Our Life With Shelby - Part Two

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Part two in a series. Click here to read part one.

Shelby’s time in the psychiatric hospital was very hard on all of us. She was frightened to be there and wanted to come home badly. But Jeanene and I both felt strongly that she needed to finish her time of evaluation. She was there about 10 days. At the end of that time the psychiatric team gave us a diagnosis and a new medication, one that was carefully chosen to address specific issues. Before this she had been on a variety of anti-depressants and ADD medications. The standard procedure is to try things and see what happens. The doctors felt that her suicide attempt was likely the result of a combination of medications she had been taking.

Her new medication worked like a miracle. Maybe it was a miracle. I’ve decided I don’t know very much about what is or isn’t a miracle from God these days. What is undeniable is that Shelby came back to us. Her personality changed in a matter of days. Gone was the depressed, lifeless Shelby. The curious, happy child we knew returned. Many times in those days Jeanene and I looked at each other and said, “It IS a miracle. She’s back.” Unfortunately, the fall-out from her time of illness and her stay in the hospital remained. She was so far behind in her course work that we removed her from school. She finished her 8th grade year by taking online courses. She worked hard in 9th grade and did a little better, but she still struggled at keeping up with her schedule and assignments. Shelby wanted very much to return to public school where most of her friends attended. We were a little worried about this, but she was doing so well emotionally and was so excited about going to the public school that we agreed.

In the fall of 2008 Shelby began her sophomore year at James Madison High School. It didn’t take long before Shelby was once again missing assignments, losing homework, and forgetting about tests and quizzes. I began to realize that Shelby had two separate issues. On the one hand she had some emotional and chemical issues that required her to be on medication. That issue seemed under control. She continued to flourish emotionally, with no hint of a return to the days of her depression when when she was cutting herself and had attempted suicide. On the other hand, the ADD issues continued to plague her. After a time Shelby began taking ADD medications again. As before, they didn’t seem to help much. Shelby was trying, and we were not coddling her. There were consequences for her when she reached the end of a school week without all of her work turned in. Every week she met with her teachers and brought home lists of assignments that were missing and needed to be completed. She would work all week trying to catch up. But inevitably, Friday would come and we would look online and find two or three new missing assignments. Every time we logged into the school computer we held our breaths. It got so bad that every time I called Shelby’s name she would appear at the top of the stairs in a panic. “What? What? Do I have a missing assignment? Is something wrong?”

About 6 weeks ago, the school called us in for a meeting with Shelby and a collection of teachers and counselors. They told us that if Shelby’s grades didn’t improve in the next grading period, she would have to be designated as a special education student. Shelby was devastated and humiliated. She hung her head in shame, even though we all tried to assure her that there was nothing to be ashamed about. When asked questions she stared straight ahead and offered one-word responses. She agreed to work harder, but I think we all knew there was no way she was going to pull up her grades. She was already putting all she had into this. Shelby is a great person. She is kind and compassionate, smart and inquisitive. She is a beautiful artist, particularly with paints and drawing. She just can’t do school.

And then we heard about an alternative public high school in our school district called ACE, which stands for the Academy for Creative Education. ACE was begun 20 years ago by educators who felt that not every child fits into a traditional school setting. We visited the school with Shelby and met with the admissions counselor. Most of the students at ACE are at risk for dropping out for a variety of reasons. Some, like Shelby, just can’t seem make it in a traditional school setting.

The counselor heard Shelby’s story and looked through her school file, which was filled with brilliant achievement test scores and years of grades that do not match her abilities. We were told that if accepted, Shelby could start this new high school in January. The counselor smiled at Shelby from across her desk and said, “Shelby, there is nothing wrong with you. You’re an ADD kid. And that’s just a label for a different kind of person.” She leaned closer. “A WONDERFUL kind of person. ADD people process information differently. It’s not bad. It’s good. I love ADD kids. That’s why we have this school. So many smart and creative kids are ADD people. It’s really sad the way we make them feel like something is wrong with them. The school district has let you down by making you feel that way.” The three of us were sitting in chairs in front of her desk. We turned to stare at each other in disbelief and then looked back at her. “It’s true,” she said. "We’re thrilled to have you. I’m looking at your tests and I see a brilliant young mind. You’re going to be such an asset to this school. C’mon, let me show you around.” She gave us a tour of the facility. At ACE, the students work on two subjects at a time. They come to school whenever they want, as long as they stay for four hours at a minimum. They work through a packet of learning materials at their own pace. No homework. Everything is done at the school. When a student finishes one course she starts another. They are not required to juggle eight subjects in one week, which is maddening to an ADD person.

We peeked into the classrooms. Kids were sitting at desks scattered around the rooms. Everyone was working in isolation. Most of them were listening to ipods. “Lots of ADD kids like to listen to music while they work,” the counselor said. “It helps them stay focused.” The teachers sat up front and helped kids as needed, almost like a tutor on stand-by. The atmosphere was quiet and peaceful. We returned to the counselor’s office and she said, “Shelby, I can tell from your story and your file that this is where you need to be. Let me check on something.” She left the room. Jeanene looked at Shelby and me and said, “Is this heaven?” We all laughed. But after the years of academic struggle, it felt a little like heaven to be there.

The woman came back in with the assistant principle. “Shelby, I know we told you that even if you were accepted you couldn’t start until January. But you need to be here. And we want you here. How about if you started Thursday?” The three of us left the ACE campus in a state of shock. It was the exact opposite of every other school encounter we had since Shelby was in 2nd grade. Shelby had a huge smile on her face. She said: “This is the first time I’ve ever had someone in school tell me that they wanted me there.”

Postscript: Shelby began ACE last Thursday. She spent the first few days in orientation and then began testing to see where she needs to begin. She tested out of sophomore and junior English on the first day. After they determine what courses she needs, she will begin. I think we've finally found a place where Shelby fits.