By ROGER MOONEY
Natalie Ryan had been punched and kicked by classmates in her district school in previous years, but it was the taunting in second grade that really cut deep.
That year, Natalie was teased relentlessly by some boys in her class. All, her mother said, because she played differently than the other children.
It began innocently enough when a classmate had a birthday around Halloween. To celebrate, each student in the class received a cupcake with a plastic spider on the icing. Natalie kept her spider and often played with it as if it were a pet. She made a house for the spider with her pencil box.
This is how Natalie plays with her toys. She brings them to life with backstories.
“She’s very creative, so when she makes up a story, she kind of goes all out,” said Natalie’s mom, Grace Diaz.
Some of the boys who sat near Natalie didn’t think that was so creative. They saw her playing with her pet spider one day and called her stupid and said she was dumb. The words stung.
“She came home and said I don’t want to be different. I don’t want to play like the way I play. I want to be just like the other kids. I want to be quote unquote normal,” Grace said. “That was the word she used.”
Grace began to search for other choices for her daughter’s education. In addition to the bullying, Natalie was struggling in math. Natalie’s teacher would not allow Natalie to use her fingers to count, and her grades in that class suffered.
Fed up with what was happening to her daughter at the district school near their home in Clermont, Florida, Grace, a single mother of two, applied for and received a Florida Tax Credit Scholarship before the 2018-19 school year. The income-based scholarship is managed by Step Up For Students.
The Hope Scholarship provides relief for K-12 public school children from bullying and violence. The program provides families with financial assistance to send a child to an eligible private school, or to transport him to a public school in another district. Managed by Step Up, the Hope Scholarship is not income-based. Click here to learn more.
Grace moved Natalie to Citrus Heights Academy, a Christian faith-based K-12 in Clermont.
Natalie entered as a third grader and loves her new school.
“It’s awesome,” said Natalie, now a fifth grader.
“I think that shows why school choice is important,” Grace said. “And it was the main reason why I transferred her.”
But this story doesn’t end here. The spider, the mean boys and Natalie’s wish to be normal form the backstory for another story. A children’s book, actually.
“Rudy Howls at the Moon,” about a rooster who is mocked because he can’t crow at the sun, was written by Grace. She published it in July 2019. It’s available on Amazon both in hardcover and for Kindle.
The idea for the book was born during the conversation Grace had with her daughter after that January day in 2018 when Natalie came home from school feeling utterly defeated.
“I told her none of us are normal,” Grace said. “All of us are pretty much unique. We have certain talents and abilities, and whatever your talent or ability is, it’s used for a purpose. You may not know what that purpose is until a certain thing happens, or you grow up and then you discover this is the way I am, because of this. That was how I was trying to encourage her, and it kind of turned into a rooster who can’t crow.”
Grace, who holds a degree in accounting, always wanted to be a writer.
“I’ve been writing books in my head for what, 10, 20 years?” she said.
Most of those potential books, Grace said, are motivational. She never dreamed of writing a children’s book, but then she never dreamed her child would be ostracized for being imaginative.
“Whenever she plays, it’s amazing the stories that she develops,” Grace said. “It’s pretty cool.”
That Natalie is not a morning person led to Grace imagining a rooster who can’t crow at sunrise. No spoiler alerts here, but it turns out Rudy has another talent.
And those roosters that made fun of Rudy? Well, let’s just say they came around to appreciate Rudy’s unique gift.
Natalie loves the story.
“It’s awesome, because I’m a part of Mommy’s book,” she said.
“She wants to be a writer,” Grace said. “She wants to do a bunch of things, but writing stories is one of them.”
Grace has another children’s book in the works. It was inspired by her son, Thomas, 4. It is about a dinosaur who catches a cold. No spoiler alert here, either, but Grace said the theme is, “Don’t assume anything. Don’t prejudge people. And of course, blow your nose, wash your hands.”
And what happened to that plastic spider that set so many things in motion? They still have it. Thomas plays with it. Natalie never named it, though. She just called it, “The Spider.”
“It doesn’t actually have a name,” Grace said. “We call it ‘The Spider who inspired Rudy.’”
Roger Mooney, marketing communications manager, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.