It can be frustrating and heartbreaking for parents when their children are struggling in school. Here, four young people who have floundered in school — battling everything from severe depression to learning disabilities — courageously look back on their early childhoods and share their stories of hardship — and hope.
Alex Lemus, Jennifer Hoffman, Jack Pontillo, and Emily Takacs relate how they were able to own and overcome their challenges and even enroll and succeed in college. These students are not alone in not being able to get the help they needed in our schools’ special education programs. Their inspirational perseverance can’t help but inspire other young people — and the families that love them — not to give up on their aspirations for a college degree.
Right from the beginning, Alex had a hard time paying attention and focusing in school.
At 8 years old, his teacher recommended he see the school psychiatrist, who suggested that he may have attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and oppositional defiance disorder, which involves problems with authority.
Middle school was torture.
“I was picked on horribly,” he said. “Seventh grade, eighth grade, really picked on bad. It was atrocious. I’d get punched in the head and called ‘a faggot.’ I was singled out, because I was different than those other kids, so I was an easy target to be bullied.”
His high school years were full of what he called “impulsive mistakes,” such as stealing bus passes, fights, and acting out in class, which often led to referrals and hours spent sitting in in-school suspension.
At 15, he was on a series of anxiety medications.
“They put me on Zoloft, then they put me on Celexa, then they put me on Wellbutrin, then they put me on Strattera. None of them worked.”
Regardless of these disorders, his intelligence level was fairly high, because he excelled in his computer video production class with grades in the 90s.
For Jennifer, major depression and anxiety started at age 12. This led to crying uncontrollably in school and cutting herself. (She once sliced her face with a razor blade.) At 13, she had her first suicide attempt. By ninth grade, she was admitted several times to Four Winds psychiatric hospital in Westchester where she spent most of the school year.
In a similar fashion to Alex, her intelligence level was high. In seventh grade, she was in an accelerated math class and in ninth grade, she was taking 10th grade classes.
Jack’s signs of his nervousness, anxiety, and slight depression started around age 4. He was in special education as early as pre-K. This was followed by special education classes in the morning and then mainstream classes in the afternoon through second grade.
“Whenever I couldn’t understand something, I would start to get upset. I used to cry a lot, because I didn’t understand things. I would get mad easily.”
In seventh grade, Jack had a devastating and life-changing incident. He had done his math homework incorrectly, and the teacher held his paper up to the class, and they all laughed.
“That actually made me give up on math in middle school, which messed me over in high school,” he said.
He found himself in the slower-track math class for the next five years.
In third grade, Emily was diagnosed with a “moderate-to-severe” case of dyslexia. This means her brain would move numbers, letters, and words around when she read them. This resulted in little-to-no understanding of what she read or what she was doing. Additionally, her handwriting was illegible, even to herself.
After being diagnosed, she was given intensive reading therapy. It didn’t work.
“In fourth grade, they tried a slew of different things,” she said. This included speech therapy, a separate location for tests, the tests read to her, and extra time for the tests. This carried out through high school.
In middle school, she was put in a resource room with other special education students.
While all of these services helped a great deal, she was far from where she could and wanted to be.
At some point, each of these students realized the only way he was going to beat his problem was by making at least one major change. In some cases, the change was the direct opposite of what the system was promoting all along.
In Alex’s case, the answer was meditation, not medication. Contemplation and reflection did the job that prescriptions couldn’t.
Another change that happened from within was developing a relationship with his teachers on a personal level.
“Up until then, it was just, ‘Here I am, this is the teacher who’s speaking at me, giving me something.’ I didn’t look at the teacher as an individual,” he said. “I started to form relationships with people, and see that my teachers are full people. I can have a discussion with my teacher. If there’s something that I missed, because I was distracted, I can ask, and I’m not going to be told I was stupid.”
Additionally, he found his passion in environmental studies, which is his major at State University of New York Ulster.
“I just found my passion, and I grabbed it, and did everything I could to make it happen,” he said.
Jennifer’s story parallels Alex’s.
“From the time that I was 13 until about 17 years old, I was on medications constantly,” she said. “I can’t even list them all for you.”
At one point, she was so overmedicated she was sleeping all the time, slurring her speech, and had tremors in her hands.
At 17, she decided to wean herself off the medications, and her mother took her to a homeopathic-naturopathic doctor, because she had enough of traditional doctors doing not much more than prescribing endless medications.
This alternative doctor suggested Jennifer get specific tests that the medical doctors weren’t using. The results indicated a thyroid problem.
“My antibodies were out of whack,“ she said. Her numbers were extremely high when they needed to be much lower.
Part of the remedy for this was a change in diet. Jennifer had already become a vegetarian at age 9 and then a vegan at age 12, of her own accord.
But it was going gluten-free, soy-free, and goitrogen-free that did the trick. (Goitogenic foods may create an unwanted growth on the thyroid gland.) Jennifer made this decision with the input of the alternative doctor.
Over time, her antibodies’ numbers have dropped considerably. Jennifer believes the diet changes — plus meditation and yoga — have been major factors in keeping her problem in check, or at least close to it.
“Whenever I’m going to a guided-meditation or yoga class is when I feel the healthiest,” she said. “Those were the moments that even when I was so depressed, that I felt connected.”
“In fourth grade, I had an epiphany,” said Jack. He had recently received his report card and thought, “These grades are going to affect me in the future.”
“So from then on out, I tried to do better in school,” he said. By high school, he was taking the usual science classes (including physics) and did quite well in them.
Emily came to the conclusion at 15 that if she wanted “to get anywhere in life” she needed to be a “self advocate” by speaking up and saying what she actually needs as opposed to teachers telling her what she needs.
She began getting these things, such as access to a word processor, so everyone could read what she wrote. It seems no one had thought of this solution before, or if someone did, it was never presented, because “the district has to pay out for it.”
She also realized she needed to put in the hours of studying necessary for good grades.
“You set your mind to something, and you tell yourself, no matter how hard it is, you’re going to do it.”
After she spoke up and applied herself, those zeros on assignments turned into As and Bs.
While the self-motivated changes were a gigantic step forward, these students still need help from others. This help comes in the form of Trio Support Services. The name refers to (originally three, now eight) federal programs to increase access to higher education for economically disadvantaged students. The services are provided to colleges throughout the country through the US Department of Education.
In its mission statement, Trio says it’s there “to provide support toward completion of a post-secondary education to individuals who are traditionally under-represented because of income, family education, or disability.”
One is also eligible to participate if he or she is a first-generation college student.
Trio began 50 years ago as part of President Johnson’s “Great Society.” This was a set of programs with the goal to eliminate poverty and racial injustice in the United States. Three of these programs addressed education and were passed through the Higher Education Act of 1965. They eventually became known as Trio.
Jennifer is a 20-year-old, second-year, visual and fine arts major at the New York State University in Ulster. While she’s well on the road to recovery, she’s not completely out of the woods. On occasion, she has an emotional breakdown, and it can (and does) happen at school. In her two years at Ulster, she’s had about 10.
“Trio helps me get through it,” she said.
Jennifer has two counselors at school, Deb Heppner and Stephanie Kroon, and if they’re not available, she can speak to any counselor in the Student Support Services office.
“They’re the ones that give me the support when I’m crying,” she said. She credits them as “the only reason“ she’s “able to even go to college.”
Ulster is a two-year school and should Jennifer want to attend a four-year college to complete her Bachelors, such as School of Visual Arts in New York City, she would find the lack of Trio there a “huge” problem. Big enough where attending may not be an option.
“I’m not going to be as lucky in the future, and I realize that,” she said.
Jack calls the Trio office a “safe zone” where he can come in and do his work, and his counselor, Stephanie, helps him get over any nervousness he may be feeling on a given day.
While at Ulster, Emily met with Trio counselor Kristin Flynn every two weeks to work out a plan.
“It was nice to have someone to talk to who knew about my problem and knew how to help me with it,” she said. “It’s easy to be honest with her, because she doesn’t judge.”
“They do it all here,” said Alex. “They have their own scholarship foundation for kids like us. Last semester I got a $1,400 scholarship, and I’m in the running again.”
Alex has a grade-point average of 3.4. He’s the vice president of the Environmental Club at State University of New York Ulster. He’s part of the Environmental Advisory Council at Karma Triyana Dharmachakra, the Buddhist monastery in Woodstock where he practices. He’s engaged, and he has a 19-month-old daughter.
Jennifer hasn’t self-mutilated since 2010. The desire to commit suicide “has dwindled down to the strength of a weak flame.“ On her latest report card, she received three As and a B.
Jack’s current grade-point average is 3.31. He’s been accepted to State University of New York College of Environmental Science and Forestry and will start classes in the Fall. (He’s an environmental studies major as well and is friends with Alex.)
After making the Dean’s List, Emily graduated from Ulster in the fall of 2014 and is now a junior at State University of New York New Paltz as a special education major with a concentration in geology. This will enable her to become an Earth science teacher.
Her decision to become a special ed teacher is a direct result of her own struggles with her disability.
“I think being special ed and being raised in the special ed system, you understand there are a lot of flaws,” she said. “The systems aren’t created by people who have these needs; they’re created by politicians and people with PhDs in the field. They’re not created by people with special-ed needs. I think that needs to change.”
Ashley has a bachelor’s in psychology and a masters in early childhood special education. She has two New York State teaching certificates, one for general education, birth through sixth grade, and one for teaching students with disabilities, also birth through sixth grade.
Like Emily, Ashley believes special-ed students make better special-ed teachers.
“I believe my disability to be a strength, especially as a special educator, because I have a very personal perspective on what it’s like to be different in school,” she said. “I think I can be a positive role model not only on students with special needs but also on parents who might be hesitant to help their children explore his or her full potential.”
She’s currently a substitute teacher at four school districts on Long Island.
Although Trio has been around for 50 years, it’s not as permanent as it may seem. Every five years, a college needs to reapply for its grant. Ulster submitted its application this past February.
“The Department of Education is anticipating around 1,600 applications, and they can award about 1,000 programs,” said Todd Zeff, director of the disabilities program at Ulster.
If they say no, the department disappears.
Additionally, the federal government allows a maximum of 100 students per year to be serviced through a school’s program.
“This college has over 200 students with disabilities,” said Todd. “So once we fill up our roster with students with disabilities, we will then put them on our waiting list and see if the other Trio program can take them.”
Originally printed in Campus News, a college paper.