To whom it may concern:
Many years ago, in early fall of 2002, a familiar expulsion meeting had concluded for me with a
tearful “We love him, but we simply can’t justify keeping him. It’s just not safe for the other
kids.” It was the third expulsion before second grade could even take off. As a kid I was
diagnosed with ADHD and an added bonus of momentary bouts of unmitigated, uncontrollable
anger. In retrospect, much of the chaotic environment and common brotherly bullying at home
bore the blame for my anger. Side effects from the medication would also drain me of energy
and motivation, eliminating any enthusiasm for attending school. Nonetheless, I struck out with
public schooling. You simply can’t have a student tossing desks, fish tanks and fighting students
along with staff succeed in a traditional learning environment. In some ways I assumed I’d
achieve the goal of no more school. I despised school and figured perhaps I won’t be going any
longer. No school meant I had all the time to do as I pleased and no more boring classwork or
teachers bossing me around. Little did I know, there was a much greater plan for my future.
There was a brief period of no school following the latest expulsion. Once more I foolishly
thought I’d have an infinite recess. It was my favorite time of day after all. My mother took
education, order and discipline seriously. She scheduled for numerous specialists to come by
and evaluate me. She kept in touch with the district as they explored additional options. She
was also sure to let me know time and again that misbehavior not only comes with
consequences, but dishonored the family greatly. One early morning she woke me up and said
we’re going for a trip. It was a meeting with representatives of the school district to announce
the best option they reached with my mom. “You’re going to a very special place. One where
your tantrums don’t mean you get your way. You’re going to the same alternative school as
your big brother Ethan” mom said. One of the representatives spoke up to say “You’re going to
Bartlett Learning Center. We think this is your best bet at success.” I panicked thinking if this
place can handle Ethan, my 230 pound 6’5” brother whose anger problems dwarfed my own, it must be a scary place.
My first day was unforgettable. Instead of waiting at the bus stop with the other kids as before,
I waited inside with mom. When my bus arrived, I boarded expecting to find it packed with
others. It was empty. Until formal transportation was sorted out, I rode a full-sized bus alone.
The first ride was eerie. Quiet. The driver didn’t have much to say. I arrived at a big, beautiful
campus in Bartlett. The colors of Fall spread throughout the many trees along the winding
roads. It was more secluded than any other school I attended. Nestled deep in the woods far
from the public roads. Flowers and bushes along the entrance were very well kept. A new
peculiarity stood out to me. Instead of leaving the students to wait out in the cold like my old
school, the faculty and staff waited outside for the students. My bus arrived to countless smiles
and excited waves. To my surprise, these new faces already knew my name. They exchanged
seemingly endless kind greetings as I walked inside. Each of them lined the sidewalk and
projected such eagerness and warmth it was almost overwhelming. If the goal was to make me
feel welcome, they succeeded beyond measure. I have never had such a reception at any
school on my first day. Another surprise set in when I noticed this was the standard for all
students every single day. Rain or shine. Warm or cold. The class sizes were notably smaller. I
wasn’t just a number in a crowd. I wasn’t drowned out by the noisy classmates. I didn’t feel like
just another student for the teacher to bark at in a group. I also noticed there was a staff
member always near me. A paraprofessional specifically assigned to assist me and observe any
signs of trouble. Maybe I was stuck on a problem. Maybe I needed some fresh air. Maybe I was
becoming angry. The paraprofessional was always there as a buffer and advocate. What stood
out the most to me was the individualized learning. Instead of leaving us to sink or swim, each
of us learned at our own pace, difficulty and style in accordance to our IEP. I couldn’t believe
how peaceful this new environment was. I was shocked to find myself looking forward to school
again, never growing tired of the smiles and greetings every day, or the well wishes and
goodbyes at the end of the day from staff.
I was introduced to everyone possible for one day. The principal, the janitors, the vice principal,
P.E. staff, the music instructor, the art teacher, the OT specialists, numerous fellow students,
staff and the kind Sisters who traversed between the campus and integrated Chapel. One set of
staff I would come to meet during a fit of rage just weeks later. They were known as “the
team.” My teacher, Sister Margaret. wanted the class to do an activity I didn’t like. When my
aggravation escalated into defiant anger, I was confused by the calm reaction. In previous
schools, anger meant I get to go home. It meant the school is overwhelmed and my parents
would have to pick me up. I’d be home early and despite appropriate discipline, at least no
longer in school. It meant I got my way. That isn’t what transpired this time. Sister Margaret
didn’t show any fear or frustration as my fit ensued. She instead appeared unamused and
slightly disappointed. Staff ushered my classmates out as she calmly said “I am sorry you are
having a difficult time, but I will have to call the team because you aren’t behaving.” I chuckled
in arrogance. I assumed whatever’s coming I can simply scare off with my tantrum. Two staff
members arrived and exclaimed “Hi Denzell, we’re here to help you calm down.” I hadn’t
encountered behavior crisis intervention staff before at any school. I didn’t know what was
coming, but I soon find out. When I lunged toward them, they went into action and deflected
every bitter word or action I could come up with, with words and actions of kindness and concern.
It was clear I couldn’t overpower them and this is what they’re trained to do. After all of my energy dissipated trying to overcome them, we went for a walk to fully calm down.
“It is okay to be angry. Anger is just an emotion. What’s important is how you handle that anger;
what you do with it. Just because you are upset doesn’t mean you get to scare others or destroy things”
Sister Margaret said. “Yesterday it was your parents, today it’s the team
but if you don’t get that under control, one day it’ll be the police. You are a good person
so don’t let yourself do bad things.” No teacher had ever spoken to me in this way.
I could tell she cared. She was invested in me. She was genuinely concerned.
It was clear to this is a new place. A new ballgame. Tantrums don’t mean you go home.
That behavior isn’t acceptable and unlike the other places, they’ve got specialized
staff prepared to address it. When I arrived home that day I was also surprised mom already
knew of the day’s proceedings and immediately asked for a copy of the incident report. That
eliminated my plan of quietly hiding the evidence and not bringing up my “bad day.” Each time I
had to encounter the team they would coach I can overcome the anger. I can grow out of it. I
can be better. Sometimes it meant stronger interventions that I’d always lose while on others
their mere arrival reminded me how futile it was to continue the tantrum. One particular
occasion was notable because it resulted in mom showing up. I was relieved to think perhaps
the outburst worked meaning I get to go home. It didn’t. I hadn’t seen her that upset before as
the team members stood by to witness the stern words she handed down. She informed me
that if I fail to calmly finish the day and go home without further incident, there will be severe
consequences when I get home and multiple privileges will be permanently revoked. I knew
what she meant. No more Six Flags. No more Christmas presents. No more birthday presents.
No more participating in the numerous family outings I loved. She always made it a point to show how embarrassed I should be for letting anger let me behave so foolishly. All the years later I am grateful for the team. It’s important to get the aimless, senseless destructive expression of anger out at a young age. To learn how pointless uncontrollable outbursts are is something I witnessed so many others fail to grasp far later in life, resulting in the very outcomes I was warned about. I am eternally grateful that I am not among them.
My five years at Clare Woods went quickly, but with highlights I won’t forget. Unlike the schools
in my district, there was also a vocational aspect to the learning. Once it’s clear your behavior is
acceptable and your coursework completed, you were permitted to engage in various work
environments throughout the week. Some tasks were on campus while others weren’t. Basic
life skills such as how to make change, how to load vending machines, how to conduct yourself
at work, how to cook, and how to clock in and out among other essentials you don’t learn at
most schools. The compensation for completing these “jobs” also taught me the importance of
learning how to save money. Delayed gratification versus the desire for instant gratification.
This week it’s $10. Save it and next week you will have $20. Spend it now and you’ll just have to
start over again. Save for a specific number or item in mind. I was appreciative of the financial
lessons then and even more now. It was clear the goal is to set you up to succeed not just
academically but also in life. You weren’t just a number. You were an individual. Someone with
your own unique specialized path towards growth and development.
Clare Woods to me was an environment I wish I started in earlier. Much of my disdain for
schooling stemmed from the largely impersonal systematic nature of large public schools.
You’re shuffled along from room to room as though cattle. You’re largely alone despite being
surrounded by endless crowds and sizeable classroom headcounts. I know now that if Clare
Woods was my first experience with schooling, I wouldn’t have formed such an adversarial
mindset to begin with. Little did I know; my district was in communication with CWA the entire
time. Clare Woods routinely informed them of my progress and reviewed my IEP. When it
became clear I could safely return to my district, a progressive reintegration plan was executed
flawlessly. The 2007-2008 school year began with this plan. Half of my day was spent at my
district middle school and the other half back home at CWA. I was initially overwhelmed by the
return to the same isolated feelings of such rigid systematic learning. Large crowds roaming
about, carrying their books from one room to the next like robots. Knowing I had counselors at
CWA to express my fears to later in the day kept me at ease. I also knew I didn’t want to
dishonor my family again or experience the disappointment of letting down the countless
faculty and staff who helped me get to this point. No matter how angry I got, I knew I couldn’t
let myself lose control. There wasn’t a team at Westfield, only the option of calling the police.
Just as Sister Margaret warned years before. After a couple months of this plan, I was fully
returned to public schooling. The wide range of emotion still resonates with me 15 years later.
Those team members had become just more ordinary friendly staff I’d see around. We’d
reminisce and joke about how much of a fiery little kid I used to be. The art teacher Mr.
Johnson had become not only a creative mentor, but one who taught me that creativity can
both be a therapeutic escape and just plain fun. Something I still occasionally enjoy today. I
credit my affinity for ceramic sculpture to his many generous gifts of clay when I behaved.
Pounds of it to take home and make whatever I could think of. I remembered the music teacher
who would miraculously shepherd countless students from a chaotic assortment into
beautifully sounding choirs, perfect plays and instrumental masterpieces. I can still remember
the practice today. I remembered the OT staff who always formed a safe quiet space to calm
every nerve and create healthy habits. I remembered the Principal, Mrs. Ann who was tough
but kind. We came a long way from my defiant entrance to a hesitant departure. She was the
last goodbye on my last day. Memories with Linda Danner came to mind. Always cheerful, kind
and encouraging. A steady presence who’d take moments to check in and see how I am. Never
forgetting minor details from our last conversation. It meant a lot that she’d remember. It
showed that our talks weren’t customary exchanges, they were worth the effort of recollection.
The countless staff who showered me with their true heartfelt passion flooded
my mind as I walked away for the last time.
It all came clear to me. “Wow... they just wanted the best for
me” I thought as I tearfully sat during the ride home.
Clare Woods Academy is a place that exemplifies what schooling could be. You are met where
you are and guided to where you need to be no matter how or short of a journey it may be.
Guardrails and safety nets to assist should you fall along the way, even during difficult road
bumps. Adjustments and detours are made to ensure the way forward reflects the latest plan
for success. To say I am honored to return as a member of the staff is an understatement. I feel
as though returning home after an extended vacation. It warmed my heart to see so many
familiar faces still doing what they’ve always done many years ago when I arrived. A mutual
chuckle following a long hug with one staff member who used to be on the team during my
younger days as a difficult student twenty years ago. Mr. Bill, who used to encourage me to give
the hardest high five possible when I had a good day is still here among a few others. I knew the
kids today are in the same nurturing hands now just as I was.
I smiled when I noticed a fellow student from the past at a local festival. He had a heightened sensitivity toward sound, particularly loud music when we attended CWA together. It used to throw him into an
unmanageable rage. I watched as he danced and sang along with everyone else in the crowd,
pacing and smiling in the front row while music blared from giant speakers by the stage. I once
more remembered the incredible work Clare Woods did to help him just like me. He came a
very long way, peacefully and happily dancing about with a crowd of countless others of the
public. I was sure to share the good news on my next work day.
I can only hope to be the same positive influence as so many were during my time as a student here. The slogan “It’s our nature to nurture” fits CWA squarely. No learning environment before or since has ever made me feel as warm. To now see all the work that goes on behind the scenes makes me all the more appreciative of my time as a student.
I had no idea how much effort went into things back then. There are so many who will benefit
from the guided paths towards success. Some just need a gentle push after some positive reinforcement as I did while others benefit from other aspects on the spectrum of support CWA has to offer.
It is paramount that this uniquely special place continues on for many years to come!
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