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Jeff Ackerman: Graduation a reminder of the certainty of change

My son Luke graduates from eighth grade at Pleasant Valley School Thursday night.

It’s a country school if there ever was one ” a school where principal Clint Johnson knows most of the students by their first name; where the teachers and staff can, and do, take their craft to a personal level. Many of the students have been at the school since fourth grade, moving over from the elementary school just across the road.



And so graduation is always an emotional time. We sometimes forget the relationships forged over five years ” relationships that will probably leave a lifetime impression on the impressionable students who have seen themselves transition from child to puberty, with all of the luggage accompanying that difficult journey.

I suspect that’s one of the reasons Luke would prefer to stay at Pleasant Valley School until he is 25 or so. He is not a big fan of change. In fact, it’s taken a year to convince Luke not to shave his legs. “Hairy legs on a boy is not a sign of impending old age and eventual death,” we tell him. Luke equates the body’s natural aging process to death and he’s not in any hurry to get there. They say that’s just a symptom of his autism, but I’ll guess none of us are in any hurry to die. I also know from experience that none of us like change. We are creatures of habit, which is why authors have made big money writing books such as, “Who Moved My Cheese?” If I were to weigh in on the subject of change and our natural aversion to it, I’d title my book, “Death Happens So Have A Nice Day.”




Luke is naturally concerned that Nevada Union High School will be much different than Pleasant Valley School. It’s taken him five years to develop a routine, and he has had the same aide to help him negotiate his way through the land mines of adolescence. Her name is Janice Currie, and we will never forget how wonderful she has been to our son.

One of the peculiarities of autism (including Asparger’s Syndrome) is brutal honesty. If you ask Luke a question, you had better be prepared to get a straight answer.

“Want some help with your homework?” I’d ask.

“No thanks, Dad. Mom is smarter than you are.”

His honesty has gotten him into trouble on more than one occasion. The principal and I have had to stifle a laugh or two as we’ve sat with Luke in Clint’s office. One time Luke was sent there for suggesting that one of his classmates might be a good candidate for liposuction.

“Luke,” the principal asked. “Why did you say that?”

“Because they asked what I thought about her,” Luke replied.

Another time Luke got sent to the principal’s office because he kissed the girl sitting next to him.

“Why did you do that?” the principal inquired.

“We were watching a movie in class and they were kissing in it,” said Luke. “I just thought I wanted a kiss, so I kissed her.”

Luke’s aide put together a picture book to help him prepare for high school. It’s filled with pictures of the various students Luke might encounter at Nevada Union High School. Take Mohawks, for example. Luke can’t seem to understand why anyone would cut his (or her) hair in a Mohawk (let alone color it pink). It doesn’t make sense to Luke because it is out of the ordinary, or routine. Being an honest type, Luke is likely to stroll up to a Mohawk-wearing student much larger than himself and ask a pretty direct question.

“So what’s up with the Mohawk?” Luke would probably say. Such an inquiry might solicit a punch in the head, which is something Luke would not understand. I’m still trying to understand the punches to the head I received in high school that had nothing to do with Mohawks.

We are trying to teach Luke that the world is filled with folks of all different sizes, shapes, colors and styles and that it’s OK to be different.

“Look at yourself, Luke,” we say to him. “You are autistic and different, but most of your classmates have accepted you. How would you like it if they made fun of you for being different?”

That seems to work for a bit, but we fully expect Luke to struggle with his new surroundings at a high school the size of a small town.

On the other hand, Luke will have some familiar faces with him at NU. His classmates have taken him under their wings, dispelling the notion that middle school students are void of empathy or compassion. My hope is that they will continue to keep an eye on him as they tackle the new challenges high school life will present. Luke will also have his older sister looking out for him as she begins her junior year of high school in August. And nobody messes with her brother (except her) when she’s around.

As another school year comes to an end, I want to thank all of the wonderful people at Pleasant Valley School for helping my son through a critical time in his life. He is so much better for the experience, and we look forward to sharing our joy on Thursday evening. We’ll be easy to spot, close to the middle or back row, blubbering all over ourselves.

Thanks, too, to all of the teachers and staff who make our school districts among the very best in the state. Have a great summer.

ooo

Jeff Ackerman is the publisher of The Union. His column appears on Tuesdays. Contact him at 477-4299, jeffa@theunion.com, or 464 Sutton Way, Grass Valley 95945.


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