Student Highlight: Ryan Cole

1Each cat that comes in to Rocky Mountain Feline Rescue has a story.  If cats have nine lives, some are likely somewhere past their seventh or eighth.  Several are dropped off with FIV, similar to AIDS but for cats, while others are struggling with ear infections, no teeth, or lazy eyes.

4“That’s Nel,” Ryan Cole, Denver Online High School Junior and Rocky Mountain Feline Rescue volunteer, said, pointing to a black and white cat stumbling by.  “She came in with brain damage so she doesn’t have the best balance,” he said with an endearing smirk.

Regardless of the lives each cat has lived prior to coming to the rescue, each one is met by a staff with open arms.  The rescue has over 150 cats that it nurtures, feeds, returns back to health, keeps safe, and knowns by name.  Cole has volunteered at the shelter for the past three years, saying, “You just feel really good here…It always feels really good when you can help get one adopted.”

2The feline rescue is similar to Denver Online High School.  Each student comes in with a story.  While we all wish that the students who arrive at our door have had easy lives up to that point, that is certainly not always the case.  Some have scars that are physical or emotional, some come from circumstances where they have struggled to eat, some are fighting against health challenges or social stresses or other hardships.  Simply put, some students come in with stories that are just harder than others.

Bullying in traditional schools is one reason that many students take refuge at Denver Online High School.  This was precisely the case for Cole, a transgendered student who started his public transition last year.

5“Being transgendered in today’s society is kind of like trying to pull yourself out of quicksand while everyone else is pushing you back down wanting you to stay there,” Cole said.  He described the feeling he had growing up, saying, “When you’re little, you don’t think it’s a thing to be transgendered.  You just always feel different.”  He said at age four, he had his hair cut short for the first time.  “I’d get mistaken a lot [for a boy].  My parents would get really defensive and feel like they needed to correct them.  I just never cared and never felt like I needed to correct them,” he noted.

Cole became friends with another transgendered student about six years ago.  His friend was fully out when they met and gave Cole an outlet to slowly communicate over time about the subject.  While they originally bonded over video gaming and “nerd stuff” as he put it, the two would occasionally talk about the topic of being transgendered.  “It kind of just clicked in my head that that’s what it was,” Cole said about coming to new realizations about his self-identity.

But while the path to that self-awareness was not an easy one in itself, the road that lay after has proven even more difficult.  While the story about Caitlyn Jenner is buzzing in the media currently, Cole said he has mixed feelings about the current face of the transgendered population.  “It was super easy for her to transition,” Cole said.  “It’s not a very good representation of how it is for everyone else in the world who’s transgendered,” expressing the lengthy and financially draining process.

“It’s so hard to transition,” Cole said.  His parents first wrestled with his transition, saying, “It was difficult for them I think.” He said they would ask him multiple times in a day if he was sure about his decision, trying to understand if it was simply a phase that he would grow out of.

Cole reassured them of his certainty and he eventually started his public transition. The name change and pronoun change have been difficult for those close to him to get used to, he said.  And the process of changing your name and gender legally is not an easy one, Cole saying, “Just changing your name can take months and months.”

7But the physical transformation is the most expensive.  Currently on his sixth testosterone injection, Cole will take hormone shots every three weeks, eventually moving up to every two weeks unless he gets the sex reassignment surgery.  He said it will take multiple surgeries to transition, all costing thousands of dollars.

However, funding that goal is extremely difficult for him.  “It’s just so hard.  You’re saving every penny you have and you can’t get hired,” he said.  Noting a time when an employer refused to interview him after seeing that he was transgendered, he said, “You see their face as soon as they see you.”  “It’s kind of crushing.  You’re finally passing as the gender you’re going for and then they give you that look and you’re like, ‘I guess not.  That sucks.’”

While employers have proven reluctant to adopt the student’s new identity, his peers may have been the hardest to win over.  “When I first started my transition, I got bullied out of my high school,” Cole said.  It was mostly verbal at first but then escalated into larger problems.  “Gym was hard because I’d have to go down to the locker rooms…People would throw things at me in the locker room, trip me in gym class,” he said.  While he loved English class, he soon started skipping it consistently because it was directly after lunch time when he’d get most heavily bullied, saying, “A lot of people would yell things at me from across the yard.”  Cole said, “There was a point where I refused to go to school.”

Before even starting his transition, he researched online schools, knowing that it was a possibility that harassment would occur.  When he finally made the decision to transfer to Denver Online High School, he said, “It took me twenty minutes to muster up the courage to go back into the building again,” in order to tell his previous school he was leaving.  “I knew they were in class so no one would be around,” yet re-entering a place that had been filled with such hatred from select peers had him filled with anxiety.

Cole said he had a hard first semester at Denver Online High School because he had never done online school previously and was dealing with a lot at home and in his transition.  However, he said he now plans to stay and graduate from Denver Online.  With a go-getter attitude and positive outlook towards the future, he plans to eventually go to college for marine biology in Florida or Hawaii.

3Just like every animal that blesses Rocky Mountain Feline Rescue, so too does every student that comes to Denver Online High School.  Regardless of the stories each student comes with, Denver Online hopes to always be a place where students feel nurtured, a place that provides resources to meet their basic needs, and a flexible and welcoming environment to help students regain their social or physical health, feel safe, and have people who know them by name.

Unlike cats, we don’t get nine lives.  We all have just ONE life to live.  So regardless of your viewpoints, choose to live a life filled with kindness and love, instead of one full of bullying and hate; there is simply no room for the latter at Denver Online.

Because at Denver Online we believe that every story is powerful, every voice is valuable, and regardless of whether you come as Ryan, Rachel, Randy, or Ruth, you are welcome here.