Sam Mellinger

They said he’d never be able to learn. With mom’s help, he has a college scholarship

A mother's love finds a way for her autistic son, who is now headed to college

Year after year, schools told Tilicia Robertson of Kansas City that her son, Jordan Huff, was mentally retarded and would never be able to read or write. She didn't believe that and taught Jordan in her home while working full time. Huff was later
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Year after year, schools told Tilicia Robertson of Kansas City that her son, Jordan Huff, was mentally retarded and would never be able to read or write. She didn't believe that and taught Jordan in her home while working full time. Huff was later

The mother who listened to teachers say her son would never be able to read or write will watch, probably with tears in her eyes, as that same boy graduates from Hogan Prep this month.

He was mentally retarded. They used that term, even if she never believed it. Tilicia Robertson was right, too. That boy is now a young man, with a GPA near the top of his class, a football and academic scholarship waiting for him in the fall — a remarkable Kansas City journey ending while another begins.

By any normal measure, Jordan Huff’s story should be sad. He was kicked out of school after school, a learning disability eventually diagnosed as autism passed along to the next classroom.

If the teachers were right, Jordan would now be transitioning into an adulthood dependent on others, and if he had a different mother, or was less stubborn, it may not have mattered that those teachers were wrong.

“I’m looking at their paperwork, and I’m like, no, this is not true,” Tilicia said.

“I just wanted to learn, to be like the other kids,” Jordan said.

Jordan’s success and promise is a story of the power of a mother and son united. They constantly say “we” and “us,” even when it’s only one of them doing something. Like, “we” ran track this spring. “We” worked Saturdays at the office.

This will be the 19th Mother’s Day they’ve spent together, and the last under the same roof. Jordan will play defensive back and study to be a physical therapist at MidAmerica Nazarene in the fall, which is already more than he was told he was capable of. A minute talking to him is enough to be convinced he is only beginning.

Tilica is unbending in her focus, and uncompromising when accepting what’s possible. For a period of about four years, she worked full time while studying for college degrees and homeschooling Jordan because she could not find a school to take him.

At some point, Tilicia faced a choice. She could believe what the educators were telling her about her son, and accept that he would never be self-sufficient, never be able to live on his own. Never be “normal.”

Or she could believe what she saw in her boy, that sure, he didn’t always behave, and his social interactions were a little off, but that he was driven. Focused. Ambitious. He walked at nine months, talked to strangers, and wanted to learn. How could she reconcile that with what these teachers said?

“So when they put him out,” Tilicia said, turning to face Jordan as she spoke. “What’d we do?”

“Work from home,” Jordan said.

“Work from home,” Tilicia said.

She bought books and found the best tools online and created her own curriculum for Jordan, right down to open gyms with other moms with kids Jordan could call friends.

If she ever needed validation about whether the extra work was worth it, she got it in fifth grade, when Jordan was stuck in what became known as a “contain” room with other students who were not allowed to assimilate with the others.

They stayed in that room all day. Some couldn’t read, some couldn’t talk. One had cerebral palsy. They did simple worksheets, ate ice cream, watched videos. Nothing challenging. The worst part for Jordan was when the bell rang, and he looked through the window on the door and saw all the other kids walking the hallways with their binders and backpacks.

Why couldn’t he do that?

So, one day Jordan sneaked out of class. He found another classroom — a “normal” classroom — and opened the door and saw kids with pencils and calculators. Jordan was immediately put back in the “contain” room, but told his mom what happened that night.

“I don’t want to be in that classroom anymore,” he remembered telling her. “I want to be out there with the other kids, walk the hallways with the other students, go to class and learn. Do the things they do.”

But, as it turned out, just doing what the other kids did wasn’t enough for Jordan.

His first quarter at Hogan, he sat at an awards show and watched with jealousy as what seemed like half the football team was applauded as part of the honor roll. Jordan remembers falling just short, with a 2.8 GPA or so, and spent the rest of the school year doubling down on studying and asking for extra credit assignments.

By the end of his freshman year, that extra work put him on the honor roll, and most semesters since he’s made the principal’s honor roll. One of his best friends is the salutatorian, with Jordan graduating fifth in his class. The boys exchange good-natured trash talk over grades, but the truth is Jordan has had to work harder.

The way he and Tilicia describe his mind, it usually takes him longer to grasp a new concept, but once he does, his brain is like a vault. He has it, forever, and moves onto the next concept.

Jordan said he was willing to not believe what teachers said about him as a boy because he thought he could catch up to the other students, but by now he’s long passed that goal.

“I’m helping other students in class who’ve never been in a special education class before, never locked away in a fifth-grade classroom,” Jordan said. “I’m helping normal kids in class.”

They have struggled together, mother and son. They’ve cried, both with each other and alone. Jordan convinced Tilicia the work would be worth it, going all the way back to when he was four years old, begging her to let him play touch football with older kids by saying, “Please, mama, you gotta believe in me.”

And Tilicia convinced Jordan he needed to push, sometimes in her weakest moments, because Jordan wanted so bad to make mom proud.

This is an important moment. Jordan’s journey will always be made with Tilicia’s help, but here is the part he takes over in a new way. Mom will be a phone call away, but Jordan is in charge of his life now like never before.

Jordan used to be nervous about this. Used to be frightened. Used to not be able to imagine such a thing. Now, he’s excited. New friends. New experiences. A new chance to make mom proud.

“If I taught him well, it’ll play out,” Tilicia said. “I’m a little scared, I will say that. I told him to always ask for help. You’ve got to advocate for yourself.”

Sam Mellinger: 816-234-4365, @mellinger