Seven years ago, when I first wrote about Paula Lazor’s teenage son, John, his future was uncertain. The headline read: “Bright, But Falls Asleep in Class.”
Educators at public and private schools had helped John for years with his learning disabilities. But homework was still torture, and he had trouble following what teachers said. The nodding off in class had begun in eighth grade.
John became interested in welding after watching the Jesse James reality show “Monster Garage.” The Arlington County school system’s career center had an automobile repair course that seemed perfect. Then he bumped into one of those inexplicable rules that special-education families know too well: Students with learning disabilities, he was told, were not eligible for the course.
Out of frustration, John dropped out of Washington and Lee High School, which he discovered made him eligible for the Career Center course since he was no longer a full-time student. He did well in the vocational courses and enrolled at the Universal Technical Institute in Exton, Pa., to learn auto mechanics. At 18, he still had no high school diploma and was no closer to going to college. His life had been full of improvements followed by setbacks. Would this be one more?
Apparently not. I have told many stories of special-education students stumped and sidelined, struggling to find their way. This is different. At age 26, John is a certified master auto technician, specializing in European cars and living in Boulder, Colo. He is enrolled at Front Range Community College. He does not sleep in class. His disabilities are no longer an obstacle.
“We couldn’t be prouder of him,” his mother said. There are many stories like John’s.
Over the past few decades, public and private educators have created all kinds of pathways to financial and personal security that do not involve college. His own good sense and appetite for hard work proved enough for John to get where he wanted to go once he found the right opportunities. We should be building even more non-college options for such students. Sometimes, they even lead to college.
The 51-week program at UTI, which has outlets throughout the country, was not hard for John to get into, but it was not cheap. It cost the equivalent of a year in a private college, about $20,000. Neat personal appearance and regular attendance were essential. His next step, to the Volkswagen Academy in Exton, was more difficult. Admission was competitive. An old speeding ticket hurt his chances. But he kept going back, making his case. They took him. They also emphasized tucking in his shirt and arriving on time. He completed the 15-week program successfully.
John got a job right away at a dealership in Tysons Corner, then switched to a Springfield shop specializing in European cars. He moved to Colorado because of his passion for mountain climbing, and he found a job there easily.
“I really didn’t like school,” John said of his time as a student in Arlington. Learning to fix cars, and then fixing cars for a living, was much better for him. He liked working with his hands. The object of his labor made sense. Arlington school officials realized their mistake and quickly opened their auto repair course to special-education students.
John has found, as have many restless young Americans, that college becomes more attractive as time passes. “I can’t be a mechanic forever,” he told me. His bosses in Colorado endorsed the college enrollment. It makes him eligible for supervisory slots.
He has his own ideas, perhaps finding work in the sciences, creating something new. He is not defined anymore by his teenage failures. Neither the trade schools, nor his employers, have ever asked to see his high school report card.
For previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/class-struggle.