Books I’ve Read

While rearranging the placement of some books at my house, I realized I’ve read a ton of books over the years.  This list will not be complete by any stretch of the imagination.  These are actual books, and not comic books or graphic novels.  I see those as a distinctively different kind of “book”.  I do a lot of reading when I’m not blogging, working, doing chores, spending time with my son, or doing whatever.  I wish there were 48 hours in a day and I still only needed seven hours sleep! Continue reading

New Beginnings From Yesteryears

Twelve years ago I had a big idea.  It was a monstrous and colossal idea.  So big I couldn’t begin it.  When I first had the big idea, I began to map it out.  I knew much of the who, what, when, where and why.  It was the how that was killing me.  It would be my magnum opus for the world or at least a few readers.  Either way, I knew I had to do it.  I would revisit my idea over the years, continuing the map.  Five years ago, I wrote the prologue and the first chapter.  I haven’t been back since.  This little thing called education got in the way.

The past few weeks, I’ve been thinking about my big idea.  I’m not getting any younger and if I’m ever going to do it, now would be an ideal time.  There are three main sources of inspiration for this, from three areas of my life I have enjoyed since a child: music, tv, and comic books.  For the musical inspiration, one line from a Wallflowers song planted the idea.  The television show Lost, which ran from 2004-2010, germinated the seed.  And finally, my literary muse, the one and only Neil Gaiman, was the one who showed me that even the most random of characters can hold great importance later.

I proudly present “1000 Lives”.  The prologue will give the theme of how this works.  And then… well, you will just have to wait.  It will be so epic that I can’t do it on this blog.  So I have to start a new one.  But Exceptional Delaware will continue as well.  Two blogs, at no price to you the reader.  Please follow “1000 Lives” as it will be completely separate from this blog.  If it isn’t your cup of tea, don’t worry about it.  If it is, spread the word.  This is a fictional story with pieces of real life thrown in for good measure.  I’ve met many people in my forty-six years of life so don’t be surprised at many inspirations spread throughout this online novel.

I invite you on a journey like no other.  I’m not sure if this has ever been attempted before.  If not, look for something very original.  Most stories have a beginning, middle, and an ending.  This story’s beginning starts at the end of one story while opening up many more.

Here is the link to 1000 Lives.

Reasons America & Delaware Are Still Great 2016 Edition

Many people in America today are facing an impossible choice.  We call this Election Day.  I am choosing to spend the day looking at all that is good about America and more specifically the state I live in, Delaware.  No matter what happens today, we can’t let anyone take away the spirit of what makes us Americans.  We have liberties we often take for granted.  Beyond the politics of it all, we all should want the best for each other, especially the children.  We have so much talent in this country.  Each mind is a unique and wonderful creation of beauty and grace. In Delaware, we have people doing things no one hears about, every single day. We have children who have so many gifts. We have stories of hope and inspiration. As a friend of mine said on Facebook the other day, we are more than this election.

16 To Watch In 2016: Ashley Sabo

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Ashley who?  That might be a question many of you are asking.  But for those who know her, I’m sure they can contest that Ashley Sabo is a force to be reckoned with.  The first encounter I had with Ashley was during the Vision Coalition annual conference at the end of October.  For the past two years I have made it a point to “crash” their Twitter hashtag party.  I usually instinctively know where someone stands on Delaware education, but Ashley stood out.  She responded on many of the tweets, and it went from there.

Ashley is, first and foremost, a mother and wife.  One of her children is special needs.  Ashley became very involved in the Red Clay Consolidated School District to make sure her child was getting the best education possible.  Red Clay recently adopted a massive inclusion push for students with disabilities and their regular peers.  When the initiative started, Ashley knew she had to become involved right away.  As a result, Ashley was the co-chair of the Red Clay Secondary School Inclusion Committee.  She is now the co-chair for the District Inclusion Oversight Committee.

Her other volunteer activities are as follows: President of the Meadowood PTA, Secretary and member of the advocacy committee for the Delaware PTA, and she is working on becoming a trained Educational Surrogate Parent.  The last position is where someone acts as a parent in the special education process for children with disabilities in the Delaware foster-care system.  As well, she is also working on becoming a Court Appointed Special Advocate, which is a court-appointed position which helps abused or neglected children find a safe and healthy environment in a permanent home.

Back in March of 2014, Ashley and her husband were very involved in the feud between Nemours and United Healthcare.  For parents of special needs children, there is usually some catalyst that forces them to act.  For Ashley, this was that moment.  Once a special needs parent becomes involved in advocating not only for their child but others, it is very hard to put that fire out.  Shortly after I started this blog, another Delaware blogger left a comment on an article that always stuck with me in his accurate description of parents of special needs children:

I’ve always felt that God picks his greatest works and gives them special needs children, knowing full well that through their advocacy, care, and love, the envelope will be stretched enabling others who are weak, tired, and poor to be able to slip in and have their causes addressed too……. Meaning that if someone forces you to address an issue due to their advocacy, it is an easy next step to widen the breadth of the process to include the others as well. But the latter effort would be deemed totally impossible to attempt, were there never those advocates who initially force one to start the process. Across many states, there is a high preponderance of those who are considered the doers of good for society, who themselves are parents of special needs children. It is those parents, whose work keeps all of society human… That of course is my humble opinion. But it has become my explanation as to why all parents of special needs children seem to be, again in my opinion, bordering superhuman…

I wouldn’t say we are “superhuman”, but very dedicated to doing everything we can to make sure our children have the best life possible.  If that means going against authority or even state agencies in the attempt, so be it.  For Ashley Sabo, a life-long resident of Delaware with two masters degrees, she is well-armed for this.  There are many Ashley’s in Delaware and across America.  But Ashley has that extra fuel to keep the conversations going AND to make a difference.  I would strongly urge any district officials in Red Clay, state legislators, and those in power who have the capability of making true and lasting change for our special needs kids to truly listen to Ashley.  She is wise beyond her young years and this is clear when you meet her.  I have no doubt Ashley will be a force for change in the coming years.

As recently last night, I published an article about Red Clay’s inclusion push.  While it is certainly a very noble gesture, it won’t work if the resources and staff are not able to meet the needs of the students.  This is Ashley’s biggest fight at the moment, getting those in the district to listen to what is glaringly obvious.  Should the redistricting proposal from the Wilmington Education Improvement Commission pass, Red Clay will have even more students.  If they can’t get this now, how are they going to do this with a large influx of new students?  Whatever happens, I have faith Ashley will be at the front of the debate.  While she lists Delaware Attorney General Matt Denn and State Rep. Kim Williams as an inspiration, I can say she is a light in the darkness for all the special needs children in Delaware.

Smiley The Terrible

One friend.  Just one.  Sometimes that’s all we need.  Just one, in a lifetime of people that pass through.

In 1981, I moved from Roanoke, VA to South Salem, NY.  Entering 6th grade, I was scared and nervous.  I was an okay student, but I had some minor disabilities in the form of attention deficit with a touch of hyperactivity.  When we moved that May, our new house wasn’t finished yet, but we sold the prior house so we had to rent a home for about three months.  For a month and a half, I went to an elementary school in Chappaqua, NY.  For about three weeks in July, we moved in with my Aunt and Uncle in Brookfield, CT, on the shores of Candlewood Lake.  Finally, in the beginning of August we moved to our new home in a small residential neighborhood in the bottom southwest corner of NY state.  If you walked through the woods about 1/2 a mile, you would be in Connecticut.

Within days of moving in, I met the Eds.  Two boys, my age and in the same grade, both named Ed.  All three of us had a love of comic books, so the first day we met, we were trading comics left and right.  Both of them played soccer, but I wasn’t interested in the game having done horrible a year prior.

I had a very difficult time making friends at my new school.  I had a southern accent, and it quickly became apparent I was a little different.  As well, I stupidly asked a question in 6th grade math when talking about rocks.  “Are rocks alive?” branded me for a few months as the village idiot.  And a month into school, when we could run for town positions, I decided to run for town clerk.  I had to give a speech at an assembly, and after uttering the words “My name is Kevin Ohlandt, and I’m running for town clerk”, most of the school was heard repeating these words when I would walk by.  My reaction was fierce!  I started talking back to those who taunted and teased me, and threats of “kicking my ass” soon followed.  It became a vicious cycle of taunt & tease, react, threats, and then me backing down and often crying or running away from the situation.

The two Eds though, they never joined the crowd.  After school, I would often hang out with them, usually exploring the vast amount of woods behind our houses.  Sometimes a bunch of neighborhood kids would play football or baseball, or in the summer, very large games of Flashlight Tag at night.  We would ride our bikes, go to new houses being built, or throw rocks on a frozen pond in the winter.  Eddie and I would walk to the bus stop almost every day.

As sixth grade led to junior high school, things got progressively worse for me.  Instead of battling one school, it was now four rolled into one.  More enemies.  Fights happened, usually with my “ass getting kicked”, but I still reacted without thinking.  Before too long, I was the one starting things.  But through it all, every day, I would sit at lunch eating with the two Eds and some other kids.  After school, more of the same.

During 7th and 8th grade, with my obnoxious big mouth and instigating tactics, I was often told to sit at the front of the bus.  Usually one of the Eds would sit with me.  He was called Eddie by most.  Eddie was the tallest of the three of us.  He was a gentle soul, always smiling.  He could be quiet and reserved at times, but for the most part we would talk and joke around.  I nicknamed him Smiley the Terrible.  I can’t for the life of me remember the context of the nickname, but terrible is the last adjective I would ever use to think of Eddie.

In 9th grade, still in Junior High School in our district, Eddie would share stories he wrote.  For a 14-15 year old, he wrote some very intelligent, well thought-out stories.  It was better than a lot of the stuff I had to read at school!  His imagination knew no bounds, even getting into some physics stuff before our time.

Things started to change when we entered high school.  Our interests changed.  The two Eds were heavily involved in soccer or other sports, and our four years of shared CCD classes ended after we were all confirmed.  I was still into comic books, even working at a comic book store over the border in Connecticut on Saturdays.  As friends tend to do at different points in our lives, we drifted apart.  I was very involved in youth groups and church activities, but that was in Connecticut.  We still talked, all three of us, but the conversations were more about what was going on or what girls we liked.

When I was in 11th grade, in 1987, I participated in a large church retreat called Emmaus.  For first-time participants, we were called candidates.  Emmaus was essentially an unconditional love fest retreat from Friday evening to Sunday evening.  Prior attendees, both teenagers and adults, would work the retreat.  As part of Emmaus, parents were encouraged to reach out to their teenager’s friends to write letters  to the candidates.  I received letters from the two Eds.  Eddie wrote the following:

Many people used to ask me why I was your friend.  “Why not?” was my usual response.  Perhaps they understood, perhaps they didn’t.

Eddie went on to write about some other things, but he concluded with this:

I’m glad you are my friend just because you are.

I received many letters from friends and family that weekend, but this was one of the ones that touched me the most.  No matter what, even if I embarrassed him with my actions, Eddie was committed to being my friend.  I had other friends, but it’s rare to have a friend that goes back years as a kid with disabilities.

Towards the end of our Senior year, Eddie and I talked a bit more.  Perhaps it was nostalgia creeping in as we prepared to embark on the next chapter of our sheltered lives, or maybe we found common ground.  Whatever it was, it culminated at a party at my house a month after graduation.  My parents were away, and my two older brothers and I had a huge party.  The two Eds came, and I remember the three of us talking in my backyard.  We made a toast to the past and to the future.  To my recollection, it was the last time all three of us were together.

After a year of trying to “find myself”, I moved to Pennsylvania with my parents and attended community college.  The first few years there were very rough for me.  Transition and I have never been good friends.  In the Fall of 1992 I would transfer to Cabrini College in Radnor, PA as a junior.  The summer before, I had the coolest job ever.  I was an editor for a magazine called Comics Values Monthly.  The owner of the comic book store I worked for back in 1985 started this magazine a year later after he closed the shop.  I continued to work for him throughout high school.  In 1991, his magazine was really taking off, and I offered to help.  Once a month, I would go up to Connecticut and New York during weekends and submit freelance work I did for the magazine throughout the month.  I went over to Eddie’s house one night during the summer, and we chatted a bit.  He was attending Washington College in Chestertown, MD.

On October 16th, 1992, a friend was driving me to a party.  A wicked storm came in, thunder and lightning all over the place.  As we were driving, I felt something.  I knew something happened.  My heart felt a sudden emptiness, a vacancy.  I didn’t know what it was, and it scared the hell out of me.  All I knew was that someone, somewhere, that I was once close to died.  I knew it in my conscious mind and I was sad.  By the time we got to the party, I put it out of my mind and had the kind of fun you can only have in college!

The next day, I felt a need to go home.  I was at Cabrini for a month and a half, and it was a whirlwind of studies, partying, working on the school newspaper, and working for the magazine.  I needed a break.  My parents had gone away that weekend, so I had the house to myself.  Early that Sunday morning, I received a phone call.  It was the other Ed’s mother.  I will never forget the words.  “I hate to tell you this, Eddie died Friday night.”

Eddie became involved in theater at Washington College.  While working on lighting for an upcoming play, he was electrocuted.  He died instantly.  The horrible loss I felt that Friday evening, over 100 miles away from Chestertown, MD, was Eddie passing away.  I found out later it was the exact same time of his death.

The next few days were a blur.  The following Wednesday was Eddie’s funeral.  I was unable to attend the wake the night before.  In Pennsylvania, it was raining non-stop.  I left very early, at 5:30am in the morning.  As I drove along the Delaware River on the New Jersey side, I put a tape on of U2’s Unforgettable Fire.  The title track of the album was playing and I felt Eddie’s loss more than I had at any other moment.  After the song finished, I put on a tape by a singer called Michael W. Smith.  He is a Christian singer who had some moderate mainstream success in the early 1990s.  He had just come out with a new album, and one of the songs was called “Friends”.  Another singer released this song years prior, and the first time I heard it was on my Emmaus weekend back in 1987.  As the song played driving up to Eddie’s funeral, I thought of his letter and the words he wrote.

Packing up the dreams God planted, in the fertile soil of you.  Can’t believe the hopes He’s granted, means a chapter in your life is through.  But we’ll keep you close as always.  It won’t even seem you’ve gone.  Cause our hearts, in big and small ways, will keep the love that keeps us strong.  And friends are friends forever, if the Lord’s the Lord of them.  And a friend will not say never, and the welcome will not end.  Though it’s hard to let you go, in the Father’s hands we know, that a lifetime’s not too long to live as friends.”

While the words gave me comfort, I was also angry.  How could God strike someone down in the prime of his youth.  22 years old.  He had a whole lifetime ahead of him.  I regretted losing touch with him over the years.  I didn’t realize it at the time, but he inspired me to write.  He got me to take a journalism class in high school, and his many stories spurred my own creativity.  But somewhere along the way, the focus shifted between us.  When I was in high school, I was very involved in theater, whether it was bit parts in plays, or helping to be stage manager during our high school’s variety shows.  This extended into community college for many years as well.  Even after college, I still got parts at my old community college.  But this evolved into writing.  Eddie went from writing to theater.  He was one of those guys who really didn’t have a hateful bone in his body.

As I was writing this, I decided to Google Eddie and Washington College.  I knew he had been electrocuted while working on lighting.  But I didn’t realize he was working on a particular chandelier in the auditorium as part of his drama thesis.  Something about this gnawed at me.  Being the packrat I am, I tend to keep everything.  When I pulled out Eddie’s old Emmaus letter, I remembered he wrote me a letter when he was at Washington College.  There was something about a light in the letter.  I pulled it out of the dusty bin, and read it…

There’s a neat light in the theater that I was shown my freshman year here, it’s kinda like a night light, but it isn’t.  It’s really peaceful though and if you ever get a chance to get down here, I’ll show you it.

I wish I would have taken him up on his offer.  It’s been 23 years since Eddie died.  Whenever I used to go up to our old town, I would always make it a point to visit him at his grave.  In the year after he passed, sometimes I would spend hours there, talking to him, or just thinking, or praying.  I haven’t been up in that area in a long, long time.  The last time I was there, I was married and had my son for quite a while.  Gone were the days of my youth.  This was before I knew of my son’s disabilities and the battles ahead.  Before a blog even entered my mind.  I was just a dad, struggling with myself during those transition years.

A couple years after I moved to Delaware, I played hookie from work one day.  I went for a long drive, not sure where I was going.  I just went where my car took me.  I found myself in Maryland, in a place called Chestertown.  I drove past an old college, but I didn’t make the connection.  This was where Eddie breathed his last.  Even after I left this town and the beautiful river that went into the Chesapeake Bay, I didn’t know.  It wasn’t until years later when Facebook took off and I reconnected with old friends, that I found out.  Someone said Washington College when talking about Eddie, and my answer about why I found myself at Washington College was answered.  I suppose my subconscious knew.

I think about Eddie from time to time.  If I hear mention of Chestertown or Washington College, his smiling face appears in my mind.  Recently, a friend of mine was telling me about how her daughter goes to Washington College, and I started thinking about Eddie again.  I wanted to write about him, and honor my friend.  My friend who was there for me when so many others weren’t.  When peers were saying why and he didn’t care.  Everyone needs a friend like that.  Everyone needs that one person they can turn to, no matter how bad it is, and just knowing they care makes all the difference.

Sometimes I wonder about how I find the things I do with this blog.  How I find the strength to keep going, to put something up on here every day.  The little things, like looking for an answer to a question, never finding it, but the seeking opens up a door to something else.  I’ve written before about how another person in my life gave me inspiration when I first started this journey.  We have no idea how much the departed can impact us, how they push us in certain directions if we are open to it.  If we listen.  Sometimes, when I write, I go back and read it months later and wonder where I got those words.  I like to think Eddie, and others gone before and since, are guiding me under the watchful eye of God, who I have never given enough credit for the wonderful things in my life: my wife, my son, my friends, my family.  The sunset that stretches across the sky at night on my way home from work.  The moments of absolute stillness when you feel like you are one with the world.  The nights when you are alone with nothing but the stars and you get lost in the vastness of it all.  That’s all God.  Something I need to remember.

It was so long ago, when my friend was in my life.  But he is still here, in my heart and even in my words.  He reminds me that God is still a part of my life, even when I don’t think He is there.  Part of the reason I stand up for children with disabilities is because long ago, Eddie stood up for me.  Eddie may be gone from this world, but he still burns brightly in my mind.  A light that he found, an unforgettable fire.

Flashback: September, 1986.  The three of us go to a movie in New Canaan, CT.  It’s a movie about a group of friends who have a moment in their lives when they have to make a journey to find a dead body.  But like most things in life, it doesn’t go the way they planned.

I never had any friends like the ones I had when I was twelve.  Jesus, does anyone?

I cry every time I see the end of Stand By Me now.  Every single time.  I think of Eddie, and what he meant to me, and still does.  Thank you Stephen King, for writing those words in your original short story called “The Body”, adapted into Stand By Me.  Just seventeen words to encapsulate a time when one person made a difference.

Happy Birthday To The Inspiration Behind Exceptional Delaware

Before Markell and Herdman started plotting together, before Common Core was a gleam in Arne Duncan’s eye, before the words Race To The Top meant gouging schools in America with corporate education reform, a baby was born.  Eleven years ago today to be precise.  Out in Southern California, he entered this crazy world.  It was a beautiful day, very warm and in the 80s, not a cloud in the sky.

After some complications, my son was born.  My wife had some complications as well, so I went with the nurse to the incubator.  Before my son was placed in there, I reached out my hand to his and he squeezed my finger.  Not even 10 minutes old, and I bonded with him forever at that moment.  It was one of the happiest moments of my life.

Here we are, eleven years later.  He came into this world on a warm and sunny day, and he turned eleven waking up to snow.  There have been many challenges along the way, and there will be more.  But there are also those moments of joy that you can never put into words.  Things only a parent can truly know.

His journey through life is his own, I’m just a guide for a certain amount of time.  He has other guides, like his mom, and others.  His story has become my story, and everything I do on here, every word I write, it is to help him, and others like him.  The battles I fight, the secrets uncovered, it is all to expose and to change.  If I, along with others, ever do win these battles, the biggest challenge will be what comes next.  Nature abhors a vacuum, so something must take it’s place.  I pray that worthy voices will very carefully replace the abomination education has become.  For my son, and the students in all of our schools.

I have to believe something better is on the way.  I have hope.  It can’t be this bleak all the time.  In the meantime, I will continue to write, for my inspiration and my moments of joy, happiness, sadness, anger, confusion, curiosity and insight.  Happy Birthday bud!  I love you!

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An Interview With The Magnificent Melissa Katz! “The Start Of An Educational Revolution”

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Every once in a while, someone pops up on the blogosphere and makes a deep impression with people.  For the New Jersey blogs, that person is Melissa Katz.  I wrote about Melissa last month when I saw one of her articles re-tweeted all over the place.  I read it and I was amazed!  For someone so young to have so much insight into the reality of education today is something special.  I had the opportunity to interview Melissa recently, and I welcome you to get to know an amazing young woman who has impressed not only many of her fellow citizens in New Jersey, but also America.  Melissa is the voice of the future, in my opinion, for what education should be.  In between her studies, activism and friends, Melissa also writes a blog called The Educational Activist: From Student To Teacher.

Exceptional Delaware: What made you decide to become a teacher?

Melissa: I always loved school. But more than that, I always loved learning, which in many cases is lost in school due to the current test-and-punish tactics. I would spend my free time playing teacher and Continue reading

19 Year Old College Student From New Jersey Gets It, So Why Can’t Markell and Rodel?

Last night I had the extreme pleasure of reading a newer blog called The Educational Activist: From Student To Teacher.  I saw a ton of people talking about it on Twitter, so I checked it out.  I was speechless because it was so awesome!  I quickly read her other articles, and I was struck by her simple brilliance on the state of education in New Jersey and America.  We don’t hear from young college students like her too much.  We do hear about the Teach For America people who think they are the best thing to hit education since the black board.

Mel Katz is my new hero!  We have a lot in common.  We search for the truth and attend board meetings and make public comment and we say things that will piss people off.  But we also know if we didn’t say these things we wouldn’t be true to ourselves.  Her Hespe is my Mark Murphy, Governor Markell and Rodel.

I’ve wondered for a while now why more parents aren’t speaking out against Common Core.  I’ve started to realize they may not have a reason to.  Until something bad happens with your child, why would anyone question education?  I have a sinking feeling many parents will cross this Rubicon next Spring when the Smarter Balanced Assessment and PARCC tests roll out in the Common Core states.

In the meantime, please read Mel Katz’ article.  She gave me her permission to copy it in its entirety, but please go to her blog and check out her other articles.  She is something special, and I have no doubt she will be an excellent teacher!  To me, Mel Katz is an inspiration and she has actually renewed my hope for the future.  We just have to get rid of all these ed reform idiots first!

Saturday, November 01, 2014

Dear Commissioner Hespe: This is Personal.

Dear Commissioner David Hespe and the New Jersey Department of Education:

I am really at a loss of words for where to begin on this latest memo – and trust me, I’m never at a loss for words when it comes to discussing education. So I figure, let me start by telling you a little bit about myself and my schooling experience.

[For more factual based arguments regarding the newest Department of Education memo, see the incredible Ani McHugh here, and parent Sarah Blaine here.]

I always loved school. But more than that, I always loved learning, which in many cases is lost in school due to the current test-and-punish tactics. I would spend my free time playing teacher and school (and in case you’ve forgotten, I’m enrolled in the 5-year Masters Urban Education program at The College of New Jersey). I would spend my time doing long division problems at my Grandparent’s kitchen table because I loved the feeling of successfully finishing a math problem – I also just loved math, which I was two years ahead in all the way through the beginnings of high school. I would spend my free time writing stories, plays, creative pieces, poetry, and anything else that the pencil would draft because I simply loved the feeling of being creative. I loved science because my Father and Grandfather, both scientists, would come into school and do experiments with my class and sometimes the entire grade level. I loved art and social studies and music (the clarinet managed to last two years in my hands!). I loved learning and to me, school was the place that happened. How naive I was.

This was all until I reached high school, where I could not handle the pressure. I had suffered from minor school anxiety in middle school, but I did very well with the support of my parents and teachers. And despite suffering from minor school anxiety, I still enjoyed going to school. High school was a different story. On my first day of high school, I walked in, froze at the entrance, and found myself in the counselor’s office. I remember saying, “I just can’t handle the pressure.” This was the first day of school – we hadn’t even done anything yet. All I had running through my mind was, “Everything you do matters. How will I do on my SAT’s? What college am I going to? Do I have enough extracurriculars? What if I fail my final exams?” All through middle school I was reminded how scary, hard, and high-pressure/high-stakes high school was going to be, and it got to me.

Omitting the long, boring details, I ended up being diagnosed with severe school and separation anxiety. I was homeschooled for four months during my sophomore year, four years ago almost to the day: the very end of October, November, December, January, and February, and then slowly started attending one class a day until I was back in school fully around April/May. It was the absolute worst experience of my life and exposed me to the ugly side of “schooling.” I remember sitting in the counselor’s office and having a school administrator say to me, “I don’t get it. Why can’t you just go to school like everyone else?” I felt worthless, stupid, and I genuinely didn’t understand why I couldn’t go to school like everyone else. This experience destroyed my love of learning.

Math, science, English – these are all subjects I still struggle with through college. All I think when I don’t know the answer on a test is, “Why couldn’t you go to school like everyone else? You’re so stupid, you don’t know this answer. What is wrong with you?” I was damaged by the high-stakes pressure, and I will forever suffer from that.

But I made it out okay. I survived the system, and still recognize that things I went through in school don’t even compare to what students in other places go through and suffer from – the impacts of poverty, closing of neighborhood schools, underfunding, no textbooks, lack of teachers and 40 students in a class; the list is endless. I made it out okay because I had a teacher who taught me that I could be a successful learner, despite what my SAT/HSPA score or any other test score said.

Yes, a teacher saved me. Hear that? A teacher. During my junior year I met the most unconventional teacher I’ve ever had. When we first met, I remember thinking this guy is a little weird. He did something I had never really been exposed to before: he taught us through discussion – sometimes very serious and sometimes more lighthearted – debate, reflections, personal experiences, guest speakers, and focused around current events that impacted our lives that we could connect to. Little did I know at that time that he would end up teaching me the greatest lesson I have ever learned, and one I needed at this time in my life: I was enough. It didn’t matter what my test scores said, and my love of learning would trump anything that a test could ever say about me.

I will never forget the words he said to me, in part:

“…’New beginnings’ weren’t on any of the tests you were given over the past 12 years of your formal public education. But that’s ok. Why? Because I know you’ll figure it out. In the grand scheme of things, there are infinitely more activities that you should devote your time and energy to. You’re smart enough to examine multiple career paths and hard-working enough to be successful at whatever path you choose. But there’s more to life than choosing a career path. There are responsibilities that come with being ‘educated.’ Please do me a personal favor. Never stop asking the questions that make policy makers and people in authority uncomfortable. Some people make a good living doing that. If you ever decide to have children or become an educational professional, fight for what is really important: their ability to learn and their LOVE of learning. Learning doesn’t look like school, but school should look more like learning. The keepers of the ‘status-quo’ will be tough to combat, but not impossible. They fold like a cheap suit when populations become increasingly self-aware and question their leadership. Be a leader and a source of inspiration for people who are desperate for good leadership…”

These words are framed above my desk. They are what keep me going when the system tries to tell me otherwise. My teachers supported me through everything I went through, when they knew the system was crushing me from the inside. I am beyond thankful that I had people who believe in me, supported me, and guided me, despite being a part of a system that currently doesn’t support different types of learners.

Humanity and respect have been lost in the discussion. Humanity and respect for students, teachers, and parents have been lost in the discussion.

As parent and former teacher Sarah Blaine writes:

“But unless I’m fundamentally misreading this memo, Hespe appears to be encouraging districts to adopt sit and stare policies in an effort to intimidate parents into not opting their kids out.

Bring it on, Acting Commissioner Hespe. Bring it.

It appears to me that you’re taking a page from your boss’s playbook by telling those of us who disagree with you to ‘sit down and shut up.’

It appears to me, Acting Commissioner Hespe, that you’re trying to bully those of us who do not see the value in your precious PARCC tests by punishing our children.

That’s low, Acting Commissioner. Really low. And do you know what? You don’t intimidate me. All you’ve done is piss me off. And Acting Commissioner, I’ll tell you this: pissing off parents — and voters — like me is probably not the way to ensure the long-term success of your policies. You were just a faceless bureaucrat. Now I want to get you fired. You deserve no less for attempting to bully parents by punishing our children.”

You’ve pissed me off too, Commissioner, because our students deserve better: they deserve respect and to be treated as humans, not testing machines used to further the state’s unproven and untested “reforms.”

When I started this blog, I never intended it to be about me. This was a way to share my experiences, share the knowledge I have, and connect with others who can and have taught me so much about education, learning, schooling, and the “reform movement.” But this is personal. As a student and future teacher, this is an attack on me, my fellow students, fellow future (and current) teachers, and parents (hint: they’re really not the ones to piss off). This attack, I’m hoping, is going to shed light on the damage of these reforms in our schools, and push more parents to refuse the test as a way to fight for the education ALL of our children deserve: a well-rounded education that supports whatever type of learner they are, and doesn’t boil them down to one score that, in the grand scheme of life, means nothing.

As a current student and future teacher, I will not stop fighting until I know my students one day will be treated as humans, as learners, and as explorers. I will not stop fighting until there is equitable education for all – for students who can’t test well, but are brilliant artists. For students who can’t test well, but make the most beautiful music to ever grace our ears. For the students who can’t test well, but are math geniuses. For the students who can’t test well but are our future teachers, scientists, dreamers, inventors, dancers, artists, musicians, historians, or whatever their passion is.

We must move away from the test-and-punish regime in education before we destroy the love of learning for students, no matter what they love or how they learn. We owe this to them and the future of education in this country.

Please check out The Education Activist: From Student To Teacher at http://theeducationactivist.blogspot.com/