RANTOUL — Mitchell Williams' return to public school — eighth grade at J.W. Eater Junior High School — didn't last long. Two days.
Williams wasn't ready for it.
He tried it again two years later as a sophomore at Rantoul Township High School, and the change went better. A lot better.
Williams carries a 4.999 grade point average on a 5.0 scale and is the fifth-ranked student in his senior class. He has been named the 2013 Rantoul Exchange Club Accepting the Challenge for Excellence Award winner. The club presented Williams a check for $1,000.
Julie Kavanaugh, guidance counselor at RTHS, knows how far Williams has come.
"Mitchell has overcome many physical, emotional and social obstacles to get where he is today," Kavanaugh said. "To look at Mitchell today one would never guess all he's been through. He's a highly intelligent young man."
His mother, Michelle Williams, always knew her son had a lot of energy. He couldn't sit still or keep his mind on one thing for long and had mood swings.
She figured that's "normal for a boy," she said.
"I always thought he'd grow into himself."
Once he was enrolled in a structured class setting, it was obvious it wasn't normal. He was diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and was placed on Ritalin, but that just made things worse.
Mitchell's emotional and behavioral episodes became so severe that he was hospitalized and could no longer function in a school setting. He was also diagnosed with juvenile bipolar disorder and was placed in an alternative education setting where he remained until he tried to return to a conventional school setting in eighth grade. He couldn't handle it.
"They encourage you to try to make the transition back to public school," Mitchell said. "They want you to be successful ... but you've got to want it, too."
While Mitchell is intelligent, adapting to change has not been easy for him, and he didn't like to be in a crowd.
In his alternative education settings, class sizes were smaller. Not so at Eater.
While the transition to public school wasn't easy, he slowly began to adjust at RTHS.
He said RTHS overwhelmed him at first, and he struggled with social anxiety and had depression episodes. Life was a day-to-day struggle just to get to school, but the transformation began to take place.
"I had two classes a day for the first semester and four classes the second semester and the other half of the day at Circle Academy (which is connected to Cunningham Children's Home in Urbana)," Williams said.
He said staff and students at RTHS welcomed him and helped him to make the change.
Williams said "it's weird" today to look back at his mindset years ago.
It doesn't mean everything is peachy. As his mother points out, he'll always have to deal with being bipolar.
Mitchell explained, "You aren't the same person every day. You could be having the best day ever, and later in the day you could fall into depression and not want to live anymore."
Medication helps, but living with the disorder requires that the person use a number of techniques and develop emotional maturity to keep things in check.
As to the techniques, he said, "A really big part of it is being able to acknowledge what you're feeling and why you're feeling it," he said. "Sometimes you'll be really angry, but you have to say to yourself, 'Do I really have a reason to be angry?'"
Williams said he has to recognize his emotions.
Michelle Williams said living with someone who is bipolar is "kind of like a really little teenager — mood swings. With him there's different types," she said. "It was really high highs and real low lows."
Michelle said she has told him it's a good thing that he was diagnosed at a young age.
"You'll have your whole life to learn how to deal with it," she said.
Many people are diagnosed as bipolar as adults.
Michelle said her son has an advantage.
"He was blessed with intelligence," she said.
Even so, she said, "Until he was able to learn to function with the imbalances he had, (his intelligence) was never going to do him any good."
She said they have had a great deal of help along the way, and she can't imagine how they could have made it without the help.
"It's a really great thing that he's been able to succeed," she said. "He's overcome so much."
Michelle is a 21-year Army veteran. Originally from the Streamwood area in northern Illinois, they moved to Rantoul when Mitchell was 9 so Michelle could be near Parkland College.
She works at Hobbico in Champaign.
Mitchell knows that his struggles have shaped him.
"Looking back it's easy to take it for granted," Williams said. "It's hard to identify with how I was because it's so different from what I am now.
"If it wasn't what I went through I wouldn't be the person I am today. I just wish I hadn't caused people so much trouble."
Helping others important. Williams said he believes it is important to help others.
In a paper that Williams wrote titled "What I Am Most Proud Of," he said he would prefer to think of his life as average, but there are few events he says he feels true pride in.
"My mother always told me that I would be able to help others who have the same problem that I do and, as she always has been, she was right. In grade school I met some of the best friends I had ever met, and many of them still hold that title.
"I did not realize the severity of the situation at the time, but one of my friends told me many years later that my support had helped him decide against taking his own life. No personal achievement or sense of accomplishment could be more rewarding than something like that.
"Trying to be the support to all of my friends and family is something I feel a responsibility to do, and I have no reluctance in doing so. It may not always be appreciated, and sometimes it is completely emotionally exhausting, but I will never regret being there for the people I care about."
Williams' interests are video games, drawing and sports, including soccer, wrestling, track and football. His favorite sport is wrestling.
He plans to study computer sciences at Parkland College and possibly transfer to a four-year college.