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When My High School IEP Director Told Me to 'Forget Going to College'

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It was 2005 and the week before my senior finals. I was accepted a few months prior to our local community college for pre-nursing classes. I also had a pending evaluation for admission to an established nursing program. My parents, my teachers, my friends, everybody knew my goal in life at the time. I wanted to be a nurse, or work in medicine, specifically in gastroenterology or surgery. I had my mind set. Once it is set, there is no changing it usually.

I went to a private school, all 12 years of my education before college. It was eight years of hell in grade school, and then an additional four in purgatory in high school. School for me was no rodeo, academically or socially. Nobody but maybe three students understood me or wanted to understand me. I am horrible at social and emotional cues, so that also didn’t help me any trying to make new friends. I was never invited to parties by my peers, or to events held outside of the school – unless you had one, and had to invite the whole class, or nobody at all. The boys in my class made it a point to mock me when I tried playing sports, wanting to be like any other guy. One of them later telling me when I was older that “We all hated it when you would play, you made the rest of us on the team look bad, you had no right being out there with us.”

I liked going to school, but didn’t like the school I went to. I didn’t care for most of the students in my class or the teachers by the end of my four years there.

I could not wait to finally start anew in college, where nobody would know of my past, my “weird medical problem,” where nobody would tease or “joke” with rude remarks, or talk behind my back every day about crap I could not control (no pun intended).

Also, in college people act like adults! Which was a role I had taken on too young. I was very mature for my age, and experienced things my classmates and teachers at the time could only imagine. I knew too much about certain things, adult things both medical and non-medical. It made me view things differently than my peers, which is probably why I never fit in with any one group.

I personally found having an IEP was something that allowed teachers and students, to look at me as unintelligent. When it was first explained to me by a teacher in eighth grade, she didn’t do a good job at making me feel like it was a good thing, and I firmly believed for almost all my schooling that I was not smart enough. I despised being forced to have an IEP. I wanted to be like any other student. I didn’t want an “easy A.” I didn’t want special accommodations because of my health. I wanted to work for my grades, and I did. I studied my tail off in grade and high school, while most students would come into a test saying, “I don’t have to study” then ace the test. Unlike public schools, private schools often don’t follow through on students IEPs until confronted about it.

I considered myself a good student, but not smart like the AP students, or like the students who were part of honor roll. I had OK grades. Nothing to come home and brag about. I was an average student like anyone else not on the honor roll, which really isn’t anything that special. I used to hate not being on it. Today it doesn’t matter – not being on an honor roll didn’t exclude me from any job opportunities today.

The second to final week of my high school career, my mom and I went to school early for the final IEP meeting. Majority of my teachers, the IEP Director from the public school district and my guidance counselors. The objective of the meeting was to discuss my future in college and my career possibilities, and to discharge me from needing an IEP. The IEP Director, who made it a point to make us aware immediately that she had a PhD, was from a different school, was new to the job and had never met me or my mom before. This woman looked me and my mom in the eye and stated callously, “Barbara, based off Andy’s transcripts, test scores [ACT and standardized testing], we feel [those in the room attending] that Andy would be unsuccessful in college. He probably will not find a college to admit him, and if they do, he probably will never graduate, as he just isn’t smart enough for the coursework based off what we see here. I would not bother going through the application process. It would be best to for him to find a low intense labor job with limited responsibilities,” or something along those lines. Who allowed this woman to work in childhood education again?

Before she could get the next sentence out, I interrupted her just as coldly. “Who are you to tell me what I can and cannot do in my life… who are you, to tell me, someone who came over all the odds, has been through hell and back so many times I lost count, and studied his ass off every day, when other kids just got an A because they didn’t need to study, or because they needed to keep their place on varsity teams, so a championship could be won?” Who was this woman, to callously say this to my mother? What made this woman feel so entitled to kill my spirits of a successful future? If you say it is her job, then you are making an excuse for her poor and emotionless behavior that day, and probably every other day of the week. If she said this to me, I can only imagine how many other high school seniors she said the same to on IEP discharge meetings.

I admit, I lost it after her trying to justify her stance to my mother, who had also had interrupted the meeting to give her pointed opinion. I said things to this woman that I’m surprised I didn’t spend all day in detention or get an all-day suspension for. Mom tried to stop me from lashing out on her, but I was too outraged, and left the meeting with some very colorful words for all of them to reflect on. My teachers included, as they were just as guilty.

It didn’t go well in the rest of the meeting once I left. Mom was on my side, as for a few minutes I lingered outside the door. The teachers talked afterwards and tried to recant what they said to me later in class, but it was too late for them – the damage had been done, added onto the four years of being looked down upon as someone who needs help and can’t get the grade on his own.

I was crushed by what this woman said. I made it my mission that day that I would prove her wrong. I also told myself that day that I could do whatever I wanted to do in life, and nobody would tell me what I could and could not do as a career or in college.

The same went for the classmates and peers who always doubted me. Nobody in my class would tell me what I was and was not capable of doing because I didn’t have as good of grades as them, or struggled more than them. The teasing, the torment, the bullying from teachers and students (yes, teachers, I am calling you out)… that day I put a stop to it. I began to stick up for myself and not hide behind my friend, where I was considered the “sidekick” of the group where I did not belong.

I graduated on May 22nd, 2005 with 250 some classmates, as planned. I was admitted to both the community college and nursing college before graduation. I was accepted to start my CNA training the next month in June at a local rehabilitation hospital, and I had already accepted a nursing tech job in short-stay surgery in September once I was done with my training. I wasn’t wasting my talent on a job that would take me nowhere without an education.

I now have a little over 400 credits in college under my belt from different programs I attended, and I have an Associates of Business, a Bachelors of Psychology and was 15 weeks into my Masters in Counseling program before my health took a very rapid turn for the worse, when I developed septic shock and about died, which made me leave the program to focus on me and my health. That woman doesn’t know that in my profession, I speak at medical conferences, speak to ranked surgeons and doctors in the field of intestinal failure, educating them. I do work with drug development with several pharmaceuticals. No PhD needed.

These are jobs that take skills, and ones she said I couldn’t have. So why she shuffles papers at her school district desk, putting down students and parents alike, I am out making a real difference to others like me.

So, to the woman with the PhD in Education, my former grade and high school teachers and peers from all walks of life who tried to tell me what I was and wasn’t capable of: Thank you for allowing me to prove you wrong. Thank you for giving me the fire and passion to know I can do anything when I put my mind to it. Thank you for your doubt and uncertainty. It was what I needed to start my new, adult life. For that I am thankful. Today I am better for it.

This experience also now serves as a lesson for me to pass onto the kids in my life: that nobody can tell you what you can or cannot do. You are the director of your life. The paths you take will all be different, and nobody has the right to say, “You’re not smart enough.”

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Originally published: October 6, 2017
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