Trouble In Academia a post from Davis Finch

IMG_3965My name is Davis Finch and I have been involved with Square Peg since October 2011. I am 24-years-old and am on the higher end of the autism spectrum. I started out just taking riding lessons, but in the past six months have become a lot more involved in the organization. This is my first blog post on this website.

This past summer I had a disastrous experience with the admissions and disabled students departments at San Francisco State University. I had received a conditional acceptance letter as a transfer student in December 2012 and, after meeting the conditions as I understood them to be (confusion about the specific requirements caused me to fill out the application incorrectly), I was denied admission in late June, two months before I was supposed to start classes. At first I believed it was some sort of mistake and that everything would be cleared up quickly and rationally, but, alas, I was wrong. It started with some impersonal bureaucratic letters and emails that I found very disrespectful and ended with me storming off the campus after a
last-ditch meeting vowing never to have anything to do with the institution, ever again! What upset me greatly about the way I was treated was their lack of compassion, ignorance about autism, and attempts to pin all the blame on me while holding the deeply flawed system they work for in high regard. As a result of this, I have left academia and do not intend to return anytime soon.

As I thought this over, I realized that the core problems I had were not so much with SF State, but with the CSU system as a whole. After taking a semester off from education following high school, I started at College of Marin in January 2008. I spent the next five years (ten semesters) learning the system, navigating around roadblocks, and eventually earning my AA in political science in December 2012. Overall, it was a good experience. Some of the keys to my success were a level of autonomy that allowed me to take as many classes as I could handle (usually 2) and work out reasonable agreements with teachers when problems arose, a disabled students department that (usually) helped me when I needed them and had adequate influence in the school to get things done, an academic culture that did not shame me for being there for several years, a clear rubric explaining AA requirements, and an efficient electronic system for enrolling in classes.

I was hoping SF State, although much bigger, would be similar in those regards. Maybe it would have been once I got settled in, but I never got the chance because of two major flaws in the system that I found insurmountable. The first one, which was the reason my admission was rescinded, is SF State and all other CSU’s (I think the UC’s do it too, but I’m not sure) discard hard-earned units from community colleges that are not compatible with their seemingly arbitrary course requirements. For me, this meant that even though I should have had more than enough units to transfer, I was found to be half-a-unit short and thus denied admission. Even if I had been admitted, the lost units would have meant at least an
extra semester at the university, which would have ruined my goal of upgrading my degree to a BA in four years. The second major flaw in the system is the disabled students department doesn’t give you any serious help unless you are enrolled as a student, which is a major problem if admission is what you need help with. This meant that although I was allowed an appeal, I had no help from the disabled students office and had no recourse when the established processes used for resolving unit shortfalls were inappropriate for my situation. These two policies combined to make appealing the denial of admission a humiliating and ultimately pointless action and made me feel discriminated against, disrespected, and unwanted.

Experiences like the one I had with SFSU prove just how special and needed organizations like Square Peg are. The generally non-hierarchical, flexible, and compassionate atmosphere at the ranch is a refreshing exception from the condescending, bureaucratic, and often downright discriminatory conditions that are all too common in our society. In military and law enforcement, it is probably necessary, but why do social services, the legal system, academia, and the corporate world have to be so hostile to people with disabilities and people who are just different? That is something we as a society must change, and organizations like Square Peg are our best hope.

Question: “If I donate to Square Peg, where does the money go?”Answer – here

Let’s start a movement!


“Let’s Start a Movement”

Starting Square Pegs has given me the opportunity to meet and interact with some really famous people. Anne Firth Murray, Jane Goodall, Sir Elton John (seriously, he kissed me on both cheeks!) and more. But there is one couple that I have had the unlikely opportunity to sit across the table from and glean from them whatever knowledge they might be willing to share, is a series of casual meetings with Gerry and Lilo Leeds.

Here’s a quick excerpt from a bio written for their latest book “Wonderful Marriage”

They are both refugees from Nazi Germany. They arrived in the U.S. with virtually no money, but eventually became successful business entrepreneurs, and continued more recently as social entrepreneurs, with a primary focus on improving the education of children in poor communities. In 1971, they launched the now highly successful publishing company, CMP Media, Inc., which became a leading publisher of business newspapers, magazines and Internet services for the high-tech industries-electronics, communication and computers. They established a set of principles for the company that became a guide for all their future business and management activities. The company became known for its excellent socially responsible policies, its great products, its great services and, especially, for its pioneering on-site infant and child day care center established by Lilo Leeds. Fortune and Working Mother magazine repeatedly cited CMP as one of the “100 Best Companies to Work For.”

Yeah, pretty cool. After 56 years of marriage, they are still working together and still focused on the same goals that they set out to prove when they launched CMP: To improve the education of children in poor communities. And they do it with a focused, no nonsense, multi-tiered approach that works. Go ahead, Google it.

So here I am, at the Stanford Park Hotel on the eve of my 40th birthday. Lilo meets us down in the restaurant and she’s supposed to call and wake up Gerry to join us. Problem is, he’s turned off the phone. Lilo peers over her glasses, blinks and gracefully excuses herself from the table to go and wake Gerry herself. They re-appear soon, hand in hand. They are both kind to the waiter but also very clear about what they will eat and how it should be prepared. Even the waitstaff is soon charmed by the quiet elderly couple. Gerry looks a bit tired at first but as soon as the discussion turns to education or to his successful marriage, he’s wide awake.

Gerry’s voice is soft and I have to lean in close to catch every word. Lilo chimes in between bites of her dinner, she’s got to keep her sugar level up to manage her diabetes. I don’t want to miss a single syllable from either of them and so I’ve hardly touched my food (very rare for me). Gerry talks about how the schools in the poor communities are failing the students and perpetuating the poverty. He tells us how their organization at it’s core believes that students are human beings with assets, talents and feelings who must be treated with respect, dignity and care. That developing, hiring and supporting talented teachers lies at the center of improved student learning. Believing that parents are a valuable source of information about their children’s strengths, talents and aspirations and they are consulted as partners in their children’s education.

Wow! It seems so simple! So clear. And yet, our goverment can only come up with changing testing standards and holding teachers accountable to them without support for the teachers and dwindling resources and outdated programs. Not by re-thinking how schools see the students as our nation’s assets rather than potential liabilities?

Gerry Leeds looked me straight in the eye and said “We aren’t taking on a project, we’re starting a movement.”

Now THAT is something to get excited about. Seriously. rachelface

To which I say, let’s get this party started!

Are you in?

A student’s perspective

My name is Max Freiberger. I am in 8th grade. I’m here to share with my you what it’s like to be a kid with disabilities. I am one of those kids, because I have Tourette’s syndrome, ADHD, and other health problems. I want to let you know how they affect my life.

Tourette’s Syndrome is a very frustrating disease. It makes you twitch and tic and twist and kick and move uncontrollably when you don’t want to. It tires you out. It makes you ache from the inside out. It frustrates you. It makes you feel out of control. It makes you feel powerless. And it can lead to acting without thinking.

I don’t know why all this happens. I try hard to think about what I’m doing so that I won’t harm someone or myself. It’s hard for me and I don’t always succeed. But I try.

I do it by talking to myself. I remind myself to be quiet. I remind myself that the punishment or consequences of getting angry is worse than the reward of being angry at the moment. But, sometimes nothing works. Not even the dozens and dozens of medication I have tried over the years.

Let me come back to what it’s like to live with these kinds of problems. I don’t have a lot of friends. I’m not sure why.

I used to have a lot of friends at school until about 4th grade when my Tourettes got really bad. I feel very isolated because I had to change schools. I used to go to a Jewish school in San Francisco. I went there until my Tourettes got so bad that I needed an aid to go to class with me. They don’t have aids and my parents could not afford one, so I had to go to a public school where I could have an aid. But, they put me in a special education class. I am not learning anything because I am so much more advanced than the rest of the class that I actually don’t learn anything new. The teacher can’t teach two different curriculums at once.

The only thing I have learned at this school is ASL, American Sign Language. Now I know a little over 600 words. The reason I learned Sign Language was so I could volunteer as a Teacher’s Aid and help with the kids in the autistic classroom. In this class, there are kids with Autism, Down syndrome and Mental Retardation. All but one of the kids has trouble talking because their brains won’t let them even though they understand. So I’m helping them learn Sign Language. Autistic kids have a communication disorder, an obsession with themselves and a short attention span.

Most of these kids cannot phonic read, which means that they cannot sound words out, they can only memorize what words look like. They are not able to read any books yet unless they memorize each word in that book. It is really hard for them. The kids with autism often take in everything you say and they don’t forget. They just can’t communicate it and are probably a lot smarter than we are.

One of the kids has Asperger syndrome. He is able to read closer to his age-level. A kid with Asperger syndrome is a lot like an autistic kid but with a more mild case of autism. I love helping in this class. The teachers seem be understanding of what it is like for me. And it is fun to help the kids. I have a lot of patience with the kids just like people try and have with me.

What I think people need to understand about children with special needs is that you shouldn’t try to understand. You just can’t. There is no way you can put yourself in our shoes. You can try to understand but really there is no way to comprehend what it is like to live your life as a child with special needs.

You just have to understand that no matter what we do that we are not bad kids.

We just need more help and patience. And remember that we learn differently. An example is that one day while helping with one of the kids the special education teachers could not figure out a way to teach him to count. So they asked me for any ideas and I suggested using different types of toys as symbols. For example, watermelons mean one, triangles mean two, bananas three and banana plus watermelon means four. This approach worked. Imagine that!

I learn a lot from other special needs kids. I go to an awesome horseback riding ranch called Square Peg in Half Moon Bay. This is a non-profit foundation to teach all kids with and without special needs to care for and ride horses. The people at Square Peg rescue racehorses that would be slaughtered otherwise. Square Peg spends time retraining them as riding horses for children with special needs. I have gone to Square Peg Ranch since I was five. I used to only ride but now I am a student teacher and volunteer and I help other special needs kids. This is a place where we can be ourselves and have fun and be accepted. I wish there were more places like this in my world. If anyone is interested in learning more or volunteering or helping in any way about Square Peg, talk to me.

In closing, I hope that all of you remember that we are just kids who might need some patience, a little extra help and allowed to be a little different.

But, most of all what I am trying to say is you just need to love us anyway.

The Square Peg Holiday Post

Happy Holidays reader. This story is a gift. Given to you this crazy season.

I can’t think of anything more precious or more timely.


The Star Thrower

by Loren Eiseley

One day, a man was walking along the shore. As he looked down the beach, he saw a young person reaching down to the sand, picking up something and very gently throwing it back into the sea. As he got closer, he called out, “Good morning! What are you doing?”

The young person paused, looked up and replied, “Throwing starfish into the sea.”

“Why are you throwing starfish into the sea?” he asked.

“The sun is up and the tide is going out. If I don’t throw them in they’ll die.”

“But, don’t you realize that there are miles of beach here and starfish all along it. You can’t possibly make a difference!”

The young person listened politely. Then knelt down, picked up another starfish and threw it into the sea, past the breaking waves and said…

“Made a difference to this one.”

Have a Happy Holiday

with love from a rather soggy, but otherwise happy, Square Peg Crew