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Sharon Cowan Landay is the amazing mother of Sophia. I met Sharon when she took Mothers Who Write, the workshop I co-teach, and we stayed friends on Facebook. I saw her post last week, looking for someone to accompany Sophia to her senior breakfast, and I asked Sharon to write a guest post about the experience. She did that and more, and I’m so grateful. 

Thirty three days – this is the number of school days left in Sophia’s senior year.

The completion of four years of high school in Arizona means Sophia will have attended approximately 720 days of school. Sophia is what society calls Special Needs. Foolishly, I thought that this descriptor would not exclude Sophia from a typical high school experience. Four years ago, as we were completing an IEP for Sophia’s freshman year, I had the dream, though now it seems it was a delusion, that students in the “mainstream” would embrace Sophia, invite her to activities, engage her, find her amazingness, value her for who she is – all the things the media portrays when you see stories of the student with special needs who was voted Homecoming Queen/King.

Yah, that didn’t happen. Not even close.

Sophia is my daughter. She is also so much more. Sophia was born at 40 weeks, approximately 7 pounds, and had an Apgar score of 0. She has endured, recovered from, and thrived following 7, maybe 8, surgeries. At 17, Sophia is all of 75 pounds, 4 foot 11 inches. In her 17 years, Sophia has received many diagnoses. The first, given when she was just 28 days old, is ACC – Agenesis of the Corpus Callosum (www.nodcc.org). These Latin words mean that the fibers that connect the left and right hemispheres in the brain did not develop. This, as best we know, is Sophia’s “umbrella” diagnosis. All diagnoses that have come after are likely related to this midline anomaly.

Though Sophia developed slower than books tell you an infant/toddler should, she did develop. She walked at 2. Her verbal skills exploded around 2 ½. Sophia walks, runs, climbs, rides a 3 wheel recumbent bike, and stares at screens with the best of ‘em. Sophia rides horses once a week. She colors on the driveway with chalk. Like most every student, Sophia has slung a backpack over her shoulders for 12 years. She writes and tells great stories, often pirated from a show she has watched or a book she has read. Her grammar is atrocious, so grant-writing is out as a career. Sophia has a basic command of elementary math — addition, subtraction, multiplication, as well as knowing how to figure perimeter of a polygon and what a noun is. She has very little concept of the passage of time: five minutes could be two hours, and an hour could be three minutes, so she won’t hold the stop-watch at track events.

She loves animals. All animals. Her goal and dream is to work with animals. She will pet anything, loves pictures of everything, and has no fear of any animal (or insect. Eww.)

In the past four years, Sophia attended 0 school (sports) games, 0 school dances, 0 after school activities.

Sophia would, usually once or twice a year, tell me about a school activity that she wanted to attend. A football game; Homecoming; Prom; Coffee House. Activities that many kids attended, with friends, assuming this as their right as a high school student. Sophia did attend Coffee House one year, with a Respite provider (who graduated from the same school 4 or 5 years earlier). Not a friend, rather someone paid to hang out with her. (I would say babysit, but she’s in high school and it doesn’t sound right.)

In the past four years, Sophia has attended approximately six “mainstream” classes. The rest of her classes were modified, attended exclusively by students receiving Special Education services.

In these same four years, the number of “gen ed” students that called/texted Sophia – 0.

Number of students that invited Sophia to an after school activity – 0.

Number of students who called Sophia a bitch (because they lack the social skills to have healthy friendships) – at least 3.

Number of classes in which Sophia learned something new – maybe 2.

Number of hours spent “working” in the cafeteria, under the guise of “job training” — at least 180, quite likely more.

No one should walk away from high school with 0 friends.

This spring, Sophia heard that there would be a Senior Breakfast.

While the other seniors learned of this sometime in March, Sophia just got wind of it the week of. Yes, last Monday she came home telling me about the Senior Breakfast that would be Friday morning, stating she wanted to attend. On Tuesday she brought home the requisite permission slip. Even the permission slip assumes typicality – students would transport themselves. (Every senior drives?)

I didn’t give Sophia an answer immediately. I thought about it. I decided I would publicize our vulnerability (to my Facebook network), asking if any other seniors might be willing to be Sophia’s “friend” for the morning, so that she would have someone to sit with.

Radio Silence.

I do get it. They are seniors too. This is their Senior Breakfast. This is one of their final hurrahs.

But what about Sophia?

With a lot of nervousness, I took the signed permission slip and fee to the high school and purchased Sophia’s entry to the Senior Breakfast. Friday morning Sophia woke up, excited for the breakfast. I drove her to the location, walked her part way in, and watched her walk the remaining distance behind two unknown classmates.

Sophia sent me a text picture of her breakfast. She told me she was sitting with Brooklyn. Brooklyn is a junior. She was at the breakfast as a student government representative. She found Sophia and joined her. Sophia did not sit with any seniors. Sophia might have said hello to a few, and vice versa, but she was left alone.

The saving grace, in a twisted way, is that Sophia didn’t seem to notice or care.

I noticed and I care. I will always notice and always care.

Sophia went, she was happy, and that has to matter.

I hold no bad feelings toward any student or parent. The school failed Sophia. The district failed the school, that failed Sophia. For four years, students could have been part of Sophia’s high school experience. Instead, she spent four years in relative isolation. Didn’t anyone think to encourage friendships among different kids? Didn’t anyone remember there was a group of students, off in a proverbial corner, who might want friends? She seems to be a forgotten student.

Even worse, there are so many just like her in their isolation.

Sophia will complete high school soon. Sophia will complete high school with, it seems, no genuine friends. No one to celebrate with. No one to realize she, too, completed four years. 720 days of missed opportunity. I’m sad for Sophia, but I’m also sad for the kids who did not get to know her. Sophia’s love for Fairly Odd Parents, Teen Titans Go, animated Disney films, Disney villains, and Top 10 Lists for anything related to any animated show, should not disqualify her from developing friendships.

No one should walk away from high school with 0 friends. Yet, here she is. Three Dog Night sang “One is the loneliest number…”

I think zero might be lonelier.

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9 Responses to “High School By the Numbers: Four Years, Zero Friends (Guest Post)”

  1. Hi Sharon and Amy,
    I am so lucky to have your experiences and this discussion before my Nina (age 9, 3rd grade) goes to high school- but even now she doesn’t have real friends. This is sad for all of us. I’d love to figure out solutions and ideas. It seems mainstreaming isn’t exactly what it was billed as. I already want to move before Nina would go to our college sized high school, but where is it better, how can we make it better? Would I be better off home schooling and doing sperpate job training and activities?? Is she going to benefit from high school? Maybe we start by portraying the larger reality in media instead of homecoming Kings and Queens?
    Would love ideas…
    Julie

  2. I feel sad for Sophia. Everybody should feel included in their school experience- be it elementary school or high school. How will Sophia manage post high school? Just saying.

  3. I am a school district classified (non teaching/support) employee with quite a few years experience in Special Education. I am currrently employed as the Administrative Assistant at an elementary school. I am consistently surprising my special education teachers by asking if their students will be attending the field trips and special events and if I need to arrange busing or support staff to assist. They have never been asked these questions, but all means all! It needs to start with inclusion actually meaning inclusion. While this may not help Sophia it may help other parents realize they need to stay informed on what is happening on campus and help call attention to staff that No Child Left Behind means no child left behind. We all need to work on this as a society. Sending kind thoughts, hugs and hopes that there is a good place for Sophia to grow and thrive.

  4. I run a Foundation in India providing education and other services to kids with disabilities from birth to 21. Every time we talk about mainstreaming our kids, we finally end up at this big stumbling block: what about friends? Because the one thing our kids definitely have in our current set-up is friends. Real friends. Friends they fight with, laugh with, cry about and dream of. They have crushes on each other and secret affairs. They tease each other, write each other notes and gossip in corners.

    This totally normal stuff is the reason I continue to have doubts about inclusive education. You can’t force friendship. It emerges like magic from shared affinities and affection. You can’t prescribe it or write it as a goal in an IEP. And if I had to choose between inclusion and friendship (and it looks like we do), I’d choose friendship every time.

  5. I am lucky enough to call Sharon a “friend” and what I want everyone to realize is that Sophia is the luckiest girl in the world to have Sharon as her Mom! At the end of the day friends will come and go, but Moms are forever! And forever is what you will be Sharon, my dear friend that loves her daughter! For that, the world is a better place!

  6. As I read this I was transported back to my daughter’s high school experience. I could have written this post. You’ve described my daughter’s 4 years of high school. Exactly described it. One memory that still stands out is watching Beth at graduation. She and the other seniors in her special ed class were sitting in the front row and when it came time to switch the tassels, Beth just looked around, trying to see what everyone was doing. Confused and struggling to find the tassel she couldn’t easily see, I sat in the bleachers wondering why no one explained to these students what would happen that day; what would be expected of them; how to move the tassel from one side of their cap to the other. She didn’t figure it out in time and no one helped her. No one helped any of those students in the front row. It almost makes me cry thinking about it. But you know what? Beth didn’t care. She bounded out of that stadium with a smile a mile wide! She loved high school! She loved riding the bus. She loved her teachers. (I’m the one with the issues!) :) Now she’s in her 30s and she’s very content with this season of her life. I have so much to learn from her.

  7. Hi,

    I am a university student from Canada, this article was shared on my Facebook newsfeed. My high school had a great program called best buddies, where general education students and special education students were paired together throughout high school, a lot of true friendships were formed this way. I was not a part of best buddies, but I had friends who were, and through this I made 2 friends with different needs and abilities. I would suggest looking for a high school, (and college) that has programs similar to this. My university has it too! As now, I work with the H’art Centre in Kingston Ontario, and have the pleasure of hanging with 2 great friends with down syndrome (we love to go for drinks too). These programs help make becoming friends with people of different abilities more approachable.

    I used to be afraid that I would be insensitive to their needs, but best buddies helped bridge that gap.

  8. This hurts my heart. I am sad for all of the kids who have so much to offer as friends who aren’t given the opportunity because they are seen as more different than alike. My son has Down syndrome, is in preschool and he doesn’t seem to have friends the same way his classmates do. He is so, so social so everyone is his friend but I’m not sure any of the other students would classify him as a friend. Thankfully he doesn’t care. Everyone is a friend he hasn’t had the pleasure of meeting yet. This is the issue I worried about when we received a prenatal diagnosis. This is the issue I worry about now as he attends preschool, this is the issue I worry about in the short-term as he gets ready to enter kindergarten and this is what I worry about in the long-term as he enters middle school and high school and beyond. I’m an introvert so I was never great at the whole making friends thing anyway so I’m going to be no help. But as a society we have to figure out ways to help foster connections. I guess I’m going to have to try to figure out a way to be part of the solution, but it royally sucks that this is just one more thing that isn’t easy for our kids or for us as their parents.

  9. These tears at my heart. Things are so different these days. Kids seem more abusive and excluding than ever. I was an odd duck, but I still managed a social circle. I watch my two daughters struggle with ADHD and the aftermath of a divorce. I used to say I would be furious at the person who robbed my eldest daughter of her outgoing nature. I am scared for my youngest daughter. Like me she is introverted. She doesn’t let on that she is sad to be alone, but I see it.

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