Florene Hanley-Fulks couldn’t stay in her seat Thursday.
As her son neared the stage at Spring Valley High School’s graduation, she giggled and bounced in her chair, then stood up and walked down toward the end of the stage.
She stood there watching, eyes watering and hands clasped near her face, as Elvan Hanley’s name was called.
The autistic teenager’s long path to graduation ended Thursday, when he received a diploma, walked off the ramp, broke ranks with his classmates and wrapped his mother in a long hug.
“Congratulations,” she told him as cameras flashed around them. “I’m proud of you.”
Hanley-Fulks said her son Elvan’s graduation is made even more special because he earned a regular high-school diploma by completing all required coursework, not a certificate of completion, which students who attend school but do not complete coursework receive.
A diploma is Elvan’s ticket to a better opportunity for education and jobs, his mother said, adding there was a point in time when it was unclear whether Elvan ever would earn one.
When Elvan was a third-grader, the Richland 2 school district diagnosed him as having an intellectual disability and placed him in a self-contained classroom that moved at a slower pace than a regular classroom, Hanley-Fulks said.
Not ready to accept that fate as final, Hanley-Fulks attended classes with her son.
Then, Hanley-Fulks sought doctors’ opinions and learned that Elvan is autistic.
The doctors said her son could learn with the help of his teachers and schools, which would need to modify his lesson plans and accommodate his needs.
Hanley-Fulks said it was a struggle to get Elvan into a mainstream classroom and to make sure his needs were met.
But with a lot of perseverance from Hanley-Fulks – a mother who said, at one point, she threatened to chain herself to the gate outside the governor’s office to compel action to help her son – Elvan graduated, having completed the same coursework as other students.
‘Excited ... glad to be out’
Elvan Hanley’s proudest moments live in his mother’s cell phone.
She has photos of her son holding honor-roll certificates, videos of him dancing at prom and singing John Legend songs, and saved emails of his grades – most recently, a 95 in economics.
Elvan showed little emotion before his graduation, even, at one point, playfully scolding his mother for “embarrassing” him.
His mother was emotional enough for the both of them. She teared up early and often, having made sure to bring plenty of tissues.
“I feel good,” Elvan Hanley said of his graduation. “I’m excited.”
He said he just wished his two cousins and grandmother, who died when he was in ninth grade, could have been there.
Elvan said he didn’t like school.
“It was kind of boring,” and he was ready to be done. “I’m glad to be out of school.”
He did like science and social studies but math was difficult.
That didn’t stop him from taking a pre-graduation selfie with his algebra teacher.
“Lord, Elvan had a time in algebra,” his mother said as she watched.
Time for ‘phase two’
Elvan doesn’t have any immediate post-graduation plans. He doesn’t want to go to college, even though he earned a Hope Scholarship, Hanley-Fulks said.
His mother said he likely will find a job through an agency that finds work for people with special needs or disabilities.
She also has considered enrolling him in a University of South Carolina music program for students with special needs.
Hanley-Fulks said her son wants to get involved in music, having taught himself how to play the piano, organ and sing.
But challenges still lie ahead for her son.
“I’m excited about Elvan. I’m excited about his future. I’m excited about finding a place in society for him,” Hanley-Fulks said.
“I know that Elvan depends on me greatly, but I’ve got to prepare Elvan for life without me. That’s where the real love of a mother comes in.
“Phase 1 is over. Phase 2 is finding his place in society without mom.”