In early 2018, I was sent to a mental health institution. However, as unjust as the decision was (I had thrown a notebook at a teacher), I had come to a conclusion that I deserved what had happened. I was diagnosed with an emotional disorder at that facility and still struggle with memories of it. The next 5 years of my life would become one of the greatest struggles for freedom as a student I have ever faced. I went through 2 years of special education under the impression that I had to be there, that it was needed for whatever reason that the facility had decided for me.
During these last 5 years, I had faced more lows than highs. Being in special education as someone who came from a family whose extended parts were ableist, my mental health had completely tanked. I lost all faith in my abilities, I had lost all faith in any sort of future, and I lost what made me, me. My mother and I had always held doubts about my emotional disorder diagnosis as the behaviours on my IEP (Individualized Education Program) had not matched what I was like. In fact, it had never matched what I was as a person. The IEP labeled me as ‘violent’, ‘aggressive’, and other labels, when in reality, I was always described as a ‘respectful and level-headed youngman’. Furthermore, my IEP withheld me from advancing my education within the school-system. Educators who followed the grading-system placed a series of ‘guard-rails’ around me to ensure that I do not ‘step out of place’, so to speak.
I was always an A student, maintaining the A and B average without even having to study. I was referred to as a gifted child, gifted in the sense that I barely tried and maintained A’s. By the time I knew I should’ve challenged what I went through, it was too late. The guard-rails placed around me had disrupted that thought-line and I was never even offered to challenge myself as my IEP’s recommendations made it seem impossible to me. I had convinced myself that I was unintelligent and that I deserved this. My mental health had further tanked, but I continued on, regardless without any motivating factor to do so. Once I graduated 8th Grade in 2020, I was free from special education, but later I would learn I would never lose its aftereffects.
During the COVID-19 Pandemic, this struggle had intensified. In my Freshman and Sophomore years, I dealt with the limitations of the IEP and I also dealt with excessive intervention to my education, both from within and out of the system. My GPA dropped from a 4.0 to a 2.1 within 1 year, I had had 40+ missing assignments and it was looking more likely my future was over before it even had a chance to begin. When the second semester of my Sophomore year began, I had begun to accept that it was game-over for any resemblance of a future. However, that year I took a class called ‘History of the World Wars’, as I had always been into history (since I was 7 years old). In that class, I was introduced to the ungrading system as proposed by Susan Blum in her book, Ungrading: Why Rating Students Undermines Learning (and What to Do Instead).
Within the first weeks of having this teacher, Mr. McCleish, he had realized what was wrong with my IEP and had further realized what I had not: my IEP and my misdiagnosis had done serious damage to my academic career, for that it must be reversed or taken on.
In my IEP, he noted my extremely high reading comprehension level, asked why I wasn’t in any AP or honors courses, and had recommended me for AP Government and Politics (which I did end up taking). During his class, my teacher and I had become close with each other, bonding over our similar politics and my interest in what is to be done and who he is. After graduation, I had gained my hope back. Ungrading did wonders for my mental health and faith in my abilities. It allowed me to genuinely write what I thought about assignments, challenge the status quo, and learn as much as I wanted to. Furthermore, Mr. McCleish always encouraged discussion on topics, as he knew history was actually subjective, to be challenged so that one could understand what happened.
In my Junior Year, AP Gov was taught by McCleish so this continued. The more I learned, the more I wanted to do. I got involved with the Illinois Education Association in September of 2022, I created a podcast, I got more involved on Twitter, but more importantly, I realized I was done in the worst way possible and that it's now or never to take back what happened in 5 years. In October, I had ultimately decided I wanted to get involved in the teaching profession. In December, I got involved with the Human Restoration Project, continued working with the IEA, and began to heavily involve myself in writing, which was something I had always enjoyed doing and wanted to do more.
This month, January, is my IEP meeting. For this one, I needed to have a re-evaluation as my social worker had suspected for quite a bit of time that I may have never had an emotional disorder. My social worker suspected, in his words, “a form of ‘super’ high functioning autism”. The testing had confirmed that I was indeed high-functioning. In the phone-call with my mother, he explained how I was “extremely brilliant” and that “he (me) would make it into college fine and completely on his own”. Furthermore, he explained how I made simple assignments more complex in order for me to learn more from it and make it unique, which I did subconsciously. When I later talked to him, I asked about my mental hospital visit and special education attendance, I asked “Was any of it necessary?”. . . “No, Andrew. It was not”. Now, why is this significant to my story? It proves that Mr. McCleish and I were right in the end. I deserved none of this, yet I received all of it.
Recently, these final guard-rails were undone with an assignment I was given for my English Class. It is an on-going 225 point research paper in which we choose whatever topic we wish to research. We chose a documentary, 3 sources to cite, and we are bound to do more in the terms of evidence. Now, in my history of writing, I have been confronted on multiple occasions for being “too political”. This time was no different, as my English teacher confronted me and said that “it can’t be ‘too-political’, you tend to go into your own happy place. . .” and many more words. “It has to be something we can understand”, all too common words for assignments I do with my writing.
I have taken it on to do the assignment my way anyway, regardless of any guard-rails placed before me, as it guarantees more success than if I were to do it any other way. I have been more successful with defeating these guard-rails than when I had them in place before. Ungrading made me realize what I can do, it made me have faith again. It taught me one thing, in fact, Mr. McCleish taught me one important thing:
That I can, no matter who tells me otherwise. I will be liberated through my own hands.