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For Bishop O'Connell senior Thomas Grattan, 2020 remains ‘best year ever’

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Thomas Grattan’s superpower is an enthusiastic positivity that inspires everyone around him.

Grattan, a senior at Bishop O'Connell High School in Arlington, receives expanded services for students with cognitive and intellectual disabilities. He is fully engaged in his classes, as well as with friendships, athletics and other activities. 

“When asked what his favorite parts of school are, he will usually list every class, and sincerely describe it as ‘the best class ever,’ " said Susan Rinaldi, O’Connell’s director of expanded services, who assisted with the interview for this article. He is known throughout the school for his positive attitude and friendliness to everyone, she said, and when asked how he’s doing, he will usually report that he’s having, "the best day ever!"

During his senior year, Grattan has received small group individualized instruction in reading, math, English and career exploration, as well as grade-level general education courses in theology, psychology and government.

His teachers say he is organized, responsible and serious about his schoolwork. A class note from one said the depth of Grattan’s questions have led to some of their liveliest discussions. In a lesson about wars, for example, the whole class became engaged in his question: "Why is there evil?" Notes from another teacher said Grattan “loves to learn and it clearly showed, as he studied materials on his own during the weekends — usually without it being assigned.” 

Rinaldi observed that Grattan “enters the classroom fully engaged, ready for class and often eager to share a connection to the course content. He raises the mood and energy level of every environment he enters.”

When asked about his favorite classes, Grattan described several: "Government. Anatomy, my junior year. I did labs (learning about) the brain” and made “my brain hat” — a paper helmet of the brain that identifies the different parts, such as the frontal lobe, and their functions. Rinaldi said he colored each section differently and wore it often.

Even when he is frustrated, teachers note that he will take a deep breath and keep at it. "I work hard in math,” he said. “Go slow, take your time." 

He is a strong athlete on the Special Olympics soccer and basketball teams, and also plays for the NOVA Cool Cats Special Ice Hockey team. He’s also been the most active member of the frisbee club for the past four years, practiced with the boys varsity lacrosse team for three years and spent two years helping manage the varsity football team. "I set up cones. I helped the coach," he said.

The lacrosse team “worked on offense, defense, shooting,” and he learned to “churn the butter. That’s the celebration,” he explained, when someone makes a goal. “That's making my day!"

Because he is so engaged and engaging, Grattan has made a huge number of friends and keeps in close contact with former peer mentors now in college. Rinaldi said some have even been inspired to pursue studies in special education. “I work with my mentors, my friends,” Grattan said. “Work together.”

He has two older sisters who attended the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, and is close with his mom and dad, who have been helping him with distance learning since the coronavirus pandemic sent students home to finish out the school year.  He expresses characteristic enthusiasm about his latest activities, including “cooking, making a list for shopping. I'm working out every day (online) with my coach. And guitar strumming — my dad's guitar.” 

While he misses having everyone together at school, he’s been staying connected to friends and mentors on FaceTime, and he understands that staying at home is important. “We have to stay healthy. Social distance," he said. Even for online classes, he proudly wears his school uniform. 

After graduation, he plans to take classes at the Arlington Career Center, Rinaldi said. 

Despite all the changes, the coronavirus won’t ruin Grattan’s enjoyment of senior year. 

“It’s the best year ever,” he said.  


© Arlington Catholic Herald 2020