Eva Melendez, Joey Melendez, Andee Aceves
When Joey Melendez says something is fine, it usually means something is spectacular. And for him, third grade in 2007 was a pretty fine year. His mother calls it a turning point.
Before that, things were far from fine.
“I can’t do it. I have a disability. I’m different, you know,” he’d tell teachers.
He used Asperger’s as an excuse to avoid difficult assignments and social interaction. Until third grade, it had worked well for the fully included special-needs student at San Altos Elementary School in Lemon Grove.
But Andee Aceves refused to let him use his disability as a reason to fail. Not on her watch. She urged him to work harder. She encouraged him to speak out in class. She refused to give up on him.
Like many students with Asperger’s, Joey had extensive knowledge about subjects he found interesting. So Aceves asked him to share his expertise with classmates about the San Diego and Imperial Valley Railroad. They were amazed the quiet student was suddenly a fountain of information.
Although highly intelligent, Joey’s grades were below average. As he continued to work with his teacher, his grades shot up. He became “proficient” in state testing. He won an academic medal at his school. He made friends. He even had a role in the school play.
“I told him he was part of the class and that he was going to participate,” says Aceves, a member of the Lemon Grove Teachers Association and 2008 Teacher of the Year. “At first he was very reluctant. But he got better.”
His mother knew things were better when her son said she could bring cupcakes on his birthday.
“It was such a gift,” Eva Melendez says, eyes watering. “Before that, he felt uncomfortable in the limelight. It was so meaningful to see him suddenly flourishing — especially socially.”
Now a freshman at Grossmont High School, Joey earns top grades and plans on attending San Diego State University so he can study meteorology and work in the National Weather Service. His mother believes his third-grade teacher deserves much of the credit for where Joey is today.
“For some people, ‘inclusion’ is just a word, but she made it real. She took time to understand a student that was different; she helped my son rise to the challenge.”
“It was fine being in Mrs. Aceves’ class,” Joey agrees. “It was just fine.”