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Will the Tortoise Win the Race?
I'm 20 and still in high school
Eric Green
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Everybody says you need to graduate from high school to succeed in life. But what if you just can’t pass your classes? Should you keep trying? I’m 20 years old and I’m still in the 11th grade. I failed 9th grade once and failed 10th grade three times. I’m not sure I’ll ever graduate.

Until 9th grade, I was in special education classes. In elementary school, I felt like the smartest kid in the class. I was a straight A student. In junior high, I constantly got 100s on spelling quizzes, and sometimes made the honor roll.

But it was back in 6th grade that I started to have trouble for the first time. When my math teacher called me up to the board to solve a problem, I was the slowest one to finish in the whole class. Some of my teachers yelled and screamed at me. One teacher called me “slow” and “stupid.” I began to hate her and think of myself as stupid. On good days, I’d tell myself, “I’m smart, just not as quick as other people.”

‘I’m Not Slow’

In the 9th grade, I got switched to regular classes and went to the resource room for extra help. In my regular classes, students talked down to kids in special ed, calling us slow. I’d think, “That’s where you’re wrong. I go to the resource room because I have a learning disability, and I’m willing to get as much help as possible.” But I kept my mouth shut because I didn’t want to get teased even more.

That year, my biological mom died. My mind was not on school at all. Suddenly school was too hard. I seemed to have lost my ability to understand the work. I began to think I was not intelligent enough to pass high school classes. I would sit in class looking at the assignment while everyone else completed theirs.

Sometimes when I took an assignment seriously I’d do well. Then I’d feel proud and confident. Most of the time, though, I’d become overwhelmed and frustrated.

I Tried My Hardest

Once, in math class, I got extra help and did all of my assignments. When I got my report card, I saw that my math teacher had given me a 65.

“Why did you give me a 65?” I asked him.

“You didn’t do well on the exams,” he said.

I was furious. Didn’t he know I was working as hard as I could? Didn’t he understand how it feels to try hard but not be rewarded or recognized? I thought I deserved a better grade because of my effort, even if I couldn’t do well on the tests.

I’ll Never Catch Up

Situations like that made me feel neglected by my teachers. Growing up, my parents and my first foster parent neglected me. My biological parents would disappear without a trace and leave my siblings and me in the house for hours. They didn’t seem to notice who I was or what I needed.

I felt the same way when my teachers overlooked the efforts I made, or stood by while other kids in the class teased me and called me names. I felt that some of my teachers did not want to deal with me anymore and didn’t pay attention to me when I asked for help. I felt lonely and isolated and stuck with problems that I couldn’t solve.

Eventually, I stopped asking for help. I’d feel stupid any time I tried to complete a difficult task. I stopped believing that I could ever pass, even if I got all the extra help in the world. I thought I’d never be a successful person.

Then I began to refuse to do class work. I’d spend my time writing poems or drawing pictures—two things I know I’m good at. When the teacher asked me about the assignment I was supposed to be doing, I’d have nothing to show.

‘Inattentive’ and ‘Uncooperative’

I hoped that my teachers would notice that I was angry, or lost. But when I took my adoptive mother, Lorine, to my parent-teacher conferences, my teachers only seemed frustrated.

One teacher told her, “Eric is a very talented poet and artist, but he doesn’t do the work that is required of him. He just sits in the back of the classroom and writes his poems. He is very inattentive and uncooperative. He’s a nice young man. I know he can do better.”

Lorine said, “You see, that’s the same exact thing that I be telling him. He gets mad and starts to cop an attitude. He doesn’t like to study, or do his homework. Every day he just comes home and sits on the floor and draws and writes poems.”

Every teacher we met told my mother the same thing. Even my art teacher, whose class is my favorite, told her, “Eric is not paying attention in class; he does not do the assignments. Eric does what he wants to do.”

‘School Won’t Help Me’

I felt embarrassed because it was the truth. I knew that I should do what was asked of me instead of being troublesome. But when Lorine asked me why I wouldn’t cooperate with my teachers, I was too embarrassed to come out with the reason for my behavior—that I felt like a failure. So I said, “I believe that school should suit my interests. I don’t understand how learning math will help me become a poet or an artist!”

Finally, the anxiety and the feeling of wasting my life got to be too much. I told my mother, “I am dropping out.”

“If you decide to drop out of high school, then you can leave this house and live with someone else,” Lorine said.

A New School

Luckily, my counselor helped me transfer to a smaller high school where I could get more attention. I thought that in a better environment I would do better in school and be able to go forward in life. At first, I was more focused and willing to do the work. The teachers went out of their way to help me, and the students were respectful and easy to get along with.

My counselor also explained to me that having a learning disability is different from being dumb. “When you’re a smart person with a learning disability, you can master an academic curriculum if you have plenty of assistance and you work hard. A dumb person is one who is unwilling to participate in classes or stick to the curriculum,” she said.

Lately, though, I’ve run into some new obstacles. In New York, you have to pass certain exams to graduate. I’ve taken some of those exams—in history and English—and I’ve failed all of them, some more than once. That made me feel depressed. I feared that I might never be a normal student and might never graduate from high school.

Not Sure What to Believe

When I confided in some of my teachers, they told me, “You need to have confidence in your abilities. You have potential and the intelligence to succeed. You’re smart, creative, artistic, and unique. You write beautiful poetry. Believe in yourself.”

Right now, I’m not sure what to believe about myself. Some days I feel smart and hopeful, other days I’m discouraged. On those days, I don’t even try to work toward graduation. I just sit in my classes, drawing and writing poetry. Those are my talents, and when I look at the words and pictures I’ve created, I feel like it doesn’t matter if I succeed in high school or not.

Still, if I don’t graduate, I’ll feel like a fool for letting myself and my family and friends down. I’m a smart person, I want to succeed, and everybody’s in my corner. My friends tell me, “Your mother is right to be upset with you. You need an education.” My mom tells me, “I want to see you with that paper in your hand.”

I want to see that, too.

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