Twenty-one-year-old James Nettleingham could have had a high school equivalency certificate a long time ago, but he didn’t want it.
“A diploma’s a lot better, I think,” Nettleingham said. “It shows you could stick it out, and I think it shows the kind of person you are.”
He stuck it out at the West Valley School District’s Contract Based Education school and will receive his coveted diploma tonight.
People who have worked with Nettleingham already know what kind of person he is. They can’t say enough about his winning personality and his perseverance.
“I’m just really proud of him,” said Kathy George, Nettleingham’s case manager and longtime teacher at the contract school. “It took him longer, but he kept plugging. This kid would not give up.
“He’s one of those I won’t forget.”
Nettleingham has learning difficulties and more adversity in his background than many teenagers will ever face. His father died when he was about 3; his mother, when he was 13. After that, he bounced from home to home and school to school.
Nettleingham lived with a couple of uncles, in Sandpoint and Spokane, and attended Lewis and Clark High School in Spokane for a while.
“I got in trouble there,” he said. “It was just too many kids, and I didn’t get along. I just couldn’t keep up with the classes and stuff.”
And he was angry about the loss of his mother and his situation in general.
Nettleingham moved in with his friend, Daniel Warr, who is less than 10 years his senior and whom he regards as a brother. He attended classes at the Crosswalk shelter for street kids in downtown Spokane.
Then, four years ago, he found what he needed at the West Valley contract school.
“I have loved it there,” Nettleingham said. “All of the teachers are amazing. They let you work at your own pace, but they encourage you to do it a lot faster.”
The school offers specialized help, such as classes on how to be a good parent and how to stop smoking, “and I never saw a teacher who wouldn’t try and help you,” he said.
George, in particular, “was always there when I needed somebody to talk to,” Nettleingham said.
When Nettleingham arrived, “he was really angry,” George recalled. “Oh, my gosh, he was wild.”
The grim truth is that kids like Nettleingham usually wind up in jail, George said. “You just don’t normally see them like this.”
Nettleingham is a proud father, a devoted breadwinner, an eager learner and a boundless source of cheer.
“I kind of learned to turn that anger around to something I could work with,” he said. “I learned it wasn’t good to be angry all the time.”
By the time he was 19, he’d met Jessica Hammond and had a daughter, Lainey. Before getting an apartment, they lived with Hammond’s mother, Elaine Buck, an “all-around great lady” for whom the baby was named, Nettleingham said.
He said he “was stoked” when he found out he was going to be a father, and now is looking forward to the birth of a son who is to be named Kadin James Nettleingham.
But two is enough. With a boy and a girl, “I’ve got the best of both worlds,” Nettleingham said. “I figure I better stop while I’m ahead.”
Having cared for Warr’s children, Nettleingham already knew how to make a bottle, burp a baby and change a diaper. But he took the contract school’s parenting class.
“I want to be a good parent,” he said. “I want my kid to have a good life like I never did, and just have both parents there all the time.”
Nettleingham began working as a dishwasher at the Park Place Retirement Community in January 2007 to support Hammond and their daughter. A year later, he had been promoted to maintenance assistant.
In April 2008, managers voted Nettleingham employee of the month.
The 200-apartment center has about 20 managers and about 110 employees. Including his supervisor, Nettleingham is part of a four-person crew.
“James is just one of those people who makes you smile because, whenever you see him, he has a smile on his face,” said Michelle Ohmstede, the center’s director of financial services and human resources.
Nettleingham still has some goals to pursue. He wants to go to college, wants to send Hammond to college when she graduates from the contract school next year, and wants to marry her – the couple believe they may be eligible for more financial assistance if they remain unmarried for now.
Nettleingham hopes to boost his earnings, but has learned to be content with what he has.
He said he and Hammond recently took an “awesome” excursion to Manito Park to see the Duncan Gardens and let their daughter feed the ducks.
“I live comfortably,” he said. “Not great, but I make enough to pay the rent and have food on the table and gas and stuff. We’ve got our own car. It’s just an ’85 Chevy Celebrity, nothing special.”
Someday he would like to restore a classic Ford Mustang or a Pontiac GTO.
Meanwhile, he plans to keep having fun. “It keeps you healthy,” he said. “If you can’t have fun, you’re not living life, are you?”