Eaton fifth-graders mark graduation with a special send-off

In this end-of-school season where one graduation ceremony blurs into the next, 11-year-old Caleb Davy made one sweeter than all the rest.

At John Eaton Elementary School in Northwest Washington, the fifth-grade class held its commencement ceremony on Wednesday in the school gym, and while all 42 graduates were special, one was just a bit more special, not only because of the rivers Caleb had to personally cross to get there but because of the way the school community, year after year, helped ease the difficulties.

Electing Caleb, who has cerebral palsy and uses a walker to get around, as class president was one way he was lifted up by his community. Selecting him as a lead player in the student musical was another. But the most important way, he said, was this: Treating him like a regular kid, as he noted in a speech he gave at graduation in the school gym:

“I have a disorder called cerebral palsy. Thankfully, it didn’t affect my speech, but it did affect my legs. But you guys took me in. That’s what I’ll miss about this school, that no matter the disorder the kid has, you treat them like they’re your family. Because of you, I have a dream that next year I will become independent. Because of you I have the ability to step out of my comfort zone.”

What Caleb didn’t mention in his speech is that he undergoes dialysis every night for nine hours because the kidney his mother donated to him when he was very young no longer functions. His family is searching for a kidney donor.

Caleb came to Eaton when he was in first grade, after his parents, Fred and Monica Davy, were persuaded by then-Principal Jacqueline Gartrell that the school community was special and would make whatever accommodations were necessary to help their son thrive. It did. When, for example, a lift was needed to help Caleb get from the second to the third floor of the school, D.C. Public Schools made sure one was installed. Caleb is accommodated on field trips and in many other ways, too, he and his parents said.

Caleb initially was hesitant to extend himself, but over time stepped out and set new goals to reach. He ran for a class office for several years but lost, until, in fifth grade, he tried one last time, this time for president. His fellow students elected him for the job, which came with the responsibility of leading bake sales and other events including a school Olympics. Caleb found a way to participate in nearly all of the physical activities, including the three-legged race, for which an extra “leg” was attached to his walker. He also was chosen to sing the part of the Candy Man in the student musical production of “Willy Wonka” this year.

“He’s just very nice,” said Nicholas Carline, 11, a friend of Caleb’s who also graduated from fifth grade on Wednesday. “Everybody loves him.”

The kids, said Eaton Principal Dale Mann, don’t see Caleb as disabled. “Adults do, but the kids don’t see him as being different.”

Caleb’s presence, Mann said, has enriched the school, extending the notion of diversity in a student population that makes Eaton one of the most racially and ethnically diverse schools in the city.

Gartrell, now an instructional superintendent for D.C. schools, attended the ceremony, too, telling the crowd that she works with principals at other schools “to create the climate you have created here at Eaton.” The tacit pride that the school community holds for Caleb and his accomplishments could be heard in the crowd’s applause, which was loud and genuine for every fifth-grader who crossed the stage to pick up a diploma but just a bit louder and more sustained for Caleb.

Caleb introduced his father, an administrator at a D.C. charter school who was one of the adult speakers at the ceremony and who introduced himself to the crowd of a few hundred people this way: “Hi. My name is Caleb’s dad.”

In the fall, Caleb will attend Deal Middle School. Later, after he’s done with school, Caleb plans to be a comic book designer with the aim, he said, of creating more black superheroes for kids to look up to.

Valerie Strauss covers education and runs The Answer Sheet blog.
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