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From ‘Unteachable’ to Graduate
Chris Lee

When I was in elementary and junior high, it was hard to focus on school. I was living with an adoptive mom, who abused me. I thought about killing myself. I was left back twice—in 1st grade and 9th grade.

I wanted to do well in school to avoid turning out like my biological family. I love them, but I do not like the things they do—mostly getting high and selling drugs. It makes me sad that the younger children in the family may grow up the way I did, in foster care. My biological mother was addicted to drugs and alcohol, and she signed me into care right after I was born. (She died when I was 5 years old.)

When I started 9th grade at Benjamin Cardozo high school in Queens, New York, I skipped school a lot because I was scared of being bullied. I’d always felt like a boy, but because I was biologically female my adoptive mom made me wear dresses and skirts to school.

Kids made fun of me because I looked and acted like a boy dressed up as a girl. The bullies tried to get me to react, and when I did, we’d end up in the principal’s office. The worst thing about being bullied was losing control over myself.

I was hospitalized repeatedly for cutting myself, and I wrote suicide notes to my guidance counselor. I came to school crying and with cuts because I was being mistreated at home. As far as I know, my teachers didn’t call Child Protective Services. But they saw that I was emotionally unstable and that I did not belong in a regular school setting.

I was transferred from Cardozo to Greenburgh Academy, a high school for students with behavioral and emotional problems. Everyone there gets an Individualized Education Plan (IEP), which all kids in special education get. It was not my first IEP. The first one was in the 5th grade, because I did not speak to any of my teachers. That IEP didn’t help much. But Greenburgh was different.

Feeling Understood

I felt accepted at Greenburgh right away. The staff and students welcomed me, and that made me want to go to school and make something of myself. My guidance counselor there, Ms. Peterkins, figured out without my saying anything that I wanted to be called “he.” She helped me come up with my masculine name, Chris, even though my government name is Tia. Ms. Peterkins became a friend whom I could talk to about almost anything.

The principal of the school, Ms. Howell, took me shopping for boys’ clothes, spending $100 of her own money. I felt like me, finally; I did not have to hide the fact I was different.

image by YC-Art Dept

Ms. Howell and I got close because she understood what I was going through at home and at school. After I had been at Greenburgh for four or five months she became suspicious about my relationship with my adoptive mom. She and Ms. Peterkins saw that I came to school upset and angry. The two of them met with me about what was happening in my mother’s house, and I told them she was abusing me. That led to my being placed in a group home, where I feel safer.

Help and Encouragement

At Greenburgh, classes are small—10 to 15 students. The students get extra help when they need it. My new teachers showed me that I was a bright student and I could do the work. I began working harder. I made sure I handed in all assignments, even if they were late; the school is flexible that way. I felt good about the school and myself.

I have learned a lot. I was not the best reader, and I can still use help with my reading. I am thankful for my English teachers because they had me read aloud when I didn’t understand something, which helped me learn. They also had me look up words I didn’t know.

Greenburgh Academy also helped me with my writing. Ms. Howell told my teachers I was scared to show my talent because other students had laughed when I read something I wrote aloud and pronounced a word wrong. I have had great English teachers who help me get my thoughts down on paper. This helped build my confidence by showing people I may be shy but I am not stupid. I like writing debate essays because I like to argue.

Ms. Howell is a loving and caring person who wants the best for all her students. This year, my senior year, we started a routine where I go to her office first thing and talk about how I want my day to go. She says encouraging things like, “Chris, you are a bright student.” and “Keep up the good work.”

Support on the Bad Days

Even though Greenburgh is great, and my self-esteem has risen, some days I want to drop out. On those bad days, I cannot picture a bright future. Instead, I see myself living on the street or dead in a few years. I tell these thoughts to a counselor at school, Mr. Gordon. (I still see Ms. Peterkins but she is not my assigned counselor.) I tell him how I get frustrated with myself because I feel and think in a negative manner. And sometimes I get frustrated with others, like when people ask me a question repeatedly.

I have been at Greenburgh for three and a half years now, and I do not have as many outbursts. If I do, I take a walk or write my feelings. My IEP allows me to leave class when I feel upset and walk around to calm myself down. Sometimes when I am not in the mood, I do not want to hear noise. Having people in the school I can go talk to helps me in a couple of ways. For one, I am learning self-control by finding alternatives to my outbursts. Also, I can tell my counselors or teachers when another student is saying mean things to me. I am not as scared of bullies as I used to be.

My birth mom died a long time ago, but I imagine she’d be proud of me for not following my brothers by dropping out of high school and selling drugs. I’m proud of myself for going further than I ever imagined. My adoptive mother is also proud of me for staying on track to graduate. Greenburgh Academy helps me by letting me be myself. Here, I feel like I can achieve my goals of graduating from high school, going to college, and becoming a mortician. I used to feel like I was unteachable, but Greenburgh showed me that’s not true.

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