What’s My Label Now?: Third 2011 Thesis

(Fairhaven School  graduated seven students last June. As a way to celebrate the class of 2011, over the next month, we will be posting the theses that they  successfully defended. In italics below is a brief description outlining how somebody earns a Fairhaven diploma, followed by the third thesis. Enjoy!

Students who have spent at least three years at Fairhaven School may earn a diploma by defending the thesis that they have prepared themselves to become effective adults in the larger community. Diploma candidates must declare their intent to graduate and answer questions at a special winter Assembly of parents, students, staff and public members. They also meet with their individual graduation committees, and defend their written theses before a Diploma Committee made up of three experienced staff members from other Sudbury schools. A majority of positive votes from the Committee is the final requirement of  the diploma process.)

Aryeh Y. Grossman
3/31/2011

What’s my label now?

These are my life stories as best I can remember; each of them is part of what has helped to create who I am and hopefully has prepared me to become an effective adult.  Becoming an adult happens regardless of effectiveness; but becoming an effective comes from being someone who positively evolves from their experiences along the way.

Beginning

When I was young I was labeled with learning and physical disabilities.  At age four my parents were told that I would never amount to anything.  I would never be capable of properly communicating, writing, biking, and learning.  I was put in a learning disabled class.  These years were filled with frustration due to people not knowing how to deal with me.  It took me longer to learn how to read.  In 4th grade I entered a special program called GTLD, gifted and talented learning disabled.  It was a very small group of people about 5 to a class I had great teachers.  I started gaining more of the confidences I needed.  By 5th grade I was learning at grade level just a little slower.  My teacher encouraged me to pursue my interests.  When I was interested in African art she gave me several college level books about it.  Being labeled has never been allowed to stop me.  I, according to this doctor, should have never been able to write this much.

Fairhaven

When I was twelve, I came to Fairhaven.  Within my first few weeks of attending school I discovered the school’s freedom and trust.  For me I discovered it using a knife.  When I first came to school we were allowed to carry knives.  I had had a knife since I was four.  My Abba (Dad) gave me my first, an old Camillus Cub Scout knife that had been his as a kid.  I almost instantly got certified and started dabbling in whittling, which led to my first write up.  Leo, a former staff person, wrote me up for not cleaning up wood shavings.  A couple of months later pocket knives were banned.  When I was told about this I was outraged.  I had been completely safe and because of other people’s actions I had my right to carry a knife taken away.  After discussing this with Mark, I decided to bring a motion to school meeting to informally discuss my problem.  That meeting ended with no progress on the knife issue.

This series of events might seem inconsequential to some people, but it taught me a lot.  First, I was forced to deal with the consequences of my action in the school’s Judicial Committee (JC), one of the most important tools of the school for teaching about responsibility.  Second, I went to School Meeting and spoke for the first time.  Third, I was confronted with the loss of my rights.  To me, there is nothing more important than maintaining our rights.  As a result of this belief, I have clerked JC several times, chaired School Meeting for a year, serving as Assembly President this year, and have become a more conscious individual.  For me, taking these experiences, learning from them, and using the lessons to grow and make change demonstrates how I am becoming more effective.

I used to know what I wanted to do.  I was going to own a business.  I was always toying with different ideas from the presumption that people would always need grave stones and coffins to coming close to buying a vending machine.  Around the end of my first year at Fairhaven, I started selling ice pops with a friend.  We were making pretty good money but the partnership fell apart.  One day he took the money home with him and lost the list of people who had IOU’s.  None of the people came clean and we lost money.  He wasn’t being careful with money or labeling the products which left me doing most of the work.  This resulted in me throwing a bag with 50 pennies in his face and effectively ending our business partnership.  I took over the business.

The next year the only other student who had a business graduated, leaving a void.  Several other students stepped up, including my friend who took over the soda part of the business with another partner.  I never intended to take over selling sodas from him, but he and his partner didn’t do a great job.  They didn’t keep well stocked, shop around for good prices, or manage their business well.  I had been keeping a case of sodas around for myself and people started asking to buy them because they couldn’t purchase from the actual business.  I started casually selling my sodas on the side when people inquired.  To insure that I didn’t steal any of his business I charged $1.50, twice his rate.  I genuinely didn’t want his business to fail because he was still my friend.  It did fail, though. The business fell right in to my lap.  I found a cheaper source and sold my sodas at fifty cents.  I had the strongest business in the school and I was on top.

We all learn from mistakes.  I had never really been involved in theatre at Fairhaven, but I agreed to be Sir Toby Belch in an unabridged version of William Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night.  I didn’t read the script before accepting my role and neither did the director who gave me the part.  I had never done a play before and over one hundred lines had to be memorized.  I worked hard because I had agreed to do the play.  When I agree to do something, I do it.  Several other students ended up quitting, most of them older them me.  On the night of the performance, I was told that I was going to have to wear makeup I freaked out, resulting in me being slapped by two very stressed out directors.  We managed to pull it off and it taught me that I could do what I set my mind to.

When I was twelve I took on my first major responsibility.  I started volunteering as a shadow for a 4 year old that had Familial Dysautonomia at Adat Shalom Religious School.  He was unable to speak, unable to feel pain and had a tube in his stomach for feeding.  My primary job was to keep this child emotionally and physically safe.   I was there to watch him and advocate for him.  If he got hurt, I had to be there so that people would know what happened, because he could not process the pain for himself.  I bonded with him at once.  I knew him I could communicate with him; he was very perceptive.  I could talk to him and he would answer with hand signals for yes and no.  This has affected how I look at other people who some might ignore or dislike just because of behavioral and physical inparement.

Illness

This is the blurriest segment of my life and I have pieced it together as best as I can.
Headaches came out of nowhere, debilitating headaches.  At first doctors couldn’t figure it out.  My family had never been huge on conventional medicine; however, sometimes you’re left with no other choices.  At first they thought it might be me just not wanting to go to school and that it was all psychological.  My parents have always been fierce advocates for me and they wouldn’t accept that answer.  They finally sent me in for a CAT scan and they found an arachnoid-cyst in my brain the size of a cue ball.  As my headaches were getting worse I stopped going to school.  I was bedridden from the pain.  Because the kind of cyst I had didn’t usually need surgery, the doctors just tried to manage the pain including a stay in the hospital.  But they weren’t dealing with the source.  My parents got me in to see one of the world’s most predominant surgeons, Ben Carson.  He agreed with us that the cyst was putting too much pressure on my brain.
I had to have a brain surgery called a fenestration to drain it.  There was a 3 in 10 chance that it wouldn’t succeed and that it would require a second surgery to place a shunt.  We decided to risk it even with the possible complications a shunt can cause.  I had to spend the first 24 hours after surgery in ICU and then several more days in the hospital.  A couple of weeks later, the pain in my head was back and was so intense that I ended up in the ER.  After a CAT scan, I learned that the cyst had grown back and I also had a hematoma from the surgery.  I was in too much pain to be crushed by this.  I spent another week in the hospital.  Hospitals aren’t a place to heal.  You go and you get fixed hopefully, but you still have to recover from simply being there.
I had over 30 staples in my head and had to sleep almost sitting up once I got home.  I went back to what had been but now it was worse, I now had scars from the failed surgery and the pain hadn’t gone.  Doomed to waiting, I sat in my bed taking painkillers and drugs every couple of hours.  My parents didn’t give up.  No one wanted a shunt.  We found a new surgery being done.  Only two doctors in the world would do this very specialized surgery, one in California and the other in South America.  It was a laparoscopic surgery through my eyebrow to remove the cyst completely; however I could not have it done immediately because of the hematoma in my brain that had to be resolved.  It took three months and we even considered doing surgery just to relieve the hematoma, but it went away on its own.
The plane ride was the worst of my life.  Then, we spent the first couple of days in a crappy hotel, going back and forth to the hospital doing pre op tests.  I was at my most depressed state ever.  We were blessed when a couple of family friends came by, but it was still really hard to deal.  I was in pretty horrible pain all the time.  They went out and got me 2 Grateful Dead albums which were a calming force.  The day of surgery came and we went early in the morning hours to the hospital.  I broke down when they wanted to give me an IV.  I was tired of all the poking and prodding.   I refused.   I wasn’t going to put on a hospital gown or submit to the needles.  The doctors, nurses, and orderlies ganged up on me and forced me to have the IV and  the anesthesiologist went ahead and put me under.
The next month was a blurred existence.  I remember the first time I woke up from the surgery vividly.  I still had the respirator in my throat and I was tied down to the bed.  They put me under again.  After I was released from the hospital, we spent the next few weeks at a friend of my mom’s house because I was not yet ready to fly.  A few sketchy details are what I remember not coherent memory: no cable TV, a lot of Everybody Loves Lucy, a fruit basket and I don’t even like fruit, Tommy the rock opera, and my addiction to lollypops began.  I don’t even remember my flight back to Maryland.
Healing was torture.  My headache was only replaced.  The incision site from the first surgery was hurting and it seemed as if almost nothing had changed.  More doctors were the name of the game.  I have no ideas how many different doctors I’ve seen.  After searching for the right pain management specialist for months, we finally found one who could help.  I was put onto a new drug that suppressed the misfiring nerves in my scalp.  It still took more time to find the proper dosage and bring me up to it.

Recovery

For me it was all about my return to school.  I had missed so much, yet I was not behind.  One of my first steps when I returned was reestablishing my business.  On one of my first days back at school I learned that another student had been selling sodas in my absence.  He had been charging twice what I was and selling off brand lower quality soda.  He had a total monopoly on the school and his prices reflected that.  I let him sell the rest of his stock and went back to selling name brand for sodas for 50¢ each.  I started seeing my business as more of a reflection on how I treat other human beings.  At the beginning of the school year I came in the first day.  I was fully stocked with 50 dollars worth of product.  People perceived me differently.  I was brain surgery kid.  I was in the shop hanging with Leo when a new staff member barged in.  He said,”Hey I heard the brain surgery kid came today.  Where is he?”  This was a big personal realization of how people saw me.  I ended up missing the next two days of school because I was still was recovering.  When I came back, my entire inventory had been stolen.  I wrote it up.  I ended up missing the next couple of weeks as well.  Lisa Lyons came by to visit and she informed me that JC had caught the people who had done it and I would be compensated.   This was the first time JC had done anything about thefts for me.  I had problems sporadically over the years.  I believe they only did this because they felt they had to watch out for brain surgery kid.  This was something that would just take time for people to get used to.
It took time acclimating back to school.  One of the places I got involved with was School Meeting.  I started attending when I did manage to make it to school.  I got to understand the school more thoroughly by attending.  So few people attended it was usually five or so students including the chair and secretary.  The only thing that got people to come was the controversial issues.  I found it frustrating how few people attended school meeting.  I enjoyed being at school meeting.  I was there and ready to be one of the few voices conscious enough to makes sure they know what was going on.
There were two major events that took place that represented my transformation from sickness to health.  The first was when my meds had finally kicked in and I was capable of attending school regularly.  My Imma (Mom) had wanted to throw away some of my get well cards and this seemed wrong to me.  I didn’t want to just throw away good intentions but I also didn’t want to hold on to the energy of me being sick.  So I decided to burn them.  I got permission from school meeting to have a small bonfire at school and burn the cards.  It felt like the right place to do it to end the sickness at the place it had kept me from.  I gathered up all of the cards.  It must have numbered over five hundred cards and lots of unneeded paper work.  The day of the burning we brought 3 boxes filled with just paper.  My Imma came in and we went to the back of the old building and said a prayer that had been written for me.  I can’t remember what it said anymore.  It was the first thing we lit.
As soon as the bonfire was over and the cards and medical records were turned to ashes, I knew that a segment of my life had ended.  We drove to Target and I bought $70 dollars in get well, sympathy, and thank you cards to send to others..  Even though I had burned the ones sent to me, I wanted to find a way to pass on the positive energy by being able to support others.
My family and I held a celebration of life party.  At first my parents thought of it as me getting my life back, but I stood firm.  It was not just my life we were getting back, my whole family had lost a lot during my time sick.  I decided it was not my party it was our whole family’s party and we were going to celebrate all of our lives.

Normalcy

After this my life changed.  I started going to school with regularity.  I got elected to school meeting chair and finally overcame one of my original outrages.  I brought a motion to school meeting to allow students to carry pocket knives.  I had to create comprehensive rules pertaining to the certifying and use of knives at school and extensively research law pertaining to this.  It took six weeks of going to school meeting to get all the new procedures passed.  After 5 years of no knives some students are allowed to carry knives again.  I became a certifier for pocket knives, so that I could over see the rules that I had put in place and teach proper usage.
The school’s rules have always been a strong interest to me because I always loved the philosophy of personal responsibility in the school.  I had always been pretty well versed in the rules and JC procedure but never allowed myself to clerk due to my poor hand writing at the time.  I joined a writing class, mostly for grammar but each class opened with small writing exercises in long hand.  After a few months I was proficient enough to take on the writing part of being a clerk.  I have now been an alternate clerk a handful of times and clerked twice.
My business, one of the few constants throughout my career in Fairhaven, started to take on a different shape.  One of the main reasons I held on to it so long was to keep student business at school from becoming a monopoly.  I was not in it strictly for the profit anymore.  I find the challenge of it fun.  I started having to lock things up to prevent theft from happening.  Before, people had just grabbed the stuff and looked for me to pay.  They started interrupting everything I was doing so I could unlock it for them.  So I started hiring someone to sell for me part of time.
I also had to start making choices about deeper human morality.  I learned about the slave trade used in chocolate.  Thirty seven percent of the world’s supply of cocoa comes out of the Ivory Coast where approximately ten thousand child slaves are used and another two hundred thousand or so child workers.  This outraged me so much that I quit the sale of chocolate.  However this one little act is not nearly enough.  I struggled with what the next step was.  At first I started by going after the people who were buying it and selling it.  I tried to educate them but usually got angry when they responded that they didn’t care and I called them out by personally letting them know that they were no better than the slave traders themselves for choosing to do nothing.  This put people off as I should have expected but I was blinded by the passion.
I changed tactics, I started bringing up just the facts whenever I could and simply say I would not support the sales based on facts.  This is when things started to change.  People became more conscious.  Without me having a direct hand in it a motion came to school meeting to forbid the sale of slave chocolate at school.  There was a lengthy conversation in school meeting about the issue.  Even thou the motion had failed it was a success to me because people were talking about it.  Since then two different fundraisers at school have used fair trade chocolate in there events because of what I have said.

Plans and Personal philosophy

As I said I used to know what I was going to do.  I would run and own some sort of business.  It was a strong pull for me, but as I have gotten older, it has grown less clear.  The difficulty in running a socially responsible and competitive business at school is overpowering.  For me though, there is no other choice but to be socially conscious in business.  Being socially responsible is so essential to the core of who I am that I am beginning to think that owning a business outside of school would be a challenge that might too difficult to consider taking.  On the other hand if I found a good opportunity, I would absolutely consider it.  I just don’t know where my life will ultimately lead.  In the short term I plan on going to community college for a year and working during the summer as a camp counselor. Then I will spend a year in Israel and taking an ulpan, which is an intensive Hebrew emersion program.  From there I don’t know exactly, but that gives me 2 years to figure things out.
What I do know is to feel decent about myself, I have to stand up against what I know to be wrong and volunteer in the community.  I have gone to a Darfur rally and plan to go to another in the future.  When there was threat of a Koran burning I was trying to figure out how to go down to Florida to protest this most disgusting act and ended up attending a small rally in DC against it.  When I learned of the child slavery in chocolate, I made my household purchase fair trade only and will continue to educate people about these problems for the rest of my life
As for community, I am always ready to do what I can.  I am a ham radio operator, call sign KB3WTF.  I have worked on the course of the Marine Corp Marathon looking for downed runners and radioing for help.  I am also looking at volunteering at equal exchange, a nonprofit that verifies that workers are paid and treated fairly.  In addition this philosophy has lead me to much of what I do in the school, including being Fire safety clerk, elections clerk, Assembly President, and  repeatedly serving as JC clerk.
For me, being an effective adult is being someone who can positively evolve from their experiences.  My experiences in life made me evolve to be the conscious and action oriented person that I am today.  From my earliest days dealing with being labeled and more recent years dealing with brain surgeries, I have gained perseverance and fortitude.  My time in the theater began shaping my work ethics, while my business has sharpened my work ethics and helped hone my action oriented philosophies about human impact from every action.  My time with Eli has altered how I perceive other human beings with physical or mental disability.  Recovering from illness and re-assimilating back in to the community has changed how I look at myself and the world around me.  Being School Meeting Chair, Assembly President, and JC Clerk has shown that I can work with people and oversee a process.  Dealing with theft and my chocolate revelations has taught me to adapt to different situations.  I hope that by showing you my life experiences and my frame of mind, I have demonstrated to you that I am ready to become an effective adult in the larger community.

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