EVERYONE IS BEAUTIFUL

Tonight I will sit in a packed auditorium to attend the ‘Everyone is Beautiful’ fashion show at my son, Mike’s school.  The show is a collaborative event hosted by the Cosmetology students, for the ESE students.  While the teachers and administrators view this event as just another school function, it is so much more for the families and students.  For some parents, the event seems almost unbelievable – most schools just don’t extend themselves beyond the basic standards of ‘necessary’ inclusion.  Our school, Plant City High School, is not only including our students – they’re celebrating them.  There is a school-wide standard that our kids are to be included, educated, protected and WANTED.

As part of just the regular routine, every Wednesday, Mrs. Ritenbaugh’s Cosmetology students host a spa day for the ESE students.  The ESE students get their hair, nails, and makeup done by other high school students.   For parents, especially those who have children in wheelchairs, the service lessens their workload.  It’s one less thing we have to do – the task of taking your child for a haircut has been removed.  For the ESE students it’s an opportunity for them to feel special and visit with their typical friends.  For the Cosmetology students, it’s a lesson in humanity.  They’re receiving skills that will prepare them for a disabled client and, perhaps for some, a disabled child of their own someday. Friendships are made and the students have fun!

_Ashley McElroy gets her hair done by ____________

(Ashley getting her hair done.)

 Plant City, Florida is known for their strawberries and strawberry season is celebrated.  There is a festival, parade, beauty pageant, and strawberry shortcakes on every corner.

In 2006, Summer, a PCHS student was crowned Florida’s Strawberry Queen during the festival.  Summer was a cosmetology student and participated in the weekly “Spa Day” for the ESE students.  The week that Summer was crowned, she wore her crown and sash during the Spa Day.  Summer, unfazed about being the queen, jumped in to do Ashley, an ESE’s student’s hair.  Ashley, on the other hand, was MESMERIZED!  Mrs. Ritenbaugh quietly observed the girls from across the room.  Ashley, unable to take her eyes off of Summer, said to her, “you are beautiful.”  Summer responded by telling Ashley that she was even MORE beautiful.  Then Ashley said, “I am beautiful and I am going to be in a pageant and be a queen someday.”  Mrs. Rienbaugh and Summer, in unison said, “YES, YOU ARE AND YES, YOU WILL.”  The Everyone is Beautiful Fashion Show was held that year and every year since!

Ashley McElroy with her buddies Sarah Kelley and Rhodia Ale

 (PCHS’s beautiful Queen Ashley)

As a parent, like most, I have seen and experienced teachers and administrators who should not be working in the field of education.  A few have even left me questioning their morality.  While I LOVE sharing stories about PCHS with you, it also brings me sadness.  This story should NOT be the exception – PCHS should be the NORM!  How is it that this school can meet MY NEEDS – not just my son’s?!  I shouldn’t be considered a ‘lucky parent’ because I don’t spend my day worrying after I drop Mike off at school.  My standards for Mike are HIGH and they’ve exceeded them!  Trust me, for a school located just up the street, I WAS not only the squeaky wheel – I WAS THE BITCH! … and I’m STILL not over Mike’s experience there.

I suppose the simple answer is that PCHS wants my son there.  It’s a standard of acceptance that comes from the top.

In the State of Florida, schools are ranked on a grading system that includes ESE students.  Schools with large ESE populations typically rank below their counterparts because of their contribution.   When our Principal, a PCHS graduate herself, was asked if she was concerned about the large ESE population negatively impacting the school’s ranking, she replied that she would simply have to work harder to bring the general education students higher.   PCHS is an older, rural school, with a diverse population; it is also an A-rated school.  BRAVO RAIDERS!!!

images

BTW – I offered to solicit supplies for the program in this posting.  Mr. Ritenbaugh replied that nothing is needed – the funds are reaching the students!!

SIDE NOTE: Mr. Ritenbaugh joined our ESE team this year and is one of Mike’s teachers. We are extremely fortunate to have him on our team!

Connie, I Honor You

The auditorium fell silent as Mrs. ‘R’, the cosmetology teacher, stood before us to share some of the history of the Everyone is Beautiful Fashion Show we were attending.  It was a story that most of us had never heard.  The story was filled with the horrific nightmares parents who love their disabled children fear.  And, it was filled with LOVE – yes, LOVE – and all that is good in humanity.

The story was about Connie,  an ESE student at PCHS over 20 years ago.  I don’t know much about her history before she became a student at PCHS.  I hope that she knew kindness and compassion – but I doubt these things existed in her world before.

Connie was mentally disabled and bounced around the system for years.  She had been neglected, physically and sexually abused by family members and those responsible to care for her.  Abandoned by a society that placed little value on her life, she was left to care for herself.

Mike’s Teacher, Ms. Denham has been teaching at PCHS for over 25 years.  When she first encountered Connie, Ms. Denham was  at the beginning stages of her marvelous career.  What she lacked in experience, she made up for with compassion.

Connie arrived to Ms. Denham’s class filthy.  Her clothes were dirty and the smells of sexual assault permeated her body.  Horrified, Ms. Denham documented Connie’s abuse and filed ALL the complaints available to her.  As she told me this story, Ms. Denham commented, “I wasn’t as outspoken then as I am now.  I did what I could.”  As a young teacher, her hands were tied beyond the ‘formal system’ that was failing Connie.

Connie was a high school student with short hair that was rarely wash. She frequently suffered from head lice.  Since students with head lice are not permitted in school, Connie would be sent home.  Fearing for her safety at home, Ms. Denham would clean Connie, and comb her hair every morning after she arrived to school.  As Ms. Denham told me the story, her eyes wandered to a corner of her classroom.  I could picture her caring for this child with the same compassion she shows my son today.  I thought to myself, “what an amazing career this woman has had.  I can only imagine what she has seen and accomplished.”

When Ms. Denham filed complaints to address her concerns about Connie’s hygiene and head lice, those responsible for her care responded – Connie arrived to school with her head shaved.

Horrified by their actions, Ms. Denham took over full responsibility for Connie’s hair.  She showed her the love and care that her life deserved.

Connie eventually moved on, but the seed of compassion for her remained.  Eventually, a program was developed.  A partnership between the cosmetology and ESE teachers. A partnership made possible ONLY by their desire to do MORE and to do it BETTER!

Over the years, the program has grown and flourished.   Every Wednesday, the ESE students are brought to the cosmetology department for a ‘Spa Day’.  They get their hair, makeup, and nails done by other high school students.  They’re valued, pampered, and treated with dignity.  The Cosmetology students are gaining life experiences that will prepare them for a disabled client or perhaps, a disabled child of their own someday. Friendships are formed and they’re learning acceptance.

The lessons being taught by Mrs. ‘R’ stretch beyond the realm of cosmetology – she is teaching HER students about humanity.

Nobody knows where Connie is today.  There have been positive changes made in our society and I hope that she is safe and valued.

As a mother,  and as a member of society, I honor Connie’s life because she mattered.  HER pain and HER struggles have enriched the lives of THOUSANDS of students – both disabled and typical.  A child, once discarded by cruelty,  has accomplished more in her legacy than most.

Connie, I honor you and your contribution to my son’s life.  

photo

The story will continue…

Lock Up

“THANK YOU for hand cuffing my son and transporting him in your police car.”

images

Yes, I made that statement. And yes, I sincerely meant EVERY word of it.

Mike was on his FIRST field trip with his class, to the Strawberry Festival. The Strawberry Festival is an annual event that celebrates the local strawberry harvest and other agricultural accomplishments. The event is held at our local fairgrounds and is a mixture of carnival rides, games, and agricultural displays.

The trouble started as soon as Mike entered the fairgrounds. He was greeted with a cart, selling the typical carnival junk and he wanted a bubble gun! Now, when I use the word, “wanted” what I mean is that he had a desire so intense – it consumed him. The teachers and aides on the field trip were able to redirected him away from the first cart. Unfortunately, they were greeted by a cart on every corner.

images

His desire for the bubble gun turned to anxiety. The anxiety quickly turned to aggression and Mike was unwilling to remain with the group. The teachers were unable to calm and/or control him and decided that the safest option was to transport Mike back to school.

Deputy Barker, the school resource police officer, was dispatched and arrived on the scene within 15 minutes of receiving the call.

images

As I’ve previously noted, Mike is a VERY big young man. He is 6’2″ and weighs approximately 230 pounds – he is incredibly strong and fast. He is physically intimidating. When Deputy Barker arrived, the staff was having a very difficult time keeping Mike with the group. People were starting to stare and the fairground’s ‘local’ police officers were observing at a distance.

images

It was then that I received the phone call. I had met Deputy Barker on a couple of occasions and found him to be a very compassionate man. Our school has a very large ESE population and he has worked cooperatively with the staff for several years.

When he called me, his words were direct and quick. He simply stated that Mike was melting down and bolting from the staff. He was going to remove Mike from the fairgrounds and transport him back to school. He wanted to accomplish this task without any involvement from the ‘local’ police officers who were observing him. He was informing me that he intended on using his handcuffs to gain control over Mike.

I immediately understood what he was saying – Mike’s size matters. He can be very intimidating to people who don’t know him. He feared that the ‘local’ police officers would attempt to assist him and possibly use unnecessary force. In that moment, I knew how much this man cared. I knew I could trust him.

With the assistance of the school staff, Deputy Barker handcuffed Mike. When Mike realized that he was the ‘bad guy’ and wasn’t going to get away with his behavior, he complied. He calmly walked with Deputy Barker to the police car without incident. He was placed in the backseat of the car, and transported back to school where he finished out the school day.

NO, I was not asked to pick him up.
NO, he was not suspended from school.
NO, he did not receive additional,
unnecessary disciplinary actions.

The school GETS it –they did not reinforce Mike’s behaviors and they

did not reward him by sending him home.

Now, the thought of my autistic son being led away in handcuffs was not a pleasant one. It’s incredibly painful to know that your child is probably scared and that there’s nothing you can do about it – except trust. My faith in Deputy Barker mostly came from his composure during out brief phone call. He wasn’t frustrated, intimidated, angry, upset, or flustered by Mike’s behaviors. He also understood the bigger opportunity – to teach Mike a lesson, while ensuring his safety.

While the purpose of the field trip was to educate the students about agriculture, Mike learned a far greater lesson that day. He learned that there are unpleasant consequences to bad behavior. He learned that he must respect and listen to police officers.

I couldn’t be more thankful for the compassion and understanding that Deputy Barker showed that day. He made sure that Mike was uncomfortable, scared and SAFE. He made sure that the experience taught Mike a life lesson that he NEEDED to learn.

The next day, I visited Deputy Barker with Mike. We reviewed a social story about what had occurred. We reviewed the options and consequences with Mike. HE GOT IT – he has participated in the Strawberry Festival field trip EVERY year since, without incident.

IMG_3621

Some lessons are best learned the hard way.

The Pain

images

I can remember my daughter’s first day of Kindergarten – 5-years after Mike was diagnosed. I was standing amongst the other mothers watching our babies, in their Catholic school uniforms, embark on their first day of school. We ALL had tears in our eyes but my tears were different. While I was emotional about my daughter’s transition to Kindergarten – my tears were mostly for my son.

As a former Catholic school student, there’s an emotional bond in wearing that plaid jumper and those navy blue shorts. Seeing your child in ‘their’ first Catholic school uniform is a transitional moment. It’s a bond that can only be appreciated by ‘other’ Catholic school students.

As I looked at my daughter’s Kindergarten class, I found myself consumed with the little boys. The pain was unbearable and I was relieved that I was able to mask my tears – attributing them to my daughter. In reality, my tears were for Mike. He wasn’t wearing the navy blue shorts, with the white shirt, embroidered with the school logo. He had autism!

Over the years, I’ve had countless moments like this. They mostly surround events or experiences that Mike should be participating in.

I’d like to be able to tell you that, with time, the pain subsides and that there’s acceptance – if there is, I haven’t found it. At any given moment, something can trigger me emotionally and I’m reduced to tears. What has subsided is some of the stresses. Gone are the 30-hour a week therapy programs and my obsessive search for ‘the cure’.

While I still grieve the loss of the son I was expecting, I’ve come to understand that the grief and pain that I feel is my own. Mike is not grieving any of these losses – certainly not missing out on Catholic school. When I shift my focus from MY perspective of happiness to his – I see that his life IS fulfilled. There is balance, acceptance, and Mike is happy.

It’s been 16-years since he was diagnosed and my goal for him is still the same. It’s the same goal I have for my daughter –be happy! If they can achieve that, they’re better off than most of society.

IMG_7770