High School Graduation- “If you can imagine it, you can achieve it; if you can dream it, you can become it.”

IMG_9412-26

james graduation 1

Thursday, June 7, 2018  James graduated High School!! It was an incredible night of celebration. He graduated with four other high school seniors from the McLean Homeschool Group. All the graduates are headed to great four year colleges or Universities. James will continue at Northern Virginia Community College, completing his Associates degree in 2019 and hopefully onto University in 2020.

 

Below is James’s graduation speech:

Graduation Speech

June 7, 2018

James Potthast

 

At last, my high school graduation. I have always visualized this day, but it was a distant image that I never fully grasped would become a reality. Yet, here it is. I’m also happy to hear my words be read by a male voice…for a change. As many of you may know, my academic career began with repetitive tasks and the idea that true, meaningful learning would not be something I would be able to ever experience. Being diagnosed with Autism has, indeed, been a defining aspect in my life. Yet, being able to communicate and learn for the past 5 years has given me hope and helped me rediscover my true identity. I stand here before you as a high school graduate, and can say my academic career is nowhere near over.

Doing this alone would have been impossible.

My caring parents: You have supported me every step of the way. From believing in my abilities, to truly listening to my voice, my hopes, and my dreams; you have done everything you can to ensure I have a real shot at achieving them. When I couldn’t share my thoughts and feelings, you were there to push against all expectations so that I could have a meaningful life. You believed in me when I did not believe in myself. WE did it!

My Teachers: You have opened up my world. You allowed me to be curious and explore the unknown. Most importantly, you challenged me. You treated me like any other student, knowing I was capable of keeping up, while still understanding that I learn and communicate differently. Mrs. Evans, there was never a dull moment in your class. You truly taught me how to be a student. I will always remember you. Shannon, you have been my guiding light throughout this process. You have helped me hold myself accountable and challenged me to hold myself to a higher standard. I could not be here without you. Margarita, thank you for understanding me. All of your knowledge has helped me grow and your understanding has helped me succeed. For being such a big part of my journey, muchas gracias!

My fellow classmates: All of you have welcomed me and made me feel like I belong here. I have learned so much from the discussions, humor, and perspectives shared in class. But most importantly, the way you have treated me has made me feel like part of this community. I’ll always remember my high school experience because of you.

Advertisements

IN YOUR WILDEST DREAMS

images-2

Today is the fifth anniversary of James meeting Soma. I can still see it like it was yesterday. That day changed everything! I am so grateful for Soma and for RPM and for every person who has helped him in this journey. Mostly, I thank God! I thought it was fitting that when I asked him for a recent essay to put on the blog, this one titled “In Your Wildest Dreams” had just been written. He wrote it for the Endependence Newsletter this month.

“In Your Wildest Dreams”

A career is a life changing path. It can be a way to find your purpose and network with other people as well. As a person with a disability, there will be many hurdles to face on the path of chasing your dream. Other people will doubt your abilities, your understanding, and your independence. However, one thing you can control is belief in yourself and overcoming fear and self-doubt.

                  There are many misconceptions about what a person with a disability is capable of achieving. In times of astounding awareness, our abilities are tattered by everyone’s stereotypes. Beliefs determine action, and in most cases, we, people with disabilities, are treated based on the belief that all of us are dependent on others and can therefore not contribute to the workforce. Not a minute goes by that I don’t pay attention to the assumptions of others. Each interaction in our communities is an opportunity to break a stereotype and challenge an assumption. We can change the assumptions others make and cause people to think that maybe we are not all the same.

Sometimes we can be our own worst enemy. After the battle with others is behind us, the attitude we have with ourselves is very important. Doubt is very common when pursuing any dream. It is easy to allow yourself to think only about what could go wrong. One of the most important components needed to overcome doubt is preparation. Having a plan towards your goal will help you feel like that goal is very much in your reach. I have been fortunate to have an unbelievably supportive family and team of teachers and mentors surrounding me. They have been so confident in my abilities, that it has helped me overcome times of doubt and fear. The plans we have made and executed together have helped me in reducing anxiety in times of fear and encouraged me to believe in myself and my abilities.

If you have a passion, talent, or calling that you have identified, it is so important to follow that path with full confidence. We are more than capable of achieving our career goals of being entrepreneurs, model employees, or graduate students. With support from others who believe in us, we will believe in ourselves and achieve things many thought would be impossible.

Information Access

information-age

How do you as an individual access and process information? That was the question James and his English classmates at community college were supposed to answer in their most recent assignment. It was called an “information literacy narrative”. I didn’t read it until today when I saw that his teacher wrote a note saying he brought something unique to the topic. I do know that it was tough for him to write (some tears), because he was asked to reflect on a topic that reminded him how different his life is compared to those who don’t have autism. Regular readers know his story but it is interesting to read it through this lens. I hope it helps others.

“Attaining the Information of the World”

            My current environment stimulates and allows me to continue growing in my information literacy. I have a multitude of resources for receiving and sharing information. I am a college student, I listen to audiobooks and podcasts, I write a quarterly newsletter, I have a personal blog, and I often listen intently to those around me. I consider myself to be information literate. I am able to listen and process information presented to me in a variety of formats. I pride myself in the speed at which I can auditorily process information. However, all of this did not happen overnight. My journey from prisoner to college student is one of struggle in finding ways to access, use, and understand information.  

            Almost five years ago, I had very limited access to information, no ability to use the information I possessed, and was not being taught to understand what I heard daily. I have Autism and I am nonverbal. For this reason, I was denied access to information that I was presumed not to know or be able to understand. My learning consisted mostly of matching and repeating patterns. Then, one day my parents took me to meet and work with Soma Mukhopadhyay, an Autism and education specialist. I remember being taught a lesson about planes. I felt empowered by the fact someone felt I could understand a middle school lesson. I was asked questions to show my comprehension. Using a stencil board with the alphabet on it, I answered each question correctly. Everyone was surprised I could spell, and even more shocked I processed all of the information that was given to me. This day changed my life. I was given the opportunity to access information for the first time, and was able to express my understanding of that material. My shackles had finally been removed and using a letter board was the key that would allow me to freely explore the world.

            After this discovery, my parents decided that learning with a homeschool program would be best for me. A few months later, I became a homeschool student. I vividly remember meeting my teacher, Shannon. I thought she was so smart. I asked myself on many occasions if I would be able to work for a whole school day. At times, I needed breaks. The transition from not being able to communicate the thoughts in my mind to having an organized school day full of educational input was overwhelming at times. I would get tired easily, and get frustrated with myself for not being able to point at the letters as easily I wanted to. This process helped me build resilience as a learner. Now I was able to learn at my grade level. I had the opportunity of accessing the meaningful information that I always wanted.

            During this time and for the next year, I was also continuing to meet with Soma and mastering the use of my letter board. I worked on accuracy, fluency, and my teacher was also getting intense training. I was at the point where I could easily communicate my answers based on a structured lesson. I began to feel more and more confident in my communication skills using my letter board.  The letter board truly gave me a voice. Now, I was ready to use my voice to express my thoughts and feelings. When Soma first asked me an open ended question, I was nervous and excited. As she asked, “How do you feel about your parents?” I had never felt more empowered. I spelled out, “Mommy, I love you. Dad, thank you for being my best friend.” The words resonated as if they had come out of my mouth. At this moment I realized the impact I could have on others. My relationship with information had evolved from access and understanding to use and meaningfulness. I could add a personality to my voice and share emotions not just answer questions. The world was beginning to open up.

            By the summer of 2014, I had been homeschooled for a year and I was truly confident in using my board. I felt a significant connection to the world. Not only could I communicate and share information that I have learned and analyzed, but my mom had started a blog, www.returningjames.com, that helped me feel even more connected to others. She posted about my progress and also some of my essays. I felt like I was actually connecting with other people. One day that summer, my parents had a construction crew working on a project at our house. As I came out of my classroom and into the commotion of the kitchen, I heard several conversations and noises all at once. While my mom was busy in her own conversation, she noticed I was chuckling to myself, almost holding back a full belly laugh. She asked me what was so funny, so I decided to be honest and share. I spelled “the workers outside are having a conversation about you”. I couldn’t stop laughing. My mom joined me, but was also amazed that I understood their conversation because they only spoke Spanish. I didn’t realize I had picked up an auditory understanding of the language. Over time, I heard it spoken around me and learned along the way. What was most exciting for me was the ability to share a funny moment with my mom. I told her what I was thinking and she laughed with me. My personality was something I was going to be able to share along with my intellect.

            Just about a year ago, I began a new journey in my relationship with information. After three years of being in a homeschool program, which allowed me to learn many study and writing skills, I decided to become a dual enrollment student at Northern Virginia Community College. I knew there would be some challenges, but I was eager to continue my journey towards independence. Navigating my college experience is definitely a step in my path. My very first class was Introduction to Psychology. I had some anxiety as I sat in my first college class. The buzz of conversations and the feeling I was being stared at caused me to feel overwhelmed at times. However, my communication assistant helped me through it, offering me some tough love at times, and I was able to not only finish that class but four other classes since then. I am now eager to continue learning how to use the information I am given to best serve me and those around me. College has allowed me to look at information and school through a different lens.

            As a thirteen year old trapped in my own mind, I did not think I would be able to access information at will. I thought I would always have to teach myself from what I could overhear. The letter board has been the key to my freedom and my teachers have been invaluable in showing my how to use all of the information I learn in a meaningful way. I have become information literate because of my experiences and the guidance I have received. All of the knowledge I have come across is useless without meaningful application. I may have gotten a late start, but I am doing my best at taking advantage of my opportunities.

 

Helping Hand, Not Hand Holding

IMG_7792-62

James continues to have the opportunity to write for the ECNV newsletter. Its a great organization committed to helping people with disabilities gain independence. The prompt for this newsletter was: “A lot of times we see parents with disabilities shelter their children from the world, instead of encouraging them to follow their dreams. Their intentions are to protect them, but this often results in the children not being able to live up to their full potential. For this newsletter, please describe your experience with this scenario and what kind of side effects can come from sheltering persons with disabilties as they mature”.

“Helping Hand, Not Hand Holding”

                  My experience with my parents has been one of growth and evolution. I needed a teacher, and they provided. I needed a companion, and they provided. I needed nutritional support, and they provided. Throughout my life my parents have provided me with all of my opportunities. I am appreciative of all their support, and now I am ready to be more independent. I would like to care for myself. I see my future including a meaningful career and independent living. Because of all their support, I have the ability to freely express my thoughts to them through my letter board. I have been able to share with them my goals to be an independent adult. I know it will not be easy, but they are supporting me in this journey.

                  Although I can’t say they have sheltered me, because I have been able to see and experience many new things, I think my parents have protected me from failure to a certain extent. I think this type of parental protection happens in many cases. For anyone seeking independence, failure is part of the journey. When parents take the possibility of failure away, even with the best intentions, an opportunity to learn and mature is denied. Many adults want to make life easier for the next generation. However, failing is a main ingredient in the recipe for success. In the case of young adults with disabilities, we are seen as fragile and helpless, not to mention incapable. At times, believing in myself feels impossible. I can imagine that at times it can be scary to let your child fail, especially when you have been providing and protecting them for so long. However, for those of us with limited abilities in speech, motor movement, or emotional regulation, we need to become strong individually and learn to count on ourselves. We also want to feel proud and accomplished, and even disappointed some times. These feeling are ones we can own and truly value.

My parents have always been willing and able to give me what I needed. Now, what I need from them is to let me provide for myself. I am still a teenager who wishes for freedom to do as I please, but each day I need a team of people to help me care for myself. Next year, each one of the adults in my life will only be around for minimal support. Each one of my tasks will be done by me, solely. However, in order for this goal of mine to become a reality, a lot of work on my part and also my parents and support team will be required. It will take a new mindset. Currently, I let my parents facilitate things around me. I will have to allow them to take a step back. I will have to experience failure and learn from it. This will include everything from everyday tasks, to communication, to transportation. I will have to be uncomfortable. I am starting to realize that growth happens when we are uncomfortable and open to learning from those experiences. As children, just as much as our parents, we like to stay in our comfort zone. In order to reach our true potential, we need to be open to change and our parents need to let us be uncomfortable. I am thankful for my parents being so aware and invested in my future. They believe in me, that is the best gift I can receive from them.

 

Religions of the World 231

islam pic

James is taking an introduction to world religions class at Northern Virginia Community College this semester. He has a natural and deep curiosity about the world and it’s really satisfying, after years of limited education, to see him have access to a wide range of subjects.  This assignment was called an “experience paper”.  He had to visit a service of another faith and write about it. He chose to go to a local mosque to the noon prayer service. (A heads up–this is a long paper!)

On November 3, 2017, I attended Jumah, or Friday prayer, at 1:30pm at Dar Al-Hijra Islamic Center located at 3159 Row St. Falls Church, VA 22044. Dar Al-Hijra is a place of worship known as Masjid, which serves the Muslim community. I am Catholic, but very available to learn about other faiths. I attend mass every Friday and Sunday with my father. I have received my sacraments and have found a great sense of identity and purpose because of my faith. My mother, who is also Christian, is not Catholic. Having two faiths in my household has led me to be eager to learn about the many religions of the world. I chose to attend a Muslim service because a lot of negative attention is received by the Islamic community. I wanted to learn more about the faith and make my own thoughts based on my experience.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                  Upon arrival at Dar Al-Hijra, it was obvious that there would be a lot of people at the service. We had to find parking in a nearby neighborhood and walk to the entrance of the building. The building was gated off and there were several armed security officers walking around the exterior of the building as well as in the main lobby near the entrance. The building was large, but not tall like a cathedral. There was an architectural piece that stood separate from the building. It was narrow and tall and had a crescent moon at the very top of it. I was educated on the significance of this piece of architecture after the service. It is a minaret and has traditionally been used as place where holy men climbed to the top in order to call out the call to prayer. I was told that the noise ordinance did not allow for the traditional use of the minaret, and an intercom system was used instead for the call to prayer. I also noticed a few vendors just outside the entrance doors selling some religious items and informational material. In the main lobby, there was a table with lots of packaged food stacked on top of each other. I quickly noticed that everyone surrounding me were men. We were greeted and asked to wait for our guide. I could hear that a service was already going on.

To begin the service, there was a call to prayer over an intercom system. At this point, we were guided to a large common area room with rugs covering the floor. I joined hundreds of men in removing my shoes and finding a spot in the room. I chose to sit in a chair, while my communication assistant and most other men kneeled. There was an older man, the imam, with a microphone standing on the front stage area that began to talk and give a sermon, in English. The imam was wearing a long robe and a cap on his head. He addressed everyone through a microphone. There was another room of men who also listened to his message through a video and audio system. He spoke about religion and it being a guide in our lives. His message was one about family, equality, and compassion. The care for children was discussed and also the role of men and women in the family. It was urged to value young daughters and to not overlook their importance in the family. He preached that many times boys are valued as more important members of the family as they grow older in to young men, but that women are the caretakers of the family and will one day be the ones to step up and take care of parents in their old age. Throughout his message, everyone was very quiet and attentive. There was very little movement or direct involvement from the men listening to his message. The general atmosphere was of extreme reverence and respect. After some time, the imam began to speak in Arabic and everyone stood. At this time, I stepped to the side and observed their prayer ritual. As they chanted, everyone stood in reverence, then bent forward, then kneeled. Each position there was prayer in unison. They repeated this three times. Once the service was concluded, everyone retrieved their shoes and began to exit, greeting each other and giving blessings to each other as they left. Many people bought lunches on their way out, as they were on their lunch break from their work day.

The experience of attending Friday prayer at Dar-Al Hijrah was eye opening and informative. Through attending the service directly, I noticed many familiar aspects. The standing, kneeling, and bowing during the final prayer were familiar to me. It resembled the kneeling prayer that I participate in during mass, before receiving communion. It was immediately evident how important this service and prayer was to all that participated. I could see that the faith and religion held a high priority in the daily lives of its members. There were men from what seemed to be many different walks of life. Some were dressed in suits, some long robes, some in work uniforms, and some were students. This service was during a weekday, in the middle of the day, yet hundreds of men came on time to participate. We were also shown an area in the bathrooms that was used to clean hands, mouth, and feet prior to attending the service. Our guide explained to us that this was an act of respect. Cleaning and doing so in the name of God was a very important step in participating in the prayer service that they hold to the upmost importance.

There was definitely an overt distinction between men and women. I did not actually see any women, beside our guide, in the duration of our visit. I was told that women use a separate entrance and participate in the service in two separate rooms. One room is for women, and the other is for women with children. Both rooms are much smaller and have far less participants than the two large rooms for men. I understood this to reflect the very traditional beliefs and roles that have been taught in the Islam faith. It was evident to me that tradition is very important to the lives of Muslims. Roles and expectations of men and women are intertwined and directly impacted by the teaching of their faith. Unlike other religions, the traditional values and conservative nature of each service is very important. Expectations of reverence, obedience, and order seem to be an unspoken truth among all members. This is clearly passed down to their daily living, as it was preached during the sermon.

Another important interpretation I gathered from my visit to Dar Al-Hijra came directly from my interaction with our guide, Fazeia. She was extremely helpful and passionate about educating us and answering any questions we had. She gave us important information about the traditions of the faith, the service, and the expectations of the daily prayers. However, what stood out the most about her leadership was her desire to educate for the purpose of creating tolerance and equality among different faiths. She was direct about her mission to unite people and help rid her community of prejudice and hateful behaviors. She quickly described many, many services that are provided by Dar Al-Hijra to the community, regardless of their faith. Some of these services include a weekly food bank, juvenile delinquent mentors, tolerance information sessions, family counseling, tutoring, homework help, and much more. It was eye opening to hear all of the work that is done by the Islamic community to support not only each other, but everyone. As she pointed out, it is rare to hear about the positive things that are done by a Muslim Community Center. Instead, the public generally associates acts of terror and violence with such faiths. Fazeia explained that so much negative and untrue information is shared about their faith by the media, that they have a “green screen” in the library for television interviews that are so frequently needed to address public situations. Fazeia definitely provided me with another perspective of the Islamic faith and helped me to understand the community on a more personal level.

Overall, I am very grateful for the opportunity to learn about another faith. The experience allowed me to observe, participate, and ask questions. I saw some similarities in rituals between Islam and my own faith, Catholicism. I also saw some very different traditions and was able to learn about their origin and purpose. Most importantly, I was able to connect with someone who explained that the pride and importance of their faith is just the same as anyone else’s. I would hate to have to constantly be defending my faith and its members from false or generalized accusations. I take away a new perspective from this experience as well as some valuable information.

 

Finding Adventure

James’ new English teacher gave them an “adventure project” to work on. They were to develop an idea of an adventure, do the adventure and then write about it. Here is James’ essay and a few photos as well!

Finding Adventure

            I recently went on a trip to Italy. This was my second time visiting Italy. My family and I had an amazing experience a few years ago, so we decided to make the trip again. I knew it would be full of discovery, sightseeing, and bonding. However, nothing could have prepared me for the adventure that lied ahead. Among all the tours and planned itineraries, there was a spontaneous moment that took place. I don’t usually do well with unplanned events, so this was a challenge as well. I have some issues with anxiety in new and unfamiliar situations. Little did I know this moment would turn into a true adventure. Remembering the basic details does not do it justice.

I always wanted to swim in the middle of the ocean. I did not realize, however, that it meant first jumping off of a boat. My family and I were on a boat on this particular afternoon, and we sailed to the middle of a bay with a beautiful view. Naturally, everyone was in their bathing suits. In a spur of the moment idea, my brother suggested we jump in the Tyrrhenian Sea. Nearly everyone was eager and excited to make the jump. My dad turned it down quickly and made it clear he was just a spectator. I was on the edge. I could not decide if I could really have the courage to jump. My nerves were out of control and I could only think about the depth of the ocean. I bent down to look at the water, only to frighten myself even more. My echo of screams was ringing in my ears. Now, everyone is angry that I won’t jump. I am overwhelmed with excitement and fear. I hear my brother on the boat say, “Go James!”, but I doubt anyone heard him, because too many people were shouting at me. Now I boldly decide to jump.

I step off the edge and drop in the water. I rush underwater a few feet with salt rushing in my eyes, nose, and mouth. After a few seconds, my head breaks the surface and I see my brother in the water next to me. He has a big smile on his face, as I am still opening my eyes and checking my surroundings. I also discovered another comforting sight next to me, a swimming “noodle”. I latched on and started to feel relief. I heard laughter and cheering from my family. I began to laugh with them, and was finally enjoying the moment.

            After I got back on to the boat safely, I immediately felt relieved and accomplished. As everyone was congratulating me, my feelings of fear and anxiety were transformed into adrenaline and pride. Now I’m reflecting on this adventure and I realize that my anxiety is such a controlling factor in my life, I rarely let it develop into other emotions. I focus intently on what could go wrong, and don’t allow moments to pleasantly surprise me sometimes. On this adventure, I surprised myself. I am happy to tell this story, and to share one example of the possibilities of stepping off the edge, and just jumping in!

Senior Year

IMG_0023

August 2013  First week with Shannon and James starting RPM and the road to a “real education”.

 

IMG_0905

Four years later…the week before senior year in High School!

My Senior Year 2017-18                                                                                                                

            This coming Monday I begin my senior year of high school and my second year of college at NOVA. I am both excited and nervous. I look forward to the new challenges and learning new material, but my teacher of four years will not attend classes with me this semester or teach me any subjects at home. She is taking a break from my studies in order to spend much deserved time with her family.

            Four years ago we both began our journey with RPM and we have flourished together. She promised to stay with me through high school and she has been with me every step of the way. I was always her priority and I know that she will always be part of my family. As much as I am going to miss her and as nervous as I am to not have her with me, I know she is not really abandoning me. She has trained my team and will continue to care about my success and progress. I hope she will return this spring to again be my partner and teacher. In the meantime, I will have to become the person she always believed I could be.

            This semester I am enrolled to take two courses at NOVA, one film class with my home school group, and will continue my Spanish at home. I will try to write updates as I go, but we will see how busy I become. Thank you for following my journey and supporting me.