This month, we are celebrating three seniors who have moved mountains to graduate from high school. Here is our third and final spotlight.
Family: Mother, Lorraine; three older siblings, one brother and two sisters.
Recent accomplishment: Graduating from Crescent Valley High School.
Volunteer work: He has volunteered since his freshman year at Heartland Humane Society and now mostly works at the society’s thrift shop in downtown Corvallis.
Pets: A guinea pig named Montague – yes, one of the warring families in “Romeo and Juliet.”
By MIKE McINALLY
At some point in his four years at Crescent Valley High School, Ryan Steward decided that it was time to do something about the social anxiety that for years had made him reluctant to speak up in classrooms or even to ask for help when he needed it.
It took courage to make that decision, to take those steps.
But he didn’t have to go it alone. He had help, he said, “from teachers and everyone here at CV who wouldn’t leave me alone, even if I wanted to be. I’m not saying that in a bad way, but there’s always someone – if I needed someone – there’s always someone to talk to or ask for help.”
Now, this week, Steward is graduating from Crescent Valley. He’s landed a part-time job as a freight stocker at Winco – he enjoys the physical labor, working with his hands, and it’s a lot better than working at a fast-food joint, he thinks. He’s looking forward to taking classes at Linn-Benton Community College, and possibly studying welding and manufacturing.
“It’s definitely a big sense of accomplishment,” Steward said in a recent interview at Crescent Valley High School. “I mean, even just sitting here right now, it doesn’t feel like I’m going to graduate soon.” (At the time of the interview, he had a little bit of work remaining in science – among his favorite subjects – to finish up his credits in that class.)
The Crescent Valley graduate has definitely come a long way from the boy at Wilson Elementary School in Corvallis who would withdraw at the first sign of difficulty.
“I was always super-quiet and like, really if anything didn’t go exactly the way that I thought it should, I would just shut down and just ignore everyone. … I was more quiet and didn’t talk to people ever.”
Well, not all the people at the school: “I always knew everyone in the office; whether that was a good thing or not, I don’t know,” he added with the sly sense of humor that sometimes sneaks into a conversation with him.
But the trips to the office weren’t necessarily because he was in trouble: “I would just get overwhelmed super-easily, just the social anxiety of not wanting to talk to people.”
In high school counselors and teachers were starting to notice the shy student – and Steward himself was coming to realize that help was available, if he could only bring himself to ask.
An incident his freshman year with his adviser, science teacher Dan Bregar, brought this into focus, Steward said.
Bregar kept emphasizing to his young charges why it was important to keep tabs on what Steward at the time thought were “random graduation requirements.”
“No one wanted to do them,” Steward said – and, eventually, “I said something to my teacher and was kind of rude to him.” Steward doesn’t recall exactly what he said, but “I just remember I said something and he obviously was upset.”
The incident ate at Steward afterward, until “I just figured I had to go apologize.”
Bregar was generous in that conversation, Steward recalled. “He wasn’t mad or anything or even disappointed. … He said he understood why I said what I said.”
And Bregar then repeated something he often had told all his students, that he was there for all of them. But in a one-to-one conversation, it made an impact on Steward that it hadn’t during class times.
Meanwhile, other staff members were shoring up Steward’s skill set, working on important items such as the best way to take notes and what’s important to pay attention to in class. And his counselor, Annika Bay, offered key encouragement along the way.
During his junior and senior years, the COVID pandemic and the resulting pivot to online classes offered yet another tough adjustment.
Steward found that some of his old school habits were creeping back in as the pandemic stretched on. “The longer it went … my attendance definitely got worse because I got tired of sitting in my room every day staring at the computer. I’m like, ‘Oh well, it’s just online classes, I can just do the work later,’ and then ‘later’ became later and later.”
Still, Steward wasn’t completely overjoyed when schools opened up again earlier this year. “I have to wake up early now,” he said. “I’ve got to get ready. You can’t just wake up, roll over, flip open the laptop and go to school.”
As he gets ready for graduation, Steward gives credit to the faculty and staff at Crescent Valley for helping to hold his social anxiety at bay.
“It was a lot of teachers pushing me to, ‘Oh, go ask for help. All you have to do is go talk to that one teacher today.’ And at first I was definitely, ‘Nope, not going to do it, don’t want to talk to people.’ ”
But faced with the prospect of having teachers “breathing down my neck all the time” and driven by a desire to get his work done, Steward made another choice.
“I did have the choice to do nothing,” he said. “I decided to do something instead.”