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Standing tall: Woodlee's senior overcomes brain injury
CJ Heard - photo by Submitted Photo

When CJ Heard sustained a traumatic brain injury (TBI) in ninth grade, many may have thought it would be easy to throw in the towel and give up on school, athletics and any hopes of college.

But that's not what he did.

CJ Heard, a recent graduate of Woodlee's Christian Academy, hit his head during a fall at school in 2009, but he went home with nothing more than a bad headache. The next day, he was at home when he accidentally hit his head on an end table, blacked out and went to the hospital with a concussion.

A blood vessel had burst in CJ Heard's head.

He spent 18 months on home bound to begin his recovery before returning to Woodlee's. Back at school, CJ Heard began having trouble with homework and tests.

"If I had tests given orally, I think I would do better," CJ Heard said. "When it's on paper I get nervous."

CJ Heard has a tutor help him with homework and studying because he has a low retention for short-term memory, his mother, Greta Heard, said. Sometimes they would be up until 2 a.m. working on math problems other students finished easily.

CJ Heard has a 504 plan that allows his state-approved accommodations, such as optimal times for test taking, shorter assignments and taking tests orally instead of reading and writing answers on paper.

Transitioning to his 504 plan was not an easy task, both for CJ Heard and those involved in his schooling.

Greta Heard said she felt the school did not follow her son's accommodations. Some teachers did not give him shorter assignments or made him take tests on paper, just like the rest of the class. She said tensions and frustrations even got to the point where transferring was an option.

"One thing about our school and staff," said Woodlee's director Terri Knight, "we don't want to make excuses for people. You can use things as a crutch. And while we were meeting (the 504 plan), I'm sure there's probably a time here and there something was not met exactly. I don't recall. I can see where there could be a time or two where something wasn't followed to the Nth degree.

"Sometimes, we just want to push the student. Sometimes, we come across as not cooperating or being too hard when all we're doing was pushing them out of their comfort zone. It didn't come across sometimes properly to the parents. It's for their good. It's preparation for their future and moving to college."

Greta Heard kept her son at Woodlee's because his doctor advised he should not change curriculums due to his short-term memory loss. That big of a change would set him back too far.

"Had I known that he could handle it, I think I would have pulled him out," Greta Heard said. "He wanted to just throw in the towel, and it's frustrating. But on the same token, he was determined he wanted to do this, to maintain his grades. He could have rebelled easily. But he didn't."

CJ Heard maintained a 4.0 GPA before his injury. He graduated with a 3.5, the second-highest GPA of Woodlee's five graduating seniors.

But he did not receive the honor of being named salutatorian.

"Even with all that, he still succeeded," CJ Heard's mom said. "He was taking the same tests across the board (as everyone else). He knew all the answers. He just can't do it on paper."

Greta Heard said she thought this omission, among other obstacles to CJ Heard's education, were more sinister than a simple explanation.

Knight disagreed. She said Woodlee's only awards the title of valedictorian.

"It was a decision made by the board of directors," Knight said. "The valedictorians, typically, in bigger schools are over 4.0, and salutatorians are just behind that. And there are expectations that go with those titles.

"It's nothing personal against the students whatsoever. It's just we know what that title holds."

CJ Heard will attend Georgia Perimeter College in the fall to pursue a degree in film production.

"There are so many kids who have different challenges and learning disabilities," Greta Heard said. "They can overcome it if they have the right people in place, their parents supporting them. Don't give up on them. Encourage them. Stand by them. That's what it's going to take to overcome any challenge they're going to have in their life.

"As for the student, don't give up. Keep pressing. If you feel something is wrong, speak up. Don't settle for anything. You know your dreams. You know your hopes. That was his dream. To have valedictorian or salutatorian. And he earned that."