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How Hockey Helped Me Achieve My Goals in Life With Learning Disabilities

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The hockey photo accompanying this article was taken in the fall of 1997 during my senior year of high school when I played on the Junior Varsity hockey team. I had to work my tail off just to get a spot on that team. You see, I never put on a pair of ice skates until I was 14 years old, and I didn’t even play ice hockey until I was 16. My coach told me going into senior season that my biggest drawback was being an underdeveloped skater, but whenever my skating developed, my opponents had better watch out!

My love of hockey began when I saw games on television as a young child. Learning to play the game in gym class when I was attending a special ed school made my love of hockey grow stronger. One of my uncles worked as an usher at the Arena, and I saw bits and pieces of Blues games when I was little, going with my grandma to pick him up from work.

Anyone who knows me knows that I eat, drink, sleep and breathe hockey, but this story goes much deeper than hockey. This story goes back to when I was 3 years old. That was when my mom noticed I was not developing like most 3-year-olds.

At 3, I didn’t talk at all. If I wanted something, I would point at it and yell. If no one could figure out what I wanted, I would throw a violent temper tantrum, destroying everything in my path. Mom took me to get tested, but it didn’t go well — I ripped apart the testing equipment! That was when I was diagnosed with seven disabilities, which included learning disabled, learning impaired, speech impaired, hearing impaired, and three separate behavior disorders. My mom enrolled me in a school for children with disabilities. Some of these diagnoses were later dropped, but the learning disability labels stayed with me throughout my schooling.

From ages 3 to 7, I went to schools for children with disabilities. It wasn’t easy for me, and I fought school as hard as I could. I was being taught sign language to help me communicate, and my mom was learning it, too. Her theory was that I finally started talking at age 5 because learning sign language was too much work. She may have been right!

At 7, I was placed in a special education classroom in a public school. We lived in one of the rougher districts in the area, and when I was 10, I was transferred to a school in an even rougher neighborhood. Here I was beaten up and bullied every day because I was different. The last straw for my mom was the day there was a shooting behind the school. She arranged for me to transfer to Bel Ridge School, and this made a big difference in my life.

There was a kid in my gym class at Bel Ridge who I knew from Boy Scouts. He didn’t live far, so we could get together and play street hockey in the cul-de-sac in front of my house. At first, he would loan me a hockey stick, but soon after, my grandma bought me my first hockey stick. Things were better for me at Bel Ridge. My teacher even nominated me for the first award I ever won, the Rosemary Zander Award for community service work with my Boy Scout troop.

I started middle school a year later, after my mom remarried and we moved to a better district. At first I didn’t like it, because I was being taught the same things I’d learned in elementary school. This repetition allowed me to excel, however, and I was placed in more general education classes. There were times when I even found myself teaching my special ed classes!

Starting high school, I was considered to be doing well enough that I was moved from Pre-Vocational Class to Academic Lab (aka study hall), which provided much-needed time to do homework. It sometimes took me over five hours a night, with lots of help from Mom. I felt I was doing pretty well to go, in just one year, from a full-time special education student in eighth grade to a full-time general education student with resource services in high school.

In the fall of sophomore year, I heard an announcement about the hockey team having an open practice later that afternoon. Mom took off work to take me to watch and ask some questions, and I was excited the next day when she bought me my first set of hockey equipment. At first, I was terrible at playing hockey — after all, I’d only skated a few times in my life. I didn’t like it, but I understood why I didn’t get much playing time that year.

Junior year was even worse. I was cut after tryouts, but that didn’t stop me — I was determined to play hockey! I started lessons with a figure skater before school on Friday mornings, and I skated at public sessions as often as I could. This helped me make it back on the JV team for my senior year.

The last two years of high school, I took TV production classes and was involved in the school’s television show in many different roles, including videotaping, producing, writing, reporting, and editing footage. I even anchored the show occasionally. Senior year, I won an award for Exhibiting Outstanding Academic Achievement With an Individual Education Plan.

I next attended St. Louis Community College at Florissant Valley and earned an Associate Degree in Communication Arts in Broadcasting. I did really well in broadcasting. One semester, I even made the dean’s list!

After achieving my associate degree, my mom talked me into applying as a teacher’s assistant, pointing out that my experiences helping care for my uncle with severe autism gave me the skills I would need to succeed. She was right, and I worked as a substitute for three years before I was asked to interview for a full-time job at a high school. I was so happy when I got that phone call offering me the job.

After starting my job at the high school in 2005, I was ready for more hockey in my life. I went to the hockey team practice, identified myself as an employee of the school, and asked if I could help with the team. The head coach, who I watched play in the NHL when I was growing up, said he could use my help to take stats. After a few games doing stats, the club’s coaching director asked if I’d be interested in coaching their lower-level teams. I got myself certified to coach through USA Hockey, and I’ve been with that high school hockey program ever since.

My coaching responsibilities include game day operations, statistics and making sure the team has pucks for warm-up. I’m responsible for the game day roster being filled out correctly and given to the off-ice official with game pucks if needed. I’m proud to be part of one of the top-ranked public high school hockey clubs in the State of Missouri.

During my time working as a paraeducator and assistant hockey coach, I was recruited as an on-ice and off-ice hockey official. My work with the hockey team also led to my role as an off-ice official for the league as a score-keeper. I really enjoy all of my work in the sport I love.

I have traveled a long way from being a child diagnosed with multiple disabilities to being a paraeducator in one of the best public high schools in the state, an assistant coach for a top hockey program, and my school’s Building Representative for Paraeducators for the local branch of the National Education Association. My passion for hockey, along with the support of my family, especially my mom, has helped me develop the strength, determination, knowledge, skills, and most of all the confidence to reach these goals in my life. I know that hockey will continue to help me as I work toward my goals in the future. I couldn’t ask more of the game I’ve loved from as far back as I can remember.

Originally published: November 11, 2020
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