By Hal Walter
Last year when my son Harrison was suspended from school for taking swings at teachers, he asked if I’d ever been suspended. I answered truthfully that I had been, once, then I told him why.
I was serving out the senior year of what I viewed then as my school sentence at Moffat County High in Craig, Colorado. I also worked at the local community newspaper, the Northwest Colorado Daily Press. As part of my duties there I wrote a school news column called “MoCo Highlights.”
As I recall, someone in the school faculty had suggested I write about the new audio-visual equipment in the library. However, when I interviewed the librarians I found an even better story – they had some great new equipment but had received no training on how to use it; thus, it was collecting dust.
And so I wrote it up – and was summarily suspended from school. I was sent home, and a meeting was scheduled with my parents and the principal to discuss terms of my return. I remember we arrived at the principal’s office, and, after the usual pleasantries, my stepdad, in one of his finest parenting moments, went right for the knockdown punch, asking the principal what part of the First Amendment right to free speech and press he didn’t understand.
There was some jabbering from the principal about embarrassing the school in the community, which was met with the suggestion that maybe he could explain that better in court. I was back in school within minutes.
I was glad that Harrison reminded me of this as I had forgotten all about it. It led to an internal dialog about how there are some rights we take for granted, like free speech, religion and even gun ownership, but others that are not even in the Constitution but should be, like clean air and water.
What about the right to inclusion for people with special needs like my son Harrison who has autism?
While he certainly does not have the right to strike out at teachers, I have always been appreciative of and impressed by the lengths the school here in Custer County has gone to provide him with the right to inclusion in his school experience. He’s in mainstream classrooms, rides the bus and this year participated in team sports – he ran both track and cross-country. As one former teacher said, Harrison is literally writing the policy for how the school will deal with kids on the spectrum in the future.
For me, the idea that Harrison would be welcomed into the school sports programs was simply amazing. Cross-country season was a roller coaster of epic highs and lows. Track proved to be slightly more predictable with successful meets in the San Luis Valley, but he had a major public meltdown at a meet in Salida. The final competition of the season was in Fairplay, where Park County was hosting its first meet ever on its newly constructed track.
Harrison’s events are the 400-meter dash and the 800-meter run. He got a good start in the 400, then faded on the last curve. He practically came to a stop. He jogged in place and slowed to a crawl. When people cheered encouragement he plugged his ears and ran slower. Then, in the last 25 yards, he took off sprinting through the finish line and just kept going until reaching the perimeter fence.
Next up was the 800-meter run. On the second curve he veered off to the right. Then he simply lost it. He stopped. He ran in place. He started actually running backwards in front of the bleachers and nearly took out the two boys who had by now lapped him and were in first and second place. I tried to encourage him to run and he took a swing at me in front of the spectators. He still had another lap to go, and now all the other kids in the race had finished. I asked him if he wanted to stop or finish, and he started running again. I jogged along on the turf at his side.
What happened next made the entire experience extraordinary. Kids from the Cotopaxi team and their coach ran over and started jogging along with us. Harrison pulled his shirt over his head and continued. They just kept encouraging him. Soon they were joined by kids from his own team, and some others. This group stayed with him the entire way around the track and once again he ran through the finish line to the fence. A group of teammates trailed after him and mobbed him with praise.
It was one of the most amazing things I’ve ever witnessed in sports, and I think it was something that will stick with him forever.
With track season over, the school’s annual Bobcat Triathlon was looming. I wondered after the Fairplay track meet what I might expect. Sports are funny that way. The only way to know is to show up. There’s no guarantee of anything, except that if you do show up – and continue to show up – you will eventually find out who you are.
And thus it was for Harrison in his third and final appearance in the school triathlon. When he first competed in fourth grade he could not ride a bike and I accompanied him with a tag-along. In fact, he only learned to ride a bike a few days before the triathlon last year in fifth grade.
In fact, the triathlon had always been a bit of a disaster for him, mainly because of the nightmare of sensory issues involved with getting out of a cold pool into a cool breeze, getting damp feet into shoes, and transitioning to the bike ride.
This year was quite different. In the swim, he kicked so hard he swam out of his timing anklet (it was later found on the bottom of the pool). He went through the transition with relative ease. He zoomed along on the bike, passing other kids. Then he ran his 800-meter run with fluidity and consistent pacing.
Since he’d lost his timing bracelet, determining his placement required some complex algebra. When it was all said and done, it was determined he’d finished in third place for the sixth-grade boys, landing him on the podium for the first time in his life.
It was a major breakthrough for him, and also for everyone who had ever taught or coached him, or cheered or encouraged him. This lofty idea of inclusion, which began in a small school in Westcliffe and then spread to other Central Colorado communities through sports, is truly a journey I have been fortunate to experience.
Hal Walter’s new short book, Endurance – A season in cross-country with my autistic son is now available in paperback at The Book Haven in Salida and The Village Shop in Westcliffe.