By Hal Walter
It was the third such phone call from the school in seven school days; when I stopped the car about a mile from my house because I had forgotten something I really needed to bring to town, I sat there in the middle of the deserted dirt road slamming my fists on the steering wheel and cursing.
My son Harrison had just been suspended from school for the fourth time. Once he was sent home for being disruptive to the class. The following three times he’d actually struck out at teachers.
I don’t even remember now what it was that I’d forgotten back at home. It doesn’t matter. It was just one more frustration on top of many, and another lost work day. I simply lost it. I took a deep breath and I rubbed the bruised heels of my hands. Then I turned the car around and went back for whatever it was I’d forgotten, and continued on to the school.
I checked in at the front desk and headed to the principal’s office. There is no describing the humiliation when you are called to school to bring your child home because he has hit a teacher. What I found there was a kind and caring principal, Holly Anderson. She set me at ease, invited me to sit down with Harrison, to go over the events that led to his suspension, then offered a supportive talk about what we could do to avoid this happening again.
Every time I have faced this situation I have marveled at Mrs. Anderson’s manner of talking to Harrison. She does not accept his autism as an excuse – she expects him to conduct himself like all the other kids. Each time she has spelled everything out to him clearly, speaking on his level without speaking down to him. She has offered constructive solutions. And then she has made it clear she wants to see him back in school the next day to try again.
I think how fortunate we are to have someone this skillful as principal. And I’ve thought that if Harrison were in another school district, the experience could have been much, much different.
It’s been a tough year for Custer County Schools. The community suffered another teen suicide – the second in two years. As a result of this tragedy, some local families pulled their kids out of the school. Some families also have decided to move for various reasons. We don’t have enough players to field a baseball team and so have had to join forces with nearby Cotopaxi. Our school superintendent resigned to accept a job elsewhere. With all this it’s become way too easy for some people in this community to form a negative attitude about the school.
But I have another story to tell.
When I say my child is “special needs” it takes on a whole different meaning. Despite his disability, the school system has done everything possible to incorporate him into – and keep him – in the mainstream classroom, and prepare him to move forward with his education. Whenever there has been an issue with his behavior, his teachers and school administrators have shown sincere concern and offered their help and support.
At the end of each school year, we have a meeting about his transition into the next grade. Next year he goes to middle school, so the expectation is that he will be able to function within a system of changing classes with each subject. This year’s meeting included the special-ed director, his current classroom teacher, speech therapist, principals from elementary and middle school, and the aide that will be helping him next year. I left the meeting with the feeling that each person genuinely had an interest in seeing him succeed. They even made a special effort to schedule two practice days in middle school, during which he got to visit classes and see how things work there. It’s hoped with this introduction that next year it won’t be such a shock to his system.
For the past two years there’s also been a year-end triathlon for the kids in the upper elementary grades. Last year, Harrison still was unable to ride a bike and so they allowed me to bring a tag-along to provide the balance and steering while he pedaled. This year he was able to ride on his own bike, but I accompanied him in case he had any problems.
Harrison has difficulties with the swim-bike transition. It’s cold getting out of the pool, and it’s a challenge for him to get into a dry shirt and put shoes onto his damp feet. This year he bumped wheels with the kid starting out in front of him. He nearly crashed on the trail section of the bike ride. Then he got a wheel stuck in gravel and stalled out while basking in the glory of cheering onlookers during the final bike lap around the stadium. He threw a brief fit but then pulled it back together and continued on.
As he jumped off his bike and ran for the final laps around the track, a high-school girl ran out of the audience and joined him all the way to the finish line. I thought, where on earth did someone this age acquire the depth and humanity it takes to leave her friends standing on the sideline to go run two laps with an autistic 5th-grade boy?
The answer is, she learned that right here.
Yeah, our school district may have some problems. Maybe the academic “excellence” isn’t quite what it is in, say, Cherry Hills, Cheyenne Mountain, or wealthier urban Colorado school districts. So what? Maybe there’s something more to education than what the test scores say. Maybe it’s more about community and caring.
I really couldn’t imagine a better place for Harrison to be in school.
Hal Walter writes and speaks out from his home in the Wet Mountains. To arrange a visit on the Full Tilt Boogie book tour, send him an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.