By Contributing Writer, Tom Pemberton
A Choice … From Special Education to two Masters
Originally Published on Jan 9, 2018
I have always wanted to share my story, mostly because it’s a story many children across the world continuously face and one that often goes untold. A story of struggle, tears, heart break, adversity and one of choice.
I had been putting off writing this piece until I opened my email this morning and read a story from Education Week, titled: “A Veteran Educator’s Love Letter to Teaching” by Laurie Barnoski. The author writes mainly about teacher shortages but the thing that stood out to me was her message about the 8 aspects of teaching that matter most. I have to agree with the 8 things Laurie listed – #8 in particular really hit home:
- Teaching fosters meaningful relationships: You will have the opportunity to develop lifelong relationships with many of your colleagues and students. Research has shown that to succeed in life, all children need is at least one adult who cares about them. You can be that person. It is a privilege.
And so, my story begins … God puts the right people in our path for success!
I entered this world on August 14, 1974, born a month premature weighing a little over 3 pounds and having pneumonia. I spent the first month of my life in a prenatal unit fighting to stay alive or at least this is what my mom tells m. My mom and dad told me I’m a fighter and a gift from God destined for greatness. My family has always been a big support and encouraged me throughout my journey even though they witnessed my struggles, tears, heartbreak and the choice to continue to fight.
My greatest struggle came when I was in Elementary School. Up until the age of 7 or 8 I was a pretty happy-go-lucky kid; I enjoyed playing outside like any other child that age. Then, some tragic events happened in my life that changed me. I was molested but didn’t know how to tell and even felt like I had done something wrong. I began to act out by getting into fights and showcased behavior changes that I could not explain. My body began to change and I started to gain excessive amounts of weight.
By the time I entered fourth grade, I was placed into special education classes and weighed 160 pounds. By this time, I had numerous detentions and suspensions and was expulsed from the school district. In my own mind, I would justify the fighting and outbursts by telling myself that I was protecting other “kids” that couldn’t protect themselves.
I would tell myself that no one was going to hurt me or anyone else, so I built a hard shell that was impenetrable.
Teachers and my principal at the time tried to help but had little luck. Not that I didn’t want them to help me, I just didn’t know how they could. Maybe it was the fact that I couldn’t see how they could. Until someone did. Enter the first person to ever crack my armor; one tough cookie: Mrs. Hill
Mrs. Hill was one tough cookie with a heart of gold. I had Mrs. Hill for a Math teacher in 5th and 6th Grade. One day I was fooling around in her class and she asked me to stay after. In my mind I would just get the paddle again and be done with it and sent on my way. Boy did Mrs. Hill have another idea! As all of the other students left the trailer room, Mrs. Hill marched straight up to me pointing her finger while lecturing. I don’t remember everything she said to me but I do remember that she took a very different approach than anyone ever had. First, she poked me right in the chest while still making eye contact with me and said, “You have a Choice. “You can either keep behaving this way or you can show others what I see.” I thought to myself, “What do you see?” I was a bit shocked as I never let anyone look me directly in the eyes; a defense mechanism I used to cope (remember the armor). Even to this day I struggle to make eye contact with people but this teacher got through. Did she know what she was doing? After poking me in the chest and telling me that I had a choice, she grabbed me and wrapped me up into her arms and hugged me. I was in shock by what she had said and the Love that she showed. At this point in my journey, I still had no idea what was happening; although some of my troubles stopped and my outbursts were less noticeable.
The challenge that Mrs. Hill set before me changed me a little that day. That day I began to believe that I wasn’t a victim and had a choice to be whom I wanted to be. You see this was something I had been praying about to God. “God, please take the pain and anger that I have away. Please let me know that I am loved by my classmates and teachers.” Up to this point, I was not a very likable kid and most of the other kids learned to avoid me or make fun of me for being the fat kid or the stupid fat kid in “special classes”. The choice however, was mine now and I had to own it as Mrs. Hill told me that cold winter day back in 1987.
The summer before entering Junior High School was in a word … transforming! I began to work out in my parent’s basement. I would lift weights and try to run in place to as many songs as I could. Slowly, I began to see my body change. As my body changed my mind began to change too and I became more confident. That summer, my baseball coach began to play me as a catcher. Coach Stafford told me I was getting quicker and stronger – fuel to the fire. The other kids began to accept me as well as the adults. I had a great baseball season making the all-star team by the end of that summer season. Summer had come and gone and it was time to go back to school. Not just school but a new school, Junior High.
I was excited for a fresh beginning but it was the same old thing. My classmates still saw me as the poor, fat kid who received special classes. Man, I had to think of something quick or it was just going to be the same old thing, heartbreak and tears. Two weeks into seventh grade I was sent to the special education room where received help. Don’t get me wrong, I wanted the help but without all of the teasing and stigmas that came along with it. In class the teacher told me that I would be receiving special education for math again this year. The light bulb went off and I asked her if she was sure. The teacher replied, “Yes, but why do you ask?” I explained to her that I had regular math with Mrs. Hill in 6th grade and received a good letter grade in the class. The teacher said she would check into it and contacted Mrs. Hill. Mrs. Hill confirmed the letter grade and that I didn’t need to receive help in that content area. The next week I was told that I was being de-certified from special education and would be taking all regular classes. This left me with a few questions for myself. “Is this what I wanted and could I do it?” I have to be honest it was not easy but I managed to get by with a “C” average. That year became a year of discovery as I tried football, basketball, and track.
Junior High school seemed to be much better as I was more engaged in school and sports. No detentions or suspensions and I seemed to be blending in better with other students. The transition from Junior High to High School wasn’t scary and I actually looked forward to it. I was looking forward to playing football and becoming the next big player but God had other plans for me. In our first football scrimmage of the season at Millington, I went to make a tackle and broke my arm. Not wanting to stop, I decided not to tell anyone. I just kept going in the game and then in practices for the next two weeks. My mom, who had become suspicious of the act of icing my arm every night after practice for two weeks, pulled me from school to get an x-ray. Sure enough it was broke so the end of my freshman season was done before it had really gotten started. Into my life enters the next teacher who wouldn’t give up on me, Mr. Jack Hennesey.
I had Mr. Hennesey in junior high as a math teacher and track coach. He approached me to ask if I would like to run cross country. A couple of my friends ran cross country and I trained a little with them in the summer to get ready for football. When he first asked me, I told him that I was a football guy and not really much of a runner. In my head I was thinking this was a wimpy sport and didn’t think it was for me. I think I may have actually said that to him and in response he said, “Well, the way I see it you have a CHOICE. There is that word again. He finished by saying you have a choice to sit on the sidelines the rest of the season with a broken arm or you can run. He had me with his logic so I told him that I would run this season but that I was determined to go back to football.
In my first cross country race, I learned that the sport wasn’t so wimpy after all based on the fact that the entire girls’ varsity team beat me that day. I learned a lot about myself as I learned that I once again had a choice to stay or quit.
I chose to stay, and by the end of the season I went from being last on the boy’s team to the first and qualified for the state meet. My best friend from the cross country team talked me into going out for the wrestling team. And in walks Jim Peltier, the next mentor teacher. A tough coach that held brutal practices that I still talk about to this day, but a man with a teddy bear heart.
High School was full of opportunity if you were willing to make the choice to go after your dreams.
None of it would have been possible without the individuals who were not willing to give up on the students they often treated as one of their own. Remember Laurie’s number 8? “Research has shown that to succeed in life, all children need is at least one adult who cares about them.”
High School wasn’t exactly easy for me as I finished in the middle of the pack with a “C” average. But I had a choice. I could either continue working construction or take the scholarship to run cross country and track in college. After some thought I chose to go onto college. Boy was that an eye-opening experience. Classes seemed tougher than ever on top of the two-a-day workouts that racked up 80-100-miles in a week. I barely made it through my freshman year of college and was re-thinking whether this was for me. I came home over the summer and went back to working construction. I worked with some great guys – some of whom I shared the notion about not going back to school. Let’s just say they let me know how much they cared about me with a few choice words. They convinced me that I didn’t want to miss out on this opportunity. I also met my future wife, Alison that summer and she was very supportive and encouraged me to keep at it. What does the research show about a child being successful?
With the help of my parents, friends, coaches and role models I decided to continue on with college. I went to go back to school my sophomore year where my housing budget was reduced to almost none. Not knowing what to do, my college cross country and track coach Bernie Little gave me a choice. Coach Little offered to take me in to live with him for the year. I continued my college education at Oakland Community College and eventually would be offered scholarships at Missouri State University and Grand Valley State University. I ended up at Grand Valley State University where I would go onto earn a Bachelors of Science and certifications to teach.
Grand Valley was tough both academically and athletically, but I learned to ask for help and went on to graduate with a 3.5 GPA. Upon graduation I began my search for a teaching position on the east side of the state. I started to coach and substitute in the surrounding areas of where I’d grown up; an area I loved. I was offered full time teaching positions in two school districts and had yet another choice to make. Accept a job from the school that I attended my whole life or from a school a little further up the road. I accepted the job in the school district I grew up in because I would be able to work with some of the individuals that believed in me most, but most importantly it was a chance to give back the gift that was given to me.
One of my favorite quotes is from teacher named Rita Pierson.
“Every child deserves a champion; an adult who will never give up on them, who understands the power of connection and insists that they become the best they can possibly be.”
When I was hired into the school district I attended, I was greeted with a warm welcome from most but had a comment that still lingers with me today. Something along the lines of a special education student usually doesn’t make it that far. At first, I was struck in awe and had to pick up my chin from the floor and then it hit me, I have a choice. I can either receive this or I can continue to work hard and make a difference in the life of a child.
I continued to work hard as a coach and teacher where I have been nominated for many awards including Teacher of the Year and Who’s Who Among America’s Teachers but the recognition was not what I was after. I wanted to be a champion for kids so I continued to go on to learn more about how to help children. I earned my Master’s Degree in Education where I was determined to be successful and I ended up graduating with honors earning a 3.85 GPA.
Still wanting to help kids but specifically as a coach this time, I entered a master’s program in Sports Medicine. This was pretty scary as it was in an unrelated field but left me with a choice. With family members, friends, the kids I was coaching, along with other coaches encouraging me, I chose to pursue this degree. This was such a competitive program that only allowed so many students to enter per semester and required a rigorous entry process that included a written essay. I forgot to mention that it was an accelerated program which meant 30 credit hours in a 12-month time frame. There would be no messing around in this program as it required a great deal of time for study. With a full time teaching position and coaching cross country, this goal seemed impossible. With only two to four hours of sleep a night and a lot of support and help at home from my wife Alison, I survived the program. I ended up graduating summa cum laude; the highest honor earned for grade point average within a degree program.
I was asked by an educator and colleague, “Why go to this extent, to put another feather in your cap?” Again, I thought, why would someone say something like that to someone trying to be an advocate for children and education, but I had a choice. To respond or not…I chose not! I learned many, many years ago from Mrs. Hill and others throughout my journey that we have real choices in this life. Choices to accomplish what we want out of life – choices to be kind, choices to forgive, and choices to make a difference in someone else’s life.
I choose to look at each person through Jesus’ eyes and see their God given potential. I choose to walk beside them on their journey and encourage him/her to make wise choices as those individuals did for me.
Will you choose to dig deeper [this New Year] and see past the rough edges or protective armor of others and encourage them to succeed?
Tom Pemberton has been an educator for the past 16 years and has coached cross country for the last 18 years. He ran cross country and track for Grand Valley State University and has been a national qualifier. He has been a head the cross country coach position for Yale School District for 12 years before going back to school to receive a degree in sports medicine.
Tom and Alison Pemberton are also the owners of the health & wellness company Healing Hands Health & Wellness, LLC. The services provided by Healing Hands Health & Wellness include: Performance Enhancement, Injury Prevention, Corrective Exercise, Nutrition, Sports Medicine, Health Education, Personal Training, Speed & Explosion Enhancement, Aquatic Therapy, Myofascial-Craniosacral Therapy, and Kinesiology Taping for healing and performance enhancement purposes.
If you’d like more information visit: Healing Hands Health & Wellness, LLC.
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