”
Though he is a senior, J.J. Kubancsek will attend Center Grove next year. Through the school’s Essential Skills program, he’ll learn vocational training that will help him for the rest of his life, Gary Kubancsek said.
But it’s doubtful that he’ll have another experience like he did at prom.
“To see all of these young men and ladies, even before they announced it, to be chanting for him, we were pretty broke up over that,” Gary Kubancsek said. “It’s pretty amazing to see how much love this school has.”