Meredith Erck didn’t know if she would live to see graduation day. Now that she has, the Rapid City school district won't let her take part in it.
A student at Central High School, Meredith was diagnosed with brain cancer in the spring of 2015. First came the surgery, then a harrowing two-year recovery process. None of it stopped her from trying her best all the while to keep up with her studies and turn in her homework on time, even if that meant faxing it to her teachers from a hospital bed.
Her illness — which included an earlier surgery for colon cancer — prevented her from completing all of her classes on time.
As a result, the 17-year-old high school senior is six credits short of being able to officially graduate with her classmates in the ceremony at Rushmore Plaza Civic Center this weekend.
Throughout her long fight for survival from colon and brain cancers, it was her hope that she would be able to walk in the graduation ceremony with her friends, and especially with her twin brother, Martin. She had hoped to walk the stage amid the pomp and circumstance, knowing fully that she still needed a few credits to formally get her diploma at a later date.
But that hope has been struck down by Rapid City school district administrators who say that allowing Meredith to participate in the graduation ceremony would set an unwelcome precedent.
“The commencement program is meant to honor and recognize all graduates who have met the criteria set forth by the state of South Dakota for graduation and have earned their high school diplomas,” district officials said in a prepared statement to the Journal. “If we grant one exception, we have opened the door to any and all future requests. High school administrators believe that allowing exceptions diminishes the accomplishments of the graduates.”
Laura Polanco, Meredith’s mother, doesn't see it that way.
“She just wanted to participate in graduation with the kids she’s been in school with since kindergarten,” Polanco said. “She knows she’s not finished, she knows she’s not getting a diploma.”
Though her daughter is recovering, Polanco fears that the brain cancer might someday return. And if it does, who’s to say if she’ll make it to another graduation day?
“They have no heart,” Polanco said of the Rapid City school administrators. “No compassion.”
Polanco has been working behind the scenes for months to make her daughter’s graduation possible. She first learned of the district’s final decision last Wednesday in a voicemail from Central High School Principal Michael Talley, who declined to comment directly to the Journal. Superintendent Lori Simon also declined to comment directly to the newspaper.
Polanco saved Talley's voicemail and played it for the Journal.
“After our meetings with various people on staff here, we’ve kind of collectively decided that the request you put forth, that Meredith walk across the stage with her brother, we’re not going to allow that,” Talley said. “I don’t want to get into all the reasoning for it other than that this is not something that we’ve done in the past, it’s not a precedent that we want to start setting.”
Talley added that the graduation ceremony is “to hand out diplomas for graduates” and that he has received similar requests in the past, but “it’s just not something I’m comfortable doing.”
Carly Wilson is a licensed social worker who has worked with Meredith during her recovery. In a letter to Talley, she wrote, “Psychologically, the impact of not walking with her twin brother would be very damaging to Meredith,” and that, “Ceremonially, walking with her brother for graduation in front of her family, would be very beneficial to her emotionally.”
Meredith is a quiet person with a warm and easy smile. Before her fight with brain cancer, she first had to survive colon cancer.
It's in the Polanco family’s genes. Meredith’s mother, grandfather and twin brother, Martin, have all had to undergo extensive surgeries to get their cancerous colons removed.
Meredith’s first surgery came in December 2014, when the initial colon procedure was completed, and again in January 2015 for a standard follow-up. Complications would lead to a third surgery. Then a fourth.
There is a less than 1 percent chance, Meredith’s mother said, that someone with this type of genetic colon disorder will also develop brain cancer.
And yet, doctors found the brain tumor in May of 2015, three days before Meredith’s sweet 16 birthday. A few days later she was on an operating table in Denver.
Her mom said Meredith did her best to keep up with school work while she was in the hospital, dutifully studying her math, English, and history lessons for hours at a time between chemo and radiation treatments that left her physically drained and mentally depleted.
“She’s a trooper,” said Meredith’s grandmother, Sue Polanco. “She just keeps on going.”
There were times, Laura Polanco recalled, when her daughter would stare at a math problem she’d just completed and struggle to remember what steps she’d taken to get the answer.
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She has spent the last 2.5 years enduring physical and occupational therapy. She mostly gets around in a wheelchair now and can walk only short distances. Anything more and she risks a fall.
If she were to walk during Central's graduation ceremony this weekend, she’d do so with the help of her brother, Martin, leaning on his arm as the two of them made their way across the stage. They’re very close, Polanco said of her children.
Meredith’s illness has taken her away from her classmates, away from school activities she used to enjoy, such as choir and orchestra, and has robbed her of normal teenage experiences like going to the movies or having sleepovers with her friends.
Before the brain cancer, Meredith said, she wanted to be a pastry chef.
“But I can’t do it,” she said with a smile, “because my left hand doesn’t work as fast as my right hand does anymore, so it’s kind of hard to bake anything or cut anything up, or do anything.”
The letter to Principal Talley from Meredith’s social worker is just one of several messages sent in support of allowing her to participate in graduation.
Bethany Wojahn, a friend of Meredith’s family, also wrote to Talley. In her email, she recalled how her own son was not allowed to graduate “because of his poor choices.”
Wojahn applauded Talley’s decision regarding her son but argued that what happened to Meredith is different.
“This was not something she chose,” Wojahn wrote. “This was not a failing on her part. This was unfair. This was rare. This was life-changing. I see no possible purpose that can be served by disallowing her to walk with her brother on graduation day, even if only to hold his hand while he receives his diploma.”
In his voicemail, Talley offered an alternative option — that Meredith and her mother could sit in chairs set up separately from the graduating class, next to the group of graduates.
“(Meredith) would be allowed to meet her twin brother on the ramp (at the bottom of the stage) for a graduation picture with the photographer,” the district’s statement to the Journal said.
That option, Polanco said, would be even worse than not allowing her to walk in the ceremony at all.
“It’s about letting her participate in the ceremony, not being made a circus sideshow sitting by the stage,” Polanco said.
In her email, Wojahn continued to plead with Talley to make an exception.
“Meredith’s mother is not asking for something outrageous,” Wojahn wrote. “She is only asking that, for once, Meredith be given the opportunity to experience something ’normal,’ as her short life has been anything but normal for the last several years.”
Polanco’s hope is that the district will create some kind of process to determine if and when exceptions should be granted during graduation ceremonies.
“We just want to make a change for kids in the future who have a life-threatening illness, so they at least get some compassion from the principal in that school,” Polanco said. "This isn’t going to be the last case.”
Outwardly shy, Meredith has been reluctant to share her story, but her mother has encouraged her.
“Sometimes you have to stand up and make noise and make a change," Polanco said.
Meredith's aunt, Julie Erck, would like to see the change made now rather than later and doesn't want Meredith to feel bad about making her situation known.
“I appreciate what you’re doing, Honey," Erck said to Meredith. "And I know somebody in the future is going to benefit from this. But I’ve seen you fight for your life. And I see no harm in it whatsoever.”
Meredith will turn 18 in June. She is expected to complete half of her remaining credits over the summer and will likely be finished with high school before the end of the next academic year.
It will take her five years to fully recover from her illness. According to her mother, there is a 30 percent chance the cancer will return.