Leveling the playing field

Up until the seventh grade, I had been the perfect “A” student for my entire life. I always had the top test grades, best class participation and the teachers loved me.  However, once I was diagnosed with Tourette Syndrome, I found that all of these qualities were slowly slipping away.

As the “accelerated level” and “honors” courses became available to me, there was a drastic change of pace and level of difficulty.  The rigorous work, combined with me coping with my Tourette Syndrome in class, became a struggle.  My grades dropped, I lacked attention in class and the teachers began to notice it.

I missed important things that the teachers were saying, which before I had no problem with.  I felt that there was no way out, and that Tourette’s had taken over. I was ready to raise the white flag.

After getting the first “C” in my life on a report card, panic began to set in for my mom, who was about to become my biggest advocate.  Being still young at the time and unsure of my situation, she went into school and met with my teachers to talk to them about what was going on.

Being mostly unaware at the time of the several accommodations that the state makes available to us in school, she mainly sought a middle ground and understanding with my teachers.

At the end of the meeting, my math teacher took her aside privately and explained to my mom what a “504 Plan” was and how I would be allowed extra time on tests, preferred seating in class, extra help from teachers, among many other accommodations.  She agreed that she would look into it and explained this to me at home, asking what I thought.

At the time, I had thought that maybe I just wasn’t trying hard enough in school, and if I did more work and studied harder, I would be back to getting the same grades that I was before.  When my mom presented the concept of a 504 plan to me, I thought it was ridiculous and completely unfair that I would be given all of these advantages that my classmates were not.

If I was going to be at the head of my class again, I was going to do it fair and square.  I argued this point to my Mom, but she disagreed and got me the 504 anyway.  I didn’t fight with her on this, as she let me know that I wouldn’t have to use it all the time, but only when I truly needed it.  I could use it as a “last resort” if I needed to.

However, as time went on, my grades continued to be average, and I wasn’t even close to being at the top of my class.  As hard as I was working, I still thought that I could try harder and bring my grades back up.  My 504 plan was the last thing in my mind, and there was no way I was going to use it.  But one day at the end of math class, my teacher pulled me aside to talk to me.

My math teacher was not just an ordinary math teacher — he was missing his right leg.  He was a war veteran from the Gulf War and had taken part in Operation Desert Storm, in which he had lost his leg.  It was replaced with an aesthetic leg, which left him limping around the classroom and sometimes having difficulty moving around.  He was truly handicapped and might have been the most proud and respectful man I have ever met.

As he pulled me aside, he began to explain to me that he knew I was avoiding my 504 plan.  He knew that I thought it was unfair to use something that was not available to my classmates.  He knew how uncomfortable I would feel asking for extra time and extra help. I just stood and nodded my head, and then he began to tell his story — something that he had never told to any of his students.

When he lost his leg in the war, he didn’t want any help.  He didn’t want a wheelchair, he didn’t want crutches, he didn’t want a walker, he didn’t want an aesthetic leg.  He thought that because he made it through the war, he could make it through anything.  However, as things became tougher for him throughout life, he finally convinced himself that he had to “level the playing field” and get an aesthetic leg.

This story really touched me, and as he explained how it related to my situation, I finally saw that my 504 plan was OK to use and perfectly acceptable, seeing as I had something standing in my way that was keeping me from reaching my ultimate goal.

The bottom line is, it’s OK to take help, and it’s even more important to recognize when you need it.  If you don’t, you could be stuck on something and be left to struggle for the rest of your life, when in actuality it could be much easier and more manageable in the end.

My teacher taught me something important that day, and I hope it’s something that you can learn from, too, throughout all of your struggles, and the obstacles that are in your way from reaching your ultimate goals.

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