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    Sunday, June 16, 2024

    For NFA senior, one class made him want to become a special ed teacher

    Editor’s note: The Day publishes an annual series of stories spotlighting outstanding seniors graduating from the region’s 16 public and private high schools.

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    Connor Doyle, left, and his unified teammate, Jose Bermudez, bump fists after playing catch to warm up for a softball game Tuesday, May 7, 2024, during their unified gym class. (Dana Jensen/The Day)
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    Connor Doyle, left, and his Unified teammate, Jose Bermudez, discuss which bat Jose wants to use on his next at-bat during a softball game Tuesday, May 7, 2024, during their unified gym class. (Dana Jensen/The Day)
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    Norwich ― The biggest lesson Norwich Free Academy senior Connor Doyle learned in high school was an age-old cliché.

    Listen to your mother.

    At the end of his freshman year while picking classes for 10th grade, his mother, Michelle Picard, urged her son to take a Unified class, where general education students learn alongside their special education classmates.

    Doyle brushed her off and did not take the class.

    A year later while planning for his junior year, Doyle needed an art class. His mother, a teacher at Wildwood Christian School in Norwich, pushed again. NFA offered a Unified art class with photography. The family had a good camera, she said. This time, he relented and took the class.

    “My mom knows me very well,” Doyle, 17, said. “She was just, ‘Trust me. You gotta do it.’ The first day I had class, I came back and said: ‘Mom! I feel so bad. I should have done this my freshman year. I should have done this!’ ”

    Unified everything became Doyle’s world at NFA. A varsity baseball catcher, Doyle joined the school unified program, playing soccer and basketball in Eastern Connecticut Conference Unified games. He participates in other Unified activities, such as dance.

    Even when it’s not specifically a Unified activity, Doyle befriends special education students at NFA and gets them involved in class activities and with his circle of friends, his teachers and parents said.

    After graduation on June 13, Doyle will attend the University of St. Joseph in West Hartford this fall, where he will play baseball and participate in Unified sports and events. He plans to major in special education and dreams of returning to NFA as a special education teacher.

    “I think getting to make a difference in a kid’s life is the thing that drives me to keep on doing it,” Doyle said. “Because I know that they don’t get the opportunities that I do, to play a varsity sport or have a ton of friends or to even be able to do things independently on their own. I know a lot of them have to rely on others. I know I do as well. But at the same time, there’s things that I’m able to do that they aren’t.”

    Doyle said he loves it when people say special education students can’t do something. “And I get to go and say: ‘Watch this!’ And they do it right there.”

    And being able to help them experience some of his own favorite activities is gratifying, he said.

    Connor’s father, David Doyle, a physical therapist, said his son is drawn to children of all ages and abilities with an empathy beyond the norm for teenagers. He noticed that if Connor was walking at the NFA campus with his baseball team buddies, he would invite special education students to join their group.

    His father once pointed out to Connor that his genuine compassion toward students with disabilities is unusual, and the boy retorted, “Dad, they’re just normal kids, like everyone else,” his father recalled.

    NFA Unified coach and special education teacher Christopher Staley agreed with the elder Doyle.

    “He’s one of the greatest kids we’ve ever had participate (in Unified programs),” Staley said. “He’s been a partner, a general education model for students on our team. He takes a leadership position, leading drills in practice. He makes connections with students who may be more reluctant to participate.”

    c.bessette@theday.com

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