Jason Harris doesn't see why graduation is such a big deal. The 21-year-old said he wasn't even planning to attend his graduation from River's Edge High School on Friday until he learned he was valedictorian.
"It's like someone throwing a party for you for something you're supposed to do," he said.
But Harris earned his diploma despite rarely entering a school for the past five years, much less leaving his family's Richland home. An oxygen mask constantly is on his face and his slender frame tires easily, symptoms of an unexplained illness that has plagued him for five years.
His was an education built out of improvised lesson plans, evolving technology and the internet. There was a lot of trial and error. While years ago Harris didn't think he'd be able to graduate from high school, he's now the first of his siblings to earn a high school diploma and is looking toward continuing his education.
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"He's had big plans since he was little," said Harris' mother, Monty Brewer. "It's just the health stuff that's gotten in the way."
Born weighing just more than 3 pounds, Harris has had health problems much of his life. However, it wasn't until he was preparing to enter the ninth grade and in his first few weeks at Hanford High School in 2005 that he started to go home early, complaining of being ill.
Local doctors couldn't identify a cause. The family eventually was sent to Children's Hospital in Seattle, where Harris was determined to have an incredibly low blood oxygen level.
"They went from having two to three doctors to having many of Children's (staff) on him trying to figure it out," said Gary Hinman, Harris' father.
Harris' condition has stabilized, but he still needs 8 liters of liquid oxygen a day. He can walk around on his own but only briefly and uses a wheelchair when outside of his home. Harris said doctors have suggested that his pulmonary veins, which carry oxygenated blood to his heart, aren't properly connected to his lungs, depriving his blood of oxygen, but that hasn't been confirmed.
In the midst of all this was Harris' high school education. He missed the bulk of his freshman year before he had to leave the school because of his condition.
He enrolled in River's Edge High School, the alternative high school in the Richland School District, and he was assigned a tutor, Rebecca Barrington. She said it was a unique situation to have a student not able to attend any school at all.
"It made it very difficult," she said. "We had to improvise a lot of different things."
Barrington had to use Harris' family's kitchen and whatever was in it for science subjects. For a biology lab on acids and bases, they used red cabbage as an indicator when testing lemon juice, milk or other liquids.
Harris used the video game Wii Sports on the Nintendo Wii gaming console to meet his physical education requirement by using it for an hour a day.
Slowly, Harris began to accrue his credits for graduation, but his unique educational needs were met through trial and error. Barrington originally was assigned to spend only two hours a week with him. That proved to be not near enough time and she now spends up to 15 hours a week working with him.
Harris used online courses extensively for core subjects and others such as art, which has him using an online art community, DeviantArt, to share his work and a digital tablet to draw directly to his computer. But his first online course program, Nova Net, wasn't entirely user-friendly.
"It was a black screen with green letters," Barrington said. "It was incredibly dry and difficult to keep your attention on."
Harris' tendency to tire easily and attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder also provided challenges but Barrington said they would work long into a day, taking only a few breaks.
"I'm sure at times he thought I was a slave driver," she said, laughing.
Harris said he wants to design video games or work in their development and he's been in contact with Digipen Institute of Technology in Redmond about studying there. He and his family have heard the school has intensive coursework, something that could be even more challenging for a student who rarely can visit a physical classroom.
But Harris isn't concerned. Right now, he's just trying to write a commencement speech.