It is with a great deal of pride that I present an article by Debra Freeman Highberger. Of special pride is that Debra has written this especially for the Café.
Debra writes with passion about amazing people, yet none could be more amazing than Debra herself.
The human brain is still a mystery for even the most experienced doctors and scientists. Why is it stronger in one area for one person as opposed to another. Some people will function mostly from the left side of their brains; others work from the right…and others still can function somewhere down the middle. For children who are visual the rigors of traditional school studies can be taxing. For the ones that have unique differences all their own, schools have a difficult time placing them…as a result they usually end up in the category of learning disabled. Although often mild, this can be a stigma for the rest of their lives when the reality is their brain just functions differently.
The day she arrived the temperature outside was 103 degrees Fahrenheit. She was two and a half weeks overdue and still wasn’t ready to enter this world. Her delivery was difficult. After a collapsed lung and ingestion of meconium, the baby was suctioned for a period of time. The only sounds this new mother heard was the gasping breaths of her new born. In what felt like a moments decision the child was whisked away to a larger hospital in the city…her mother didn’t even get a chance to see her. She named her Alexis.
Still in the other hospital her mother called the special nursery where her daughter was being treated. The nurse on the other end of that line said something she will never forget. ”Honey, your daughter is a fighter; she refuses to be swaddled and will only eat when she wants too and she hardly sleeps. She likes to be a part of everything and is always awake when we check on her. I don’t think you have to worry about this girl, someday she will rule the world.” She knew it was the comforting musings of a nurse trying to ease the mind of a worried mother…but even today those words still stick in her mother’s memory.
Despite the way she entered the world Alexis seemed to be perfectly normal. A happy child she walked very early and spoke with full sentences by the age of 18 months. She loved to sing and dance and draw. She was a delight to her mother that was told she would never be able to have children. She called her the miracle child. At the age of four she had an uncanny understanding of patterns in music and seemed to babble nonstop. Imagine the surprise when a year later Alexis’ kindergarten teacher said she had a hearing problem and often didn’t understand what was being said to her. She and her mother learned to get around all these difficulties without even realizing it; not unlike twin language. Alexis learned to read lips while her mother learned to always get down to her level and look her in the eye when she spoke to her. When she would misunderstand a word that was said to her, her mother took the time to correct her. Being her only child she had no idea that Alexis was different.
School was difficult for this young child. Alexis or Lex as she became known…suddenly became a shy and wouldn’t participate. After attending a play conducted in her class her mother didn’t recognize this miracle child she had come to know and love. Lex was completely withdrawn and stood off alone. At home she would then revert back to the dancing pixy who wanted to please and showed enthusiasm. Her mother knew this must be an exhausting existence for her child and wanted answers. Her mother’s heart as was both her father and stepfather was breaking for her. By fifth grade despite all the tutoring she could only identify a few words on paper. Her reading level was below first grade compression. The school had tested her but couldn’t find any answers. They said she couldn’t hear the bottom three tones in one ear. They also said she scored the highest they had ever seen in visual understanding and pattern recognition. Her IQ was above average. Yet for some reason this child could not read and the school went as far as saying, she probably never will. With now the eyes of an adamant observer her mother felt that other things were going on as well. The school disregarded the mother’s wishes for further testing and merely wanted to put her in a special isolated classroom. Hearing aids where not an option as they wouldn’t have helped.
The next day her mother went into action. She contacted the best linguistic doctor she could find. His name was Dr Robert Kemper. He was actually the doctor that designed the tests that are used today across America. Setting up an appointment; Dr Kemper tested her the following week. The results were surprising. She did have the IQ the school had said and the pattern recognition skills along with the hearing deficiency. But she also had something else the school had missed. She had an acute auditory processing issue. Simply put… the things she heard were not in fact the things that were said to her. Her brain would try and decipher what her ears had heard and often transmitted back something completely different than what was actually spoken. This made every vowel sound, if she heard them at all, sound like the same tone. It made reading an almost impossible task.
After being tested, and from the guide lines of the doctor, her mother sat Alexis down and had a very adult conversation with her now ten year old child. She told Lex that she had a plan to help her get her reading skills up to the level of the other kids. She explained to her that she had to trust people. If they told her she has misunderstood what they said she needed to believe them. Her mother also told her it wasn’t her fault. She ended the conversation with…only you can do this…you need to want it bad…I will help you in any way I can but in the end it is up to you. Alexis looked up at her with her big dark brown eyes and agreed. The next day her mother removed her from the traditional public school system and took a chance with the lottery pool at the local charter school in their town. Luckily she got in. Lex entered 5th grade with a below 1st grade reading level. With Dr Kemper by her side and an advocate for learning disabled children, her mother sat down with the new school to express the needs of this child. This new school was determined to help Alexis and unlike the last school went out of their way to make her feel comfortable and safe. She had a wonderful reading teacher by the name of Mrs. Chandler. Mrs. C pulled Lex from class twice a week to work with her one on one for an hour. Through an adult literacy reading program Lex began to make progress. With the backing of people who believed in her she was she was reading at fifth grade level by the end of that first school year. The excitement her teachers and parents felt only fueled her progress. But because she would be entering the sixth grade she still had a lot of work to do. Her confidence began to soar.
The more she improved the angrier her mother became at the original school Lex attended. That school was ready to give up on her. They wanted to throw her away and discard her as if she didn’t matter. They had told her mother this child will never be able to attend college or get a good job. They had even wanted to put her in a class with special needs students that had the verbal skills of a toddler.
Her time at the new school became a life saving event for this now socially active little girl. Upon graduation from eighth grade her mother sat in the audience and watched through teary eyes the school award Lex as the student who achieved the most…Her reading level at that point was now 9th grade. It was a year ahead of the average.
While in High school Lex continued to fight for achievement. She took honors level English and math. Because her hearing was still and will always be an issue she got permission to record the lectures she had to sit in on classic literature. She was also exempt from having to take a foreign language. Because her parents always did…they still read every book out loud to her that was required reading that first year. The TV in that house was removed long before that and sitting and reading became a nightly event. Teaching Alexis to read and showing her the joys of the written page was the goal of the entire family as well as her school, it was a joint effort.
Because both her parents were artists and owned an art school Lex became very proficient at drawing and painting. Upon graduation from high school with honors she applied and was excepted at Lyme Academy college of art with a full four year scholarship; this child that the public school was ready to throw away. It was a grueling experience for her. The academics were difficult and the work load tremendous. That didn’t stop her. Just like the baby that refused to be tied down in swaddled blankets she made her needs known. This time it was that she was a normal college student that was going to finish her education. In 4 years she graduated with a 3.9.
Despite all her achievements the world wasn’t finished testing this young woman. While half way through college; her mother developed Lupus…a devastating and often fatal autoimmune disease. Because Lex had worked so hard to get to this point; her mother tried to shield her as best he could from the illness. Fortunately because she was away at school, Lex never saw the true scope of what it entailed. Lex finished college and came home to a very different house. Her fist year home was a huge adjustment filled with running her family home and doctor visits. She had to do the shopping the cleaning and the comforting. She was also saddled with the running of her parent’s art school. Taking over an adult class that has been together for over 10 years it was big shoes for her to fill. When it came to the children’s classes she proved to be invaluable. Along with this came scheduling and the daily maintenance of the school. She did all of this with the assurance of a seasoned teacher and administrator. Never once did she complain. She was only 22.
Her mother through tears told her she was sorry. She never thought their life would come to this. And wished she didn’t had to do so much for her. Lex’s reply was, “When I needed someone to stand up for me, you were always there. I feel lucky to give back to you.” She knew the strong mother that she grew up with was in the shell of this woman who now sits before her. With patience and understanding she waited for her to return. And through the help of specialist and medicine she did.
That was two years ago. This year Lex was asked to be the commencement speaker at the 8th grade graduation from the charter school that had given her so much. She was honored and yet quieted by the request. She stood on that stage now a beautiful and graceful woman; confidant and yet still reserved. She wrote and read a powerful speech that told her story. The audience not only had her past teachers in attendance, but also some of her current students as well. Her parents sat in the balcony and watched the reactions of everyone. There wasn’t a dry eye in the room. When Lex finished and turned modestly around to return to her seat she received a standing ovation.
With her mother’s condition stable now, she and her parents all run the school and household mutually. They are an inseparable team that works together daily. The lessons Lex learned by this entire experience she never could have read in a text book. The lesson learned by all who know her is that you can’t judge a child by their inabilities; they have a world of learning to do …If the world would only believe in them. I am proud to say I know this young woman. She has brought me such joy in watching her grow and flourish. She is a remarkable human being and I am humbled to have witnessed this strength in her…because although she doesn’t realize it; it was her example of perseverance that gave me the strength when I needed it most; because Lex is my daughter.
As you have just heard my name is Alexis Jane Baliotis. I have many students from your school enrolled in The Acorn, and I am so thrilled to see how much they love the Charter School and that they are having the same experiences I had, whether they will admit it or not.
I want to say thank you to all of the teachers and staff at the Charter School, past and present, because my acceptance there truly changed my life, and in my capacity as a teacher in Marblehead, I see on a daily basis the lives you have touched, and I am honored and proud of having once walked your halls. I would like to tell you my story and how the opportunity to attend the Charter School was the best thing that ever happened to me.
My mother decided to enroll me in the Charter School when I was leaving the 4th grade. In those days the school started with grade 5 and there was no gym and no classrooms beyond the community room. The traditional public school I had been attending had failed to teach me the most important of things: how to read. Although I do have several learning disabilities, my major issue was that no one had taken the time to cater to my small learning problem, and the issue of my reading had grown into a monstrous dilemma. In varying degrees, my mother realized that my needs were not being met, and therefore I left my elementary school in 4th grade at a 1st grade reading level. It was clear that I needed to be tested to understand what my real reading issues were. Dr. Robert Kemper, a known linguistic specialist who devised the test that is used today, tested me independently at my family’s expense. Dr. Kemper found that my biggest problem was that I was not being taught phonetics. This was a shock to us, since historically, phonetics has been the foundation for teaching reading. As a child with a known hearing problem, the importance of this should have been well understood by all my previous teachers. In my mother’s eyes, the traditional public school had failed me.
Sending me to the Marblehead Community Charter Public School was the best decision my mother made for me as a child. At the Charter School, I was not cast under the rug because I was a quite good little girl, and they knew I wouldn’t say anything, but rather, Charter made sure that I would have absolutely everything I would need to help me learn how to read. Before the school year started, my mother was called to a meeting with Mrs. Kosland, who was a fifth grade teacher at the time, the head of the special education department, my future reading teacher, Mrs. Chandler, and the principal of the school. We brought along Liz Mac, a child advocate, and Dr. Kemper, along with my stepfather, my mother and my father. At this meeting, a weight was lifted off my mother’s shoulders, because she realized she no longer had to fight with the system for my education; these people were on her side. Dr. Kemper asked them to put me in a small group with three other kids, twice a week, for half an hour. Charter said that was not enough! They placed me with a special teacher, by myself, twice a week for an hour. In all the meetings my mother had gone to, she had never seen a school offer more services than had been requested. She left in tears. After being at the Charter School for several weeks, I was started in the Wilson Reading Program with Mrs. Chandler. Mrs. Chandler saved my life over those four years. I am where I am today, because of what I learned in the first room on the right, down the fifth grade hallway. I will always hold a special place in my heart for Mrs. Chandler, because of all my teachers, as far as I am concerned, she had the biggest task of all.
The Marblehead Community Charter Public School is just that, a community, and it was not just Mrs. Chandler who aided me in my struggle. All the teachers worked together to create an amazing learning experience that showed us that everything we were learning was intertwined and designed to help us not just now, but for the future.
Fifth grade was difficult for me (I was never good with transition, and I was still having a hard time reading), but as the years went on, things became easier for me. I started to feel more comfortable in my own skin, and the kids in this school were more accepting than those in my last. I strongly feel the students of the Charter School were that way because of the supportive environment that it strives to create. The students in my grade were very close. By seventh grade, a time when cliques and hurt feelings run wild, my classmates were all friends, and no one held grudges; today those students are still friends! My best friends from middle school are still the people I turn to. How many people can say that? Just last year, several people from our grade took it upon themselves to organize a reunion for the graduating class of 2001. I know this is because of the good role models that exist with in the Charter School’s walls. As a teacher now myself, I understand that it is important to not only be a good authority figure but also a friend, and when I think back, there were so many of my teachers that were just that: Mr. Clinton, Mrs. Miller, Mrs. Odwire, Mrs. Sullivan, Mr. Siglar, Mrs. Ekland, Mrs. Wilson, Mr. Parga, Mrs. Perry, Mrs. Collen-Hamzah, Mrs. Kosland, Mrs. Woverton and, of course, Mr. Barry.
One of the most beneficial classes that I took at Charter was study skills. At the time it was a required enrichment, and no one wanted to take it. But when I was studying for my art history classes in my senior year of college, my room mate looked at me and said, “How on earth did you learn how to retain that much information that fast?” I smiled at him, laughed and replied, “Sixth grade study skills.” When I was in Mrs. Ekland’s English Class, I remember getting my first A on a paper. It was a biography of Leonardo da Vinci and his inventions, and I was so happy, I ran home to my mother and showed her my essay with pride.
When it was time for me to move on to high school, Mrs. Chandler had me take a reading test on the computer. According to the test, I was now reading at a ninth grade level, a year higher than my grade, and when it came time to select my classes for high school, I was put in an honors level English class.
When I was in elementary school, my teachers had told my mother that I would most likely never attend college. I proved them wrong. I graduated from Lyme Academy College of Fine Arts in 2009 and made Dean’s List every semester; in my art history courses, which required the most reading, I received all A’s. I have no intention of stopping there! I am currently half done with a new portfolio, which I plan to use to help me in my goal of a master’s degree.
I am proud to have gone to the Marblehead Community Charter Public School, and everyone associated with the school has my highest regard. Congratulations on your 50th exhibition. I am honored to have been a part of their history. Congratulations Class of 2011, I know you will do well on the road ahead.
**Debra can also be found at: The Lupus Magazine
Update: The Art of Alexis Baliotis