Graduating, circa 2016, New Smyrna Beach

Before I take a moment to discuss, specifically,  the “village” which helped a student I work with to reach graduation, I want to reflect on what the ceremony meant to me, yesterday at the Ocean Center.

I have been involved in the local education community this past year in ways I never have before. I work for myself: no boss to tell me what I can and cannot do. My natural inclination to think out of the box roams free, high, and wild! Sometimes, that works. Sometimes, people seek me out for it, as the student, his parents, and his educators did in the story to come.

This has been a difficult year. I belong to a forum comprised of less than one percent of the parents, teachers and students of public schools in Volusia–an online social media forum which has sometimes frightened me with its mob mentality. A small group of parents deliberately stir vitriol toward the District, and if you don’t rubber-stamp their (largely uneducated) opinions, bullying tactics ensue. It is sad. The moderator of the forum had to remove a demonic meme from a thread below one of my comments this week. Awful. At graduation, I sat and thought about these things, and about the recent comments of my own graduate regarding the unprofessionalism of some of her teachers at the high school in discussing, during her instructional time, their dissatisfaction with their salaries and benefits. I thought about the fact that the head of the teachers’ union, here, didn’t allow teachers to vote on the contracts offered by the Board. Instead, he made a decision without consulting all of his union members, without a vote, to sue the District in their behalf. I was thinking about the fourth grader I worked with this year who had four teachers in the same year. In his primary classroom. Mostly, I was looking at the stage where members of the School Board, the Superintendent, and Theresa Marcks (whom I consider a friend) waited to speak and to celebrate the graduates. Honestly, I was a little concerned about the response to the District speakers, not just by the audience, but by the graduates. I looked at the section reserved for teachers. It was nearly empty. I was feeling down; the day before I’d ironed what will probably be my last high school graduation gown. No more rushing to the high school at 7am. No more being a part of that community from the parents’ side of things.

I relaxed when I heard the student body not only clap for both Linda Cuthbert and Mr. Russell, but cheer. Both gave heartfelt talks. Good speeches. They did not choose to put on the shoulders of the celebrants their own griefs; they rightly behaved as the professional educators they are.

I was thrilled to hear Linda talk about her husband, one of my favorite teachers on the planet, Bill Cuthbert. Bill, himself, was once the victim of an unprofessional, misguided witch-hunt. He remains one of the smartest, wisest teachers I’ve ever known. Linda included a lot of movement in her talk, she had every graduate stand to be recognized for very specific accomplishments. Only an educator can reach people like that. I proudly stood with one of my sons when she called for past NSB grads to stand. And remain standing. And stand a little longer. She had everybody laughing, some crying, and she choked up a little herself. I found myself wishing the nay-sayers could hear her. Hear her shine the light of her gentle and wise and full-on teacher’s spirit outward.

As the roll of graduates was called, my attention turned to one of the ones I was there for. How fortunate I was to work with him this past month. How much we both learned!

Porter was hurt in a horrific boating accident the first week of April. He was pitched out of the prow of a speed boat onto the back of his head at 35mph: onto the concrete ledge of a swimming pool, in the wee hours of the morning. He then flipped, unconscious, into the pool. He was saved by a friend on the boat, a lifeguard, who dragged Porter from the water and revived him.

After a medically induced coma, critical care, and the repair of multiple skull fractures–weeks in the hospital–Porter came home. I’d known him for years as a grommet, a friend of my youngest son’s. It was a miracle he survived, but Porter had one goal: he wanted to graduate.

His father and I met with Ms. Heath and Mr. Hargrave at the high school. They, too, wanted to see Porter walk. Their flexibility and thoughtfulness–and that of teachers Desko, Rizzo, Scrivano, and Perry– in how to accomplish that humbled me. We all worked together to come up with a plan, and the school allowed me to instruct Porter at home. He was too fragile for school. He had multiple doctor appointments and, due to his injuries, needed someone with him 24/7.

Porter had to complete a quarter of Honors English 4, a quarter of Honors Marine Science, and a semester of American Federal Government. In a little less than four weeks. When we started working, he could not read yet.

We worked every day, and Porter’s parents worked with him. Friends came over and helped him study, and discussed the books they were reading in class. I was astonished at how quick my student’s mind was! Despite his injuries, he was able to make the sort of inferences and cognitive leaps an honors student should. He’d been taught well, very well. And he worked hard.

I was deeply impressed with the online format of American Federal Government, and called Mr. Desko to tell him so. The educational design is fabulous, despite some annoying graphics. I told Porter I’d shout, “Way to go, Einstein!” at graduation, and I did. That was one of our little jokes, a computer-prompt when he correctly answered a quiz question. I learned along with my student all about the Executive, Legislative, and Judicial branches of government.

Despite a fragile body, Porter worked harder every day to meet his deadlines. In case he didn’t, I contacted Sheila Harlacher, ESE family support specialist at the District. Even though Porter had never had an IEP, Sheila was generous with her time and advice, even calling me at home with ideas. She didn’t hide behind protocol but jumped right in. We made a plan in case Porter couldn’t meet his goal.

But he did. The picture I share is one I snapped when my student saw me waiting for him outside the Ocean Center. When I first saw this photograph, I thought of two things. That whoever they were, those calm students in white couldn’t possibly fathom what my student in black had been through; after nearly losing his life he had no notion of containing his joy. Good for him. My next thought was how, one morning when we were reading about the different types of state and federal courts, the responsibilities of each, and the path to judgeship, Porter said, I want to do that. Be a judge. A lawyer. I think that’s what I want to do. I hope I’m still around when he dons that black robe!

Miracles are wonderful, and from God. How you cope after experiencing one is up to you. I fully hope to live long enough to see Porter achieve that lofty goal, but whatever he does, he has one proud teacher, right here. By the time I left the Ocean Center, my professional concerns paled in comparison to my humility in being involved in one of the greatest vocations there is. Sure, we have differing views on how to educate students, and how to govern the District. But if we can keep our eyes on the prize and park our egos to work together, magical things will happen.

Porter McEver, New Smyrna Beach High Graduation, 2016



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