GREENFIELD — Chris Wu has titled each of his four years at Greenfield-Central High School.
There’s freshman year, which he calls the bad year. Sophomore year is recovery, and junior year is exploration. Senior year is what he’d been working toward the whole time — the normal year.
Wu, who graduated this past weekend alongside Greenfield-Central’s Class of 2017, suffers from Tourette Syndrome, a neurological disorder characterized by uncontrollable repetitive movements or vocalizations, called tics. Wu’s case is made worse by severe obsessive compulsive disorder.
Tourette Syndrome affects about 300,000 children in the United States. As a result of his diagnosis, Wu missed much of his freshman year.
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When he was at school, he struggled to keep up with the work as he tried to find the right medication and therapy to control his tics. They were sometimes so severe he couldn’t eat or sleep, let alone focus on his classes.
But Wu didn’t let the disorder hold him back. He worked hard to keep up. Last Saturday, it all paid off when he completed high school on time, turning his tassel to signify the end of one chapter and the start of a new adventure.
Wu remembers when he first noticed the tics: he was a piano student in first grade.
Then, they were manageable, he said. It wasn’t until junior high that they intensified. His eyes would roll to the back of his head, his tongue would stick out and his body would tense up.
By freshman year, he was having trouble concentrating at school. At times, the tics were so severe, it was debilitating, he said. And because of the OCD, he obsessed over them. They could last minutes, or even longer, making it difficult to do much of anything.
“Very often, I’d be unable to walk,” he said. “I’d be too busy doing tics to even stand. I just lied on the floor.”
The tics made it difficult for him to think straight and express his thoughts coherently, he said. His brain would just freeze. Anxiety would set in, which made the tics even worse.
His school counselors and teachers were understanding of his condition and did whatever they could to help him succeed. But by second semester of his freshman year, he left school and was taking online classes from home.
Even that was hard, he said.
The tics made it difficult for him to sleep; some days, he was up for more than 24 hours straight, he said. He lost his appetite from the medications he was taking.
His schoolwork suffered and his grades dropped.
But he made it through freshman year, and he set a goal for the next school year: he wanted to go to school every day.
He missed some school as a sophomore because of the tics, but he was in class much more often than his freshman year, he said. He was on the high school tennis team and continued to play piano.
Wu kept up with his schoolwork and completed the courses he needed to move on to junior year, which he’s dubbed the year of recovery because he believes that’s when he began to control the disorder and he began to feel normal.
His teachers and counselors noticed a difference, too. Wu was much more confident in his abilities as an upperclassman, said guidance counselor Kim Kile — a far cry from the times as a freshman when he’d struggled to even sit in a chair, she said.
“Once they found that balance, he just blossomed,” she said. “He’s certainly not the same student he was then. You would have never guessed this was his path.”
His teachers and friends continued to support him. When he’d experience his tics at school, his friends acted like nothing was wrong, he said.
By junior year, he was ready to explore, to challenge himself in new ways.
He played varsity tennis. Spent a lot of time hanging out with friends and signed up for four advanced placement courses.
It was his most challenging school year yet, he said.
“I was finally able to do all the things I wanted to do,” he said.
Wu took physics with teacher Jeremy Buchanan, who said Wu was a hardworking and strong student. He collaborated well with others and was fun to have in class.
But Buchanan could tell Wu put in extra work to be successful.
Senior year, Wu continued to play tennis, joined the high school’s moon rover team and applied to colleges near and far. In the fall, he’ll head to Cleveland, Ohio, to attend Case Western Reserve University, where he’ll study mechanical engineering and computer science.
As he reflects on the last four years — the challenging times and the good ones — he feels excited for what’s next. He’s also little sentimental, he admits.
He missed out on so much freshman year, he said. Tourette Syndrome cost him the opportunity to participate in things like Greenfield’s Project Lead the Way, a pre-engineering program at the high school, in which students participate for all four years.
But he suspects everyone feels a little sad thinking about opportunities they might have missed.
Tourette Syndrome taught Wu valuable lessons, too, such as how to manage stress, to be grateful for what he has and to remain optimistic, he said.
The successes he’s earned are a little more meaningful given the path he endured, he said.
“I’m really glad to have experienced it,” he said.