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– Editor’s note: In the next three issues, The Lancaster News will profile students who have overcome the odds to earn a high school diploma in 2013.
How many teenagers do you know, if stuck at home for long, wouldn’t have to be reminded, cajoled, urged, pressured or out-and-out threatened to keep up with their classwork?
Let’s be honest. There aren’t many.
There is at least one outstanding local exception, though, and her name is Taylor Ashley.
Not only has the homebound Indian Land High School senior had the self-motivation and persistence to complete more than three semesters worth of classwork virtually on her own, she’s fought through a young lifetime’s worth of pain and suffering to do it.
That’s why 18-year-old Taylor is this year’s ILHS Grad Who Inspires.
ILHS Principal David Shamble called Taylor “one of a kind” and said her eagerness to learn was evident from her freshman year.
“At that age, most of them are going to school only because state law and their parents say they have to,” Shamble said. “She’s one of those rare individual students who came in and took ownership of her education, who said ‘This is for me and I’m benefitting myself.’And she’s doing that, even with the obstacles she has.”
At home with her mom Amanda, dad Brian and younger sister, Lexie, Taylor tells about the morning in January 2010, when she discovered a new pain that would eventually leave her unable to go to school.
“I remember it was a Monday,” Taylor said. “I thought I had done something to my back over the weekend. It was really painful. I thought I’d pulled a muscle.”
For a time, Taylor said, the pain would come sporadically, once every few weeks, before working itself out enough in a few days that she could go back to school.
Taylor’s mom said they took her to three doctors, physical therapy and chiropractic evaluations, all to no avail. Before long, Taylor’s doctors proposed what Amanda Ashley calls a “dumpster diagnosis” – and suggested Prozac.
“They said I was depressed all that time, and that’s what was causing the back pain,” Taylor said.
“Her being depressed? That was a laugh,” Brian Ashley said. “I said, ‘Did they talk to you at all?’”
It’s true. Talking to her, Taylor most definitely does not seem like someone who’s depressed. She’s clear-eyed, witty and quick to make a joke. Her eyes smile when she laughs.
Her dad, who won his own battle with colon cancer last year, said Taylor’s laughter in the face of trials is a longtime family habit that has served them well.
“There’s no doubt abut it,” Brian Ashley said. “When it gets to the bottom line, we start laughing.”
Taylor’s mom said her daughter was “pretty sickly” as a child. She said over the years, Taylor had to cope with chronic sinus and throat problems, an autoimmune disorder that causes painful skin issues and the side effects of medicines to treat the side effects of medicines.
But it was the back pain about halfway through the first semester of Taylor’s junior year that finally sent her home for good.
Doctors at the Levine Children’s Hospital emergency room suggested Taylor go to see a rheumatologist, who finally diagnosed her with “ankylosing spondylitis.”
“I’ve got arthritis in my lower back,” Taylor said, translating. “And also degenerative disc disease.”
Amanda Ashley said doctors believe her daughter’s back problems, which would seem to be the illnesses of a much older person, are a compounding of problems associated with Taylor’s autoimmune disorder.
The biggest problem with Taylor’s AS, her mom said, is that she can’t do things for an extended period of time that most people take for granted. Things like sitting, standing, walking, playing, a good night’s sleep – all cause Taylor tremendous pain.
“She takes five meds in the morning and four at night,” Amanda Ashley said. “I’ve watched her literally cry before just from holding the pencil while she’s doing her work.
“She’s got a two- or three-hour block of time, where she can think clear enough to do her classwork,” her mom said.
Here’s where Taylor’s story gets really impressive.
While Taylor’s homebound teacher, Paula Adams, came by three or four times a week, for the past two years, she’s mostly only helped Taylor with calculus and other advanced maths.
Otherwise, Taylor has completed her other three classes each semester largely by herself, conquering such classes as English III, Spanish, entrepreneurship, chemistry and physics, with study guides from her teachers and her own determination and foresight.
Adams said those qualities set Taylor apart from many students.
Not only was Taylor good at digging into her studies herself, Adams said, she could have “sat back and taken the easy courses to graduate,” but didn’t because she wanted to take classes that would prepare her for college.
Adams said Taylor is an inspiration because even though she sometimes has a hard time getting out of bed in the morning, she does what she wants to do.
And what she wants to do is succeed.
“She is amazing because she has so many things that could hold her back, and so many excuses she could use, but she’s been absolutely determined in her classes,” Adams said.
“She was just fantastic. I have grown to love her a lot and I’m truly going to miss her,” she said. “A lot more people need to have the drive that Taylor does.”
Taylor said she couldn’t have made it without the encouragement of great teachers such as Adams.
Taylor also credits her family with helping her make it this far. She calls them her best friends.
There were times, she said, when she’d get down and out about her situation and procrastinate in her classwork but she continued working hard because she simply wants a future.
“I keep trying to remember that maybe one day I won’t have to deal with all this and I’ll be healthy,” Taylor said. “And I knew that if I don’t lay a foundation now, I won’t have a future.”
Taylor said she wants to become a pastry chef and open a bakery. She’s already been accepted to the culinary arts program at Johnson and Wales University in Charlotte and will start online courses this fall.
Her mom, dad and Lexie said they’re proud of Taylor and they’re convinced she’ll succeed.
“Personally, I look at this as a blessing, because we have grown very close through it,” Brian Ashley said. “None of this is a crutch for her. If she wants to do it, she’ll do it.”
“She’s bull-headed and stubborn, but she’s absolutely head-on with what she wants, and she’s got the drive and determination to do anything,” Amanda Ashley said. “She has exceeded all expectations for a child in general.”
“Thanks for setting the standards so high,” Lexie says, rolling her eyes, and the Ashley family cracks up.
Contact reporter Reece Murphy at (803) 283-1151