Norwich Free Academy senior turns disability into 'superpower' to face challenges

Norwich Free Academy senior Scott Christian Celey poses for a photo in the school atrium Thursday, May 31, 2018. (Sean D. Elliot/The Day)
Norwich Free Academy senior Scott Christian Celey poses for a photo in the school atrium Thursday, May 31, 2018. (Sean D. Elliot/The Day)

Norwich — Put all the well-worn advice from graduation speeches together, and Norwich Free Academy Class of 2018 graduate Scott Christian Celey can check off the list as "done that."

Challenge yourself. Face your fears. Try things outside of your comfort zone. And sing.

Celey has faced more fear and challenges than most of his 500 fellow graduates. When Celey arrived at NFA, he was too afraid to even talk to his classmates and couldn’t look his teachers in the eyes.

“Words terrified me,” Celey wrote in the opening of his college application essay earlier this year. “They filled me with intense, palpable dread, as if my lungs were collapsing. They made my heart beat so hard it shook my body.”

Celey, 18, the eldest son of Scott and Renee Celey of Lisbon, goes by Christian because his dad is Scott. His brother, Cameron, 13, attends St. Bernard Middle School.

At age 5, Celey was diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome. It gave him social interaction anxiety far more intense than what other freshmen feel entering the college-like NFA campus. Anxiety that can paralyze him when taking tests and turn the cafeteria into a war zone.

His college essay brought tears to his parent's eyes, his mother said, because Christian hadn't disclosed his Asperger’s to very many people.

But his Asperger’s also powers him with a super focused, analytical mind that, coupled with his own determination, gave him a plan of attack to turn his obstacles into challenges, as he described it.

Celey is scared to talk to people, so he decided to talk to more people. Writing is difficult, so he tries to write more. Stage fright? He tried out for class plays and landed leading roles in “Into the Woods” as a junior and “Little Shop of Horrors” this year. He joined choir as a freshman and was one of only two sophomores to make it onto the NFA elite Ambassadors Choir.

"I used to have stage fright," he said. "I've been on stage so many times, I got over it."

Celey said one fall day his sophomore year, he found his voice. Singing in a usually weak bass section in rehearsal, Celey wrote in his college essay, he “let out the loudest note I’d ever sung, a joyous and reverent ‘Hallelujah!’” The experience stunned and inspired him. He decided to use that voice to talk as much as possible to as many people as would hear him.

Celey enrolled in honors and Advanced Placement classes. This year, he has AP calculus, AP English, AP physics and honors astronomy, all with college credit, and acting and choir.

Celey will attend UConn in Storrs in the fall with a double major in physics and music. He'll arrive with a Huskies hat he already carries with him every day and 37 college credits. Physics, he said, will be his career, and music his “lifelong hobby.” He has played piano since age 7 and can practice for hours at a time — the fierce attention that's part of his Asperger’s Syndrome.

“Sometimes, I call it my superpower,” Celey said. “It helps me get into classes.”

Since he played piano, Celey decided to try choir in ninth grade. He joined concert and chamber choirs and added Ambassadors a year later.

Celey’s teachers said his growth since freshman year has been phenomenal. Celey barely said a word his first year. Choir teacher Tonya Laymon said he could sing “great” but never interacted with the group and wouldn’t even look at her. When Celey made Ambassadors, he started to open up with the small group.

Laymon said Celey has made “the biggest, most drastic change of anybody I’ve seen in my 18 years of teaching.” Celey has become a mentor to Laymon’s 12-year-old daughter, who has attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and also is a musician.

“He talks to her, tells her it’s OK,” Laymon said. “She’s seen it, because she’s at every concert. He’s a walking role model for everyone, including myself. As adults, we’re afraid of things. He’s not afraid to go after things.”

NFA girls’ swim coach Cory Tubbs is a close friend of Celey’s mother, so that helped him approach her freshman year. Tall and thin, Celey is not an athlete but he offered to be team manager. He filled water bottles, ran errands, scored meets and then he got an idea.

"I did data analysis for the swim team,” he said. “I was the team manager since freshman year, and it counts as a sport.”

Celey created a computer program to track stats — swimmers' times, percentages, improvements and comparisons. He tracked them on five databases and could break it down any which way.

“He’s been fabulous for me, absolutely fabulous,” Tubbs said. “I don’t know what I’m going to do next year without him.”

Celey credited his special education teachers, school psychologists and guidance counselors for helping him overcome challenges. He has a 504 education plan that allows him time-and-a-half to take exams — “it helps me not freak out as much,” he said. UConn professors will have to follow the plan, as well.

“He’s going to be an extremely successful kid,” said Robert Briones, his guidance counselor since 10th grade. Briones credited Celey’s strong, supportive family.

Celey had many high school choices, but his parents encouraged him to attend NFA. Renee Celey, a music teacher at West Side Middle School in Groton, said NFA’s size, diversity and support system would best prepare her son for college.

“My husband and I both really feel he’ll end up going to grad school and probably a doctoral program,” she said. “He loves to learn, so I see him with multiple degrees. I see him in the research field.”

c.bessette@theday.com

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