When I first started working with Kevin Sargeant, he was a freshman in high school, and I was his science teacher. I knew even then that he was an incredibly bright young man, who possessed immeasurable potential and a wealth of information that lay stored away, almost dormant.
But, as is so common in students on the autism spectrum, he struggled to apply his knowledge in the real world.
Diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome in elementary school, Kevin scored well on tests. However a huge part of high school learning takes place not at a student’s individual desk, but in groups that require participation and engagement. For kids like Kevin, that presents a significant challenge.
And so, for a long time, we struggled to convince Kevin to come out of his shell and join the class. He preferred solo activities and hated classroom tasks that required cooperation with others, like lab assignments. He struggled with public speaking even in small groups, didn’t want to try new things, and he couldn’t pick up on the simple social cues that many of us take for granted. You could tell that there was tremendous potential there—I never doubted his academic abilities. But there were times that many of us at the school worried about whether he’d ever be able to fully make use of that ability to build a future for himself.
That was Kevin then.
Over time, however, something changed. Slowly, he became a young man who wanted to try new things and wanted to work with people. He developed a sense of humor, and he started to participate in class and let people get to know him. And he thrived in the high school’s work-based learning program, where he learned about careers in information technology—an area where Kevin has always shined. In fact, in some ways, I think it was his experience with computers that brought him out of himself and helped him join the world: Finding something he was good at, something he might even be able to develop into a future, gave him the confidence he’d so badly needed.
It’s been done to death, the caterpillar to butterfly analogy. But when it comes to Kevin Sargeant, I can’t think of a better description. For me, one of the defining moments came during his senior year, when one of his classmates arrived and had clearly been having a rough day.
Now, as a 9th grade student, Kevin wouldn’t have even paid her much attention, let alone notice that she was sad. But Kevin the senior not only noticed, but he sat by her side and tried to comfort her. And he did a good job. She opened up and talked to him and shared her feelings and told him her story, and he listened and actually succeeded in helping her to feel better.
I’m not sure how often anyone at our school sees a student demonstrate that level of social awareness and ability.
While some might be quick to credit the school, those of us who worked with Kevin know that for every hour we put into his education, he and his mother put in even more time. Kevin has always been acutely aware of the challenges he faces from having Asperger’s, and he’s worked hard to conquer them. Because of that, much of his success is a direct result of his willingness to work hard and do what was necessary.
Of course, it’s validating to any teacher when they see a student do well. But with Kevin, it’s something more. Students like Kevin—who plans to attend college and is interested in helping other individuals like himself—remind us that what we do matters and makes a difference. And as a teacher, we couldn’t ask for more.
Joe Ryland teaches science at Kennedy Krieger High School.