From the jump of my educational career I’ve always identified with the troubled students, the outcasts and troublemakers. I gravitate toward them and desperately try to help. I want to keep them from gathering scars. I want to teach them what I’ve learned. I moved from New Jersey to Pennsylvania when I was 13. I was set to start in a new school for eighth grade that fall. I was scared but also excited. I was mostly fearful about making new friends. I kept in touch with my friends in Jersey, but the distance made it tough—these were the days of landlines and AOL. When I started eighth grade I made some friends, but I found it really difficult to fit in. Pennsylvania seemed different. Alcohol and pot were around—this didn’t exist in my circles in Jersey. Students were already having sex—I definitely wasn’t. Also, this was a much more affluent community than what I had been used to.
The More I Tried to Fit In, The More I Was Pushed AwayEvery attempt to fit in set me back even more and made both the teachers and students resent me. My experience in woodshop was a shining example. Woodshop class often lacked the structure to help me be my best self. I was a wild dog in a confined space of saws, hammers and knives. My very presence and demeanor drove our teacher, Mr. O’Malley, crazy. Mr. O’Malley was a very blue-collar guy. He wasn’t passionate about being an educator, but seemingly enjoyed his shop. He gave us lengthy projects with murky expectations and spent the majority of the time explaining how the tools could kill us. I paid little attention. To me this was a wonderland where anything goes. I could build anything I wanted with a host of machinery that could satisfy my tactile needs. Mr. O’Malley regularly yelled at me, which showed his lack of patience and deeper anger. One day in class Mr. O’Malley told us to clean up. I wanted to get a laugh out of the kids around me, so I started singing, “Clean up, clean up, everybody everywhere, clean up, clean up, everybody do their share.” Hilarious, right? That’s when I was grabbed by the shoulder and pushed down into my seat. “Healy, you think this is a joke?! I’ve been dealing with your crap all day, you’re ruining this class for everyone. You know what, because of you we’re done having fun in this class! We’re going to start reading from the textbook every day.” I could feel the heat of his breath and flecks of spit. His bright red face was he was inches from my ear. I never looked at him. I just stared straight ahead. At this point Mr. O’Malley grabbed a textbook and slammed it loudly on the table in front of me. “Everyone, thank Healy for the change in our class.” All the other students for the rest of the week were furious with me. I didn’t know what to do or say. It felt like a breeze of cold mist surrounded me and refused to blow past. This experience came back to me years later when my student advisee, Paul, was about to go on stage, I didn’t fully realize that this experience from my past was motivation to attempt to protect him.
Letting Go Of My Own Scars To Help My Student“Mr. Healy, will the lyrics be playing on the song?” Paul asked. He sat in one of our auditorium chairs, staring straight ahead, his large frame hanging loose in the stiff wooden chair. Paul’s facial expression showed signs of fast-developing nausea. “No, Paul, we can only play the song through the speakers, and then you sing through the mic,” I replied. “But I don’t know all the lyrics,” Paul said, slumping further in the chair. “I’m sorry, buddy, we don’t have any way of doing karaoke. Do you want to just take your name off the list for the talent show?” The auditorium was filling up. In a couple of short minutes it would be bursting with 400 students and 30 staff members. I was growing anxious, having planned the event and knowing that my fellow staff members would evaluate me based on how it went. But mostly I was scared for Paul. Paul didn’t come to the rehearsal the night before. I also saw that he picked a Tim McGraw song at a school with students who heavily favored artists like Chief Keef. I would have been shocked if 10 students even knew Tim McGraw. “No, I still want to go up there.” That’s not the answer I was hoping for.
It’s Worth the Risk to Be VulnerableWhen the MC announced him, Paul shot out of his chair like a piston and walked with determination toward the stage and grabbed the mic. As I looked onto the stage my stomach slowly took flight. “Hey, everyone. Um, I’m pretty nervous right now. I don’t know all the words to this song, but I’m going to try my best.” The crowd was uncertain and restless. Seconds after Paul spoke a couple of students shouted out, “Go Paul!” and there was some cheering in the crowd. But, it still felt to me like everyone would turn on him. In my head I begged Paul to run. I didn’t want him to get embarrassed; I was certain his feelings would be irreparably hurt from this scenario that I facilitated. Then Paul began to sing. His voice was soft and uncertain. The crowd was quiet. As the country song continued he sang louder. I gained confidence from the power of this kid throwing himself out there being as vulnerable in public as I’ve ever seen a person be. I put my hands in the air and swayed them back and forth to the music. Paul continued to sing. Sitting in the front row I was terrified of what students might be doing behind me. But, when I looked back I saw an audience of arms swaying back and forth with mine. Then, Paul started struggling with the lyrics. He put one of his hands on his head and started to hide his eyes. I was certain this was doom—the knock I had been waiting for. As that happened, my colleague Grace started running down the aisle toward the stage. Her long dress danced behind her and she wore a smile so bright that it would have shamed the moon. She ran up the stairs of the stage and wrapped an arm around Paul. They swayed back and forth together to the rhythm of the audience. Soon our bobcat mascot ran onto stage with the two of them and put his arm around the other side of Paul. Paul stood up there like a flag blowing in a storm—shaking, but still strong, proud and determined. The three of them sang the song terribly, but it was beautiful to watch. When Paul finished, the crowd erupted in applause. I couldn’t believe that I almost stopped Paul from having this experience. But knowing my own scars helped me steer into something which felt uncomfortable. It helped me realize that adults are just like kids in many ways. The same essential touch of love, empathy and understanding that helps build bridges with students is just as necessary with adults. We’re never going to avoid the inevitable wounds that happen throughout life. But how we choose to deal with them will determine how they influence us. Paul ran and sat next to me as the MC called up the next performer. I patted him on the back and said, “I’m so proud of you, buddy.” He looked at me and nodded. I noticed that his hand had been scraped and was bleeding. “Paul, you’re bleeding,” I said. “Oh, I didn’t even notice.” Then he simply wiped the blood away.
Sean Healy is dean of students at Baker College Prep and a Teach For America alum. Previously he taught high school English for five years, three of them at Baker.