Troublesome role models: growing up with an underachieving older sibling

Cole Elson is a senior at ARHS, who grew up with an older brother who always struggled in school. “He had trouble with all of school. He really struggled with math, but he hated all of it,” said Elson.

School was tough for Lane, in part because the number of obstacles he had to overcome. “He has ADHD and dyslexia,” said Elson. Eventually, he attended Franklin County Technical School which was a better fit for Lane for many reasons.

Elson said his mom always knew Lane wasn’t a traditional student. “She was fine with his low grades because she knew he could build things, and knew he was a hands-on learner. So she let him do what he was good at,” he said.

By middle school, Lane was in an academic program that focused on getting him the resources he needed to succeed, but it wasn’t the right fit for Lane. After graduating middle school, Lane decided to attend FCTS.

FCTS has a two week system where one week is spent learning in the classroom and the other is spent in the shop, learning a trade. For Lane this meant he got to work on cars. “He liked the shop weeks, he was interested in fixing cars,” said Elson.

His learning paid off. “He knows how to fix any problem that we have with any of our cars,” said Elson. “It’s nice to never have to call anybody. It’s like having a mechanic on call.”  

However, while a tech school was what Lane needed, FCTS proved to be too challenging for him. FCTS was around an hour trip. “He had to get up so early to catch a van that would bring him to a bus, and he would get back from school after me, because of how long it took him to get back,” said Elson.

On top of that, Elson, who is black, found it difficult to thrive in a mostly white environment. “You could count the number of kids of color  in that school on one hand and still not be able to high five somebody,” Elson said.

One of the few teachers who wasn’t white was the dean, Earl McGraw, who was also a dean at ARHS many years ago. “Lane got in trouble a lot, and so he interacted with Dean McGraw. He came to really like him,” Elson said.

Combine those factors with his disabilities, and Lane Elson’s academic record wasn’t looking too good. However, it wasn’t the grades that did him in; his motivation dwindled first.

In November of his senior year, Elson skipped three straight weeks of school heading into winter break. Elson got in trouble because two of the three weeks were classroom weeks.

Upon his return after break the school informed Elson that he would have to repeat his academic senior year in order to graduate. “Once they told him he would have to redo it, there was no doubt that he would drop out,” Elson said.

Elson’s stress decreased after he dropped out. Before that, he had anger issues. “He slowly destroyed his car until it was totaled pretty much,” said Elson. “That was what he took his anger out on. Eventually all the windows were broken and there were dents everywhere so we just sold it to a junk yard.”

Elson believes that school was the cause of all his brother’s temper issues.  “He would break things in the house too, but that all stopped right around when he stopped going to school. But he also stopped waking up early, and started smoking marijuana all the time. He just did whatever he wanted,” said Elson.

Elson says how his mom treated his brother’s academics affected how he worked. “I think it made me feel like school was less important, not just because of how bad he did, but how he treated it and how my how my mom treated it,” he said.

Lane turns 20 in July, and he still plans on getting his GED. Now, Elson says his brother is pretty happy. “Now he helps my mom, and now he has a dog that he loves and takes care of,” he said.

Isabel (Izzy) Wardlaw is a senior at ARHS who is set to graduate in June; she is excited to go off to Pace University in Manhattan this fall.

Wardlaw said that one of the factors that pushed her to try harder in school was her older sister, Zoe. Zoe Wardlaw didn’t go to ARHS; she went to the Pioneer Valley Performing Arts charter school in South Hadley.

Zoe attended PVPA in part because of her artistic talents. “She’s an amazing artist,” said Wardlaw of her sister. However, Zoe also had many academic struggles that pushed her to find an alternative to traditional high school.

“I guess she just didn’t really care about school that much so she didn’t really try,” said Wardlaw.

Her parents attempted to help Zoe out, but as Wardlaw puts it, “It’s hard to keep trying to help someone who doesn’t care at all [about school].”

Zoe graduated from PVPA, but it wasn’t without difficulties. Her parents had to lie to the school, saying Zoe made up gym classes out of school in order for her to get the credits she needed to graduate.

After high school Zoe attended the New School, a part of the Parsons School of Design, but dropped out after a semester.

“She just kinda freaked out,” said Wardlaw. “I remember her calling my parents saying ‘It’s too hard, I can’t do it.’”

Wardlaw said that seeing her sister go down the path of academic breakdown encouraged her to apply herself.

“I think I had a lot of the same struggles as her; I just didn’t want to end up like her, so I tried harder,” she said.

Wardlaw believes that it was that outlook that helped her gain the grit that helped her succeed where her sister failed.

“If you don’t try when you’re young you’re not going to suddenly gain the motivation when you’re older,” Wardlaw said.

However Wardlaw doesn’t think that her sister’s academic struggles stem from a lack of intelligence or refusal to apply herself.

“I feel like someone’s grade depends on their mental state, and she was never really happy when she was in school,” Wardlaw said.

But that has all changed, after dropping out of college.

Zoe now lives with her fiance in Brooklyn, where she works at a health food company.

“For once in her life she’s actually happy,” Wardlaw said.