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A snapshot into a successful freshman year

Over the last few years, I’ve come to enjoy seeing pictures on social media of my friends’ and acquaintances’ children as they commemorate their kids’ first and last days of school. Looking at the latter, I can see most of them look like they’ve gotten a smidge taller and a tad older between September and late May/early June. Most of them look like they’re posing willingly even if inwardly they might be giving mom and dad an eyeroll and thinking, “Can we PLEASE get this over with, like, now?????”

So today, it’s my turn to share pictures of the beginning and the end of my son Nolan’s freshman year of high school. I was fortunate enough to be with him that first day of school, pacing nervously in the kitchen and doling out Skittles as he met his teachers and paraprofessionals and did his work via Chromebook. I snapped the last day of school photo last Friday morning as he, Cindy and I waited for the bus to arrive. Other than having a little shorter hair than he did last fall and likely being a pound or two heavier, it really doesn’t look like Nolan has changed much over the last nine months.


But I know better.


I see a young man who absolutely grew both as a student and a person. I see a young man who settled into a new school despite never getting the opportunity to tour it as his then eighth-grade classmates got to, pre-pandemic. I see a young man who had some difficulties with the challenges he encountered – mandatory mask wearing when he started in-person learning the second week of September, two pauses in face-to-face instruction (one non-COVID related in October, one COVID-related in November) – but he handled them as well as can be expected.


Our family stared into the unknown last fall when Nolan boarded the bus for his first day at his new school. The young man who’s looking back at me in the second photograph – I swear he’s giving me an inward eyeroll and thinking, “Can we PLEASE get this over with, like, now?????” – handled his freshman year of high school pretty darn well and is now a sophomore. And Cindy and I couldn’t be prouder.


The thought of placing a then 14-year-old who has Autism and is nonverbal into a brand-new setting worried me. Sure, the mother of one of Nolan’s classmates, a young man who is a year older than Nolan and also has Autism, told Cindy in the fall of 2019 that we would love the high school and the staff there. And I think it helped immensely that Nolan and other students with cognitive disabilities pretty much had the school to themselves for nearly half the school year until the district instituted a hybrid learning model over the winter and ultimately brought back all the students for face-to-face learning in March.


There were signs along the way that Nolan was adapting very well to being a high school student. Cindy and I received positive reports last fall and spring during parent-teacher conferences. We participated in a constructive IEP this past January that, for one of the few times in the last decade, didn’t make me want to utter one or all of George Carlin’s seven words you can never say on television. Most of the schoolwork Nolan brought home was in his own handwriting, even if some of it likely was done with weeping and gnashing of teeth. Our past experiences with him playing adaptive sports hadn’t gone too well, and he did an amazing job playing on his school’s Adaptive Sports League soccer and indoor baseball teams.


Almost everything about Nolan’s freshman year looked pretty good on the surface. Still, I had to know if it really had been.


I flagged down one of Nolan’s paraprofessionals last Friday morning as I waited for him to come out of school. She’d worked with him most of the year, both in person and online, and is someone I trust to tell me the truth. She was wearing a mask, but I could tell she was smiling when I asked if Nolan had indeed been successful.


She told me he was quite boisterous in the hallways when he first transitioned to in-person learning. Now, all she had to do was motion for him to pull up his mask and be quiet, and he did as he was told.


During the moments he would get upset, all she had to do was motion to his iPad and let her know how she could help him.


Both she and Nolan’s teacher had been talking about how far he’d come over the last nine months, and it had genuinely moved them. He’s smart, she told me.


That last part has stuck with me the past few days. Between a seemingly never-ending revolving door of special education staff members in elementary school and one teacher in particular who was absolutely stunned Nolan could communicate as well as he can, I don’t know how many people who have worked with him have truly recognized that. Nolan will remain in the public school system until he turns 21. I really hope the special education staff at the high school can remain intact until then. Nolan is not only intelligent, but he’s also very perceptive. He knows when someone sees what he’s capable of and expects him to do what is asked of him. He responded well this year, and I’d like to believe the best is yet to come.


No one wants to endure another school year like the one just about everyone in the nation just faced. Still, there’s a small part of me who is a little sad to see it end, and is happy to have captured some very special moments for posterity both on camera and in my mind.


Sometimes end-of-the-year photographs capture special moments such as the accolades a student received for earning a 4.0 grade-point average for the eighth consecutive quarter. Or they show a student standing next to the project that earned them a blue ribbon and some face time on a local television station. Most often, the first and last day of school pictures parents post show sons and daughters excited about the promise of a new school year, and they show elation when it’s time for summer vacation.


Maybe you can’t see that when you look at Nolan’s pictures. But I see a young man who had the absolutely best freshman year he could have.

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