Graduating Class of 1998
by Chris (with a little help from his Mom)
Twelve years and nine months ago, I started kindergarten at the age of four. My Mom said she had to push a few rules and pull a few strings to get me in that young. I think she was just one of those pushy moms. (No offense, Mom.) She says she knew I was ready, but I think she just wanted to get me out of her hair. Just kidding. I think my Mom knew what she was doing, in spite of the warnings she was given that I would have a hard time later as a teenager. Youíve heard about the book "All I really need to know I learned in kindergarten" by Robert Fulghum. Thatís the one with the list of skills and values that you supposedly learn in that first year of school, like listening and sharing, and cooperation and friendship. Well, I had already learned those things before I stepped through the doors of Dietz Elementary. I learned to share with a sister who couldnít share back. I learned to listen to my brother make silly noises over and over. I learned to cooperate with my divorced parentsí every-other-weekend visitations, and I learned that real friends are blind to disabilities. Disabilities, you ask? Yes, I grew up with disabilities. Because I grew up with a sister and brother who were born not as lucky as I was. My sister has Prader-Willi Syndrome, a genetic disorder that gives her an uncontrollable appetite, so the food has to be kept locked up so she wonít eat herself to death. My brother has Fetal Alcohol Syndrome as a result of his birth motherís drinking when she was pregnant with him. To make it worse, my parents had already adopted them before I was ever born, so I was surrounded by their idiosyncrasies and inappropriate behaviors from day one. So I have also learned a lot about disabilities and I know first hand about the struggles and challenges faced by people who are differently abled. With a family like that, you might expect a child with a lot of emotional problems, and learned behaviors that are not exactly normal. So, now that I am graduating high school as an honor student, ready to start on a new educational path in my life journey, I wonder, how did I grow up in this crazy family and still turn out to be such a wonderful person? Seriously, what went right in those years of turmoil and tantrums? I grew up surrounded by obsessions, compulsions, perseverations and a few other behaviors Iíd rather not mention. And that was just my mother. Just kidding. But it was not a normal upbringing. So how DID I turn out the way I did? I asked my Mom. She said there are a lot of reasons. One is genetics. I was blessed with good genes, she said. I got her brains and my dadís looks and my grandmotherís musical talent and my grandfatherís computer genius. Not like my sister, who because of a tiny deletion in Chromosome 15 will live her life as a six-year-old, with locked refrigerators and group home staff guarding her constantly. But good genes isnít the only factor in my 17 years (so far) of success. Mom said that a good environment is important too. She said she learned a lot about parenting before I was born, from taking care of special needs foster kids. She learned how to take care of me before I was ever born, by eating right, taking her vitamins, and avoiding cigarette smoke and alcohol. Not like my brother, who was born drunk, went through withdrawal, and lives a lifetime hangover, a boy in a manís body, who will never drive, never live completely on his own, never have the opportunities that are open to me, like getting a college degree, becoming self-sufficient, making lots of money, and possibly raising a family of my own some day. Mom said that genetics and environment are important, and so are role models. Even though my parents are divorced, my Mom says their marriage was not a mistake, that she picked out my dad because she knew he would be a good father, and he is. He is patient and understanding, never raised his voice with me, never raised his hand to me. Then thereís my grandparents. Even though they live 2,000 miles away, they are still closely connected to us and are role models of what a good marriage should be. Even though I donít see them more than a few times a year, when I do see them, I see how they communicate and compromise, care for and comfort each other, and how they support and encourage my Mom, and how they treat my brother and sister with the same love and attention as their other grandchildren, and how they enjoy the music I write and how they say they are proud of me. Then thereís my teachers. Iíve had about 40 different teachers, each with something unique to offer. One had a great sense of humor, another had interesting stories from England to share. Some have used different and exciting ways to teach ordinary classes. Some of the most interesting lessons were taught without the books. Each teacher has been a role model in a different way, not by what they taught, but how they taught, with respect for the students, with the patience to explain the abstract, by putting a little bit of their own selves into the lesson plans. But my best teacher has been my Mom. She always takes the time to explain her reasons for making decisions that I might not always agree with. And even though she doesnít always understand me, she tries to listen to my point of view. She has taught me to look past peopleís faults and disabilities to see the human being inside. She has taught me to look past strange or inappropriate behavior to understand that thereís probably a reasonable explanation behind it, if we take the time to look. She has taught me that itís more important to say "Iím sorry" than to say "Youíre wrong." She has taught me that hugs are an important part of keeping healthy. She has taught me that privileges and independence are not free, that I must pay for them with responsibility and commitment. She has taught me to think ahead to the consequences of my actions. And that might be one of the most important things she has taught me: that I am responsible for my own behavior; that what I do today can affect my entire future; that a choice I make now, could have life-long consequences for me and for the people I love. My Mom allowed me to make decisions for myself about myself. She even let me dye my hair blue when I was a Freshman. She said that I can make decisions about my life, because I have the ability to see how those decisions will impact my life down the road. She says not all people have that ability though, because so many people suffer from neurological impairment that keeps them from having good judgment, that keeps them from controlling their impulses, that gets them into a lot of trouble in school, in trouble with the law. She says that there are a lot of people out there like that, with damaged brains and messed up lives. All because of their brains being drugged with alcohol before they were born. She says that 50,000 babies are born every year effected in some way because of the alcohol their mothers drank. And that alcohol does more damage to the developing baby than any other drug. I asked my Mom if alcohol is so harmful for the baby, why would a woman still drink when sheís pregnant? She said there are probably a lot of reasons. Maybe she grew up with drinking in the family. Maybe thereís a lot of drinking in her circle of friends. Maybe she has an addiction to alcohol. Maybe she has poor judgment and poor impulse control because her mother drank when she was pregnant with her. That made me think. If one mother drinks when sheís pregnant, and it affects her baby, who grows up to get pregnant and she drinks when sheís pregnant, and it affects her baby, then the cycle goes on and on, generation after generation, with more and more kids born with damaged brains, who canít control their impulses and have lots of problems because of their damaged brains. I figure that the best way to stop the cycle is to not start it in the first place. My Mom has lots of statistics, but she says her favorite one is this: Children are one-third of our population, but they are all of our future. Iíve been telling you all of this for a reason. After 12 years of education, we are all leaving our childhoods behind, and moving into our future as adults. It wonít be long before we are watching a new generation come to life. I hope it will be a healthy generation and a healthy life and a healthy future. How healthy our society becomes depends on you, each of you as individuals, on the decisions you make, and your ability to look down the road at the consequences of your decisions. If you are lucky enough to have the brains to make your own decisions, make some good ones. They say that experience is the best teacher. And let me tell you, growing up with a brother who was alcohol effected has been an experience that has taught me a lot. It has taught me to appreciate the brains and abilities I am blessed with. And it taught me to recognize alcohol for what it is, a toxic substance that can screw up a personís life forever. Now that I have you all so serious, Iíll end with a few little quotes that I found on the Internet. This one is for everyone over 35: Before you judge the younger generation remember who raised them. For the parents: Children are natural mimics: they act like their parents in spite of every attempt to teach them good manners. And for the grandparents: Few things are more satisfying than seeing your own children have teenagers of their own (Doug Larson). For all the teachers: A good education is the next best thing to a pushy mother (Schulz). And my last quote, for my classmates and fellow graduates, is Einsteinís formula for success: If A equals success, then the formula is A=X+Y+Z, where X is "work," Y is "play," and Z is "keep your mouth shut." And with that Iíll shut my mouth, after saying good-bye to my classmates, I love you, family, and thank you to all my teachers for all the lessons I have learned.