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How I Found Success on My Education Journey With Cerebral Palsy

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Doctors diagnosed me with cerebral palsy when I was 6 months old. When I was a 3-year-old my mother got me a chalkboard where she wrote words out so I could learn how to read them. My mother could see I was smart and understood everything that was going on around me.

In school, I had a lot of struggles throughout the years. By the time I entered high school, I was only at a third-grade math level and I couldn’t develop full sentences; my math and writing skills weren’t where an average high schooler should be.

Meeting Mrs. Towe, the Knox County special education teacher, was a true blessing. She took me under her wing and made sure that I received the proper tutoring I needed to improve my academic skills. Math was difficult for me to learn since I couldn’t write to work the problems out on scratch paper as other students could (this was before software was developed to help work out mathematical problems).

It took me two years to remember my multiplication tables. Many times I wanted to give up, but Sheryl always told me to suck it up buttercup. Sheryl Hamrick was Ms. Towe’s teaching assistant, who helped me remember my multiplication tables by continuously drilling them. She ever went over them while I ate my lunch every day. I moved on to working on doing division, which was also difficult for me because I couldn’t work it out with a pen.

When I started my high school sophomore year, I felt like I had the experience from summer tutoring to excel. I finally started to get mainstreamed into regular classes, which made me believe in myself more. I used to feel like the other kids didn’t treat me like a regular kid; they just saw me as somebody in a wheelchair. I didn’t think much about it because I was more focused on getting on my education.

Every Friday night I went to football games to socialize with my classmates. One time during my sophomore year they had a wrecked car where they were raising money for the band during homecoming. I gave a donation so I could hit the car by running into it with my wheelchair. The teacher’s aid got on me by doing that because it messed up my wheelchair. I was thinking about telling her to mind her own business. The teacher’s aid saw this happening as well as me taking a puff of a cigarette, and she immediately rushed me to the principal office. The principal didn’t know how to deal with me, so he sent me back to Mrs. Towe’s room. By the time I got there Mrs. Towe was in tears because she thought those boys made me take a puff of that cigarette against my will — she didn’t know I asked for them to do that. Mrs. Towe thought that I was just an innocent boy with a disability.

She called my mother and told her about the cigarette incident. My mother said “Gatlin usually doesn’t let anybody force him to do something that he doesn’t want to do.”

My mother also said, “He should be punished as well, because he probably asked them to hold that cigarette to his mouth so he could take a puff and fit in with the other boys.”

My mother didn’t believe that I should be treated differently since I have a disability.

One day I told Ms. Towe that I wanted to earn my regular education diploma when I graduated high school. She explained, “you have to pass your TCAP.” Since I was in the special education program I was going to get a special education diploma instead getting a regular education diploma.

This was important for me because I always wanted to go to college. From that moment I devoted myself to getting my regular education diploma, so I could go on to college. During my junior year in high school, I asked Mrs. Towe to put me in an English class to help me pass the Tennessee Comprehensive Assessment Program (TCAP). I thought the English teacher didn’t like the fact I was going to be in her class, because she was afraid that I was going to choke and disturb her class.

I remember my first day in English class, the teacher kept staring at me as she gave her lecture to the class. I felt like the students did better adjusting to me than she did. After a few weeks saw how well I did in her class and started interacting with me just like she did with other students.

Finally, it was time to take the TCAP English portion, which was a requirement to achieve a regular education high school diploma. I carefully read everything on the TCAP a couple of times, since I had the accommodation of unlimited time to complete the test at my pace.

After two weeks of waiting to find out what my TCAP results were, Mrs. Towe entered the classroom with a huge smile on her face. She asked me what will make my day? Then she told me that I passed the English TCAP test. I almost jumped out of my wheelchair with excitement. After three years of intense tutoring, I finally passed the TCAP’s English.

I finally completed my goal, earning my regular education high diploma and going on to get my college degree.

Image via contributor

Originally published: April 24, 2023
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