After the death of her brother last year, Rachel Watson didn’t think she would be able to achieve the academic goals she had set for herself upon entering Fairfield High School as a freshman in 2016.
Just getting out of bed was difficult sometimes. She missed at least a month’s worth of school at the end of her junior year, and returning in the fall, Watson still felt herself becoming more distant with her peers.
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By November, she had switched to Fairfield’s “Options Academy,” which enabled her to take classes online and go more at a pace she could handle. Despite the setbacks, Watson finished her schooling in February and ended up with a 3.9 GPA – just a tick off the “straight A’s” goal she strived to achieve.
“I came and went (at school), and my teachers were very understanding,” Watson said. “They jumped through hoops for me to make sure I could stay on track. They gave me work at home and took some things out that might be too difficult for me to handle.
“I let down a little, but they helped me so much trying to persevere and do what my brother wanted me to do, which was to graduate in a nice manner and not be so upset,” Watson said. “My future is what I want and what I want to soar with, and my brother always told me I could do whatever I wanted. He went through Options Academy and graduated through losing one of his best friends, and it showed you might lose someone by your side but not in your heart.”
Watson already had been dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder from a rough childhood with her biological father, but that only heightened when her brother, Stephen Kerr, died from suicide in April 2019. He was in Arkansas at the time, and Watson had spoken to him a couple hours before it happened but couldn’t understand what he needed or wanted. He was one of her best friends.
The memory of seeing Kerr lying in a hospital bed, already brain dead, haunted her even months later. She battled depression and anxiety, and eventually she checked into Children’s Hospital to seek help with her own suicidal thoughts.
“I had to go to a therapist because I did try to succeed in suicide,” said Watson, who was legally adopted by her mother’s husband of the last 10 years in April. “My suicidal thoughts were happening three times a day, seven days a week, and I went as far as planning it out. I couldn’t drive my car or have sharp objects around me. School became difficult. The academy being online was hard, but it was worse to be alone in the school and not feel like I had a friend. In reality they were trying to help me but I just couldn’t see it at that time.”
Watson had been involved with the school musicals since seventh grade when she began with the tech crew and learned how to dance from watching the practices. The next year she made showchoir, and she continued with it each year. As a sophomore she had a duet and junior year she did a solo and earned “Best Performer” recognition.
After her brother’s death, Watson stepped down in order to focus on her grief and mental health. The showchoir community had always been supportive, and it was “really hard to leave,” she said.
The time away from her usual high school routine was necessary, though. Even now she still struggles with her mental health but has learned to monitor it and speak up about it. Up until the week before graduating, Watson was still missing at least a day’s worth of schooling each week. When she was done, she began tutoring her peers and now she is set to attend Cincinnati State to pursue a degree in occupational therapy.
“I thought I was doing terrible and behind, but it turns out I was just setting really high goals for myself,” Watson said. “I needed to modify my goals after my brother passed away to address what was going on with me.”
Watson admittedly wasn’t that great of a student until ninth grade. She said she was a troublemaker and “not heading down the right path” while trying to fit in. Once she reached high school, she realized she wouldn’t accomplish anything if she didn’t start setting goals for herself.
That’s when she began striving for straight A’s, and “it felt good” achieving something she set her mind to. Watson challenged herself with more difficult classes, including honors chemistry and AP government. She finished in the top 21 percent of her class and won the Principal’s Award for a $2,500 scholarship.
“This is a student who went through some very difficult struggles, but she continued to achieve and ended up graduating early and now she is on to bigger and better things,” Fairfield principal Bill Rice said. “A lot of teenagers would pack it in, and she did just the opposite. We throw around the word ‘grit.’ She personifies that word because she continues to persevere and push.”
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