High School Dropout With Learning and Attention Issues Becomes Youth Advocate

When I was in middle school, I would be taken out of class for resource. It wasn’t really explained to me, like, “You have a learning disability.” Or, “You have an IEP, this is why we’re taking you out of the class.”

When the teacher would ask me, um, “Lena, read this,” or if I’d seen a word on the paper that I didn’t know, I would make some type of big joke, or just probably end up being a little rude to the teacher. I got suspended a lot, and I couldn’t really express that, you know, I don’t understand. I’m acting this way so I can take the pressure off of myself. It was real tough, but I felt like I did a good job covering it up. Because no one ever knew that I was really hurting. My mom, you know, she didn’t graduate from high school.

But my dad, he graduated from high school. And they work a lot. And then it didn’t help, to my parents at all. Because they wasn’t educated on what I was struggling with, and what I was being taken out of the class for. To me, I just felt like, I was in it alone.

I dropped out at 15, tenth grade. Once I got my sophomore schedule, I realized I had no arts on my schedule. And when I went to the school and I asked, they was like, “Oh, you know, you are far behind. You need to catch up in academics.”

And I was real frustrated. Just to do straight academics, for me it was just, I felt like that was going to be overwhelming. So I made the decision that I didn’t want to go back to school. So I was working many jobs when I met a reverend who needed someone to take his kids to school. I used to have to be at his house at 6:30 every morning. Five months in is when Reverend Hardaway sat me down, and he was like, “You know, Lena McKnight, I wanna ask you a question.

Are you happy with who you are?” Like, “Are you happy at the age, about to be 21, taking my kids to school?” “Every morning, just for forty bucks and a weekly metro?” “You’re a bright young lady, you should not settle for this.” “You need you GED, you’re getting older.” “I have a good friend named Sharlene Lawrence at this program called YouthBuild.”

When Lena first came in, Lena was actually one of the oldest students. A big part of what YouthBuild does is work with disadvantaged youth. We’re an alternative school program for them. Lena was a little sad, a little angry, a little, you know, low self-esteem.

I love my mentors at YouthBuild because they told me, “No, you’re not a mess-up.” Sometimes you have to get things wrong to get it right. One of the best things was, they proved to me that they wanted me here. They didn’t give up on me, which made me not want to give up on myself.

I took my GED three times. On the third time I passed it. It was really the happiest day of my life. That was that point what made me feel like, you know what, I’m not stupid, and I’m not incapable of learning. So once I passed my GED, I was, “I’m going to college.” Being one of the first persons to graduate, out of my immediate family, from college, it says a lot about breaking the cycle.

And saying that, when you’re faced with challenges, you can overcome it. Lena wanted to go to college to do social work, so that she can help students such as herself. I was going to college full time in the morning. And in the evening, I was working part time with the Harlem Children’s Zone as a tenth-grade student advocate.

I specifically wanted to work with tenth grade, because that was the grade that I dropped out in. I was working with kids with learning disabilities, and they had IEPs. And I remember hearing that word, “IEP,” but never knew what it was until I started working there. I would tell kids, like, “Listen, take advantage of it.”

I made sure that I educated them on what it is, and why are they doing that. Nothing to be ashamed of. Having an IEP can help you succeed.

So I would tell them, like, “Listen, if you have to get extra time on a help, think of it this way: while someone has to rush, I get to relax, and really take my time and understand what I’m reading.” When Lena got her associate’s degree, there was a thousand people there. It was myself and Ms. Felicia Garvin, who is one of Lena’s other great mentors. We were both crying as we saw her name in the big book of graduates, Lena McKnight.

Sometimes I still have to pinch myself. Like, “Lena, are you really about to graduate in May? With a bachelor’s degree?” She keeps doing it. She’s at a point where she’s very focused.

She’s not letting those self-doubts, of when she was younger, stop her from moving forward.