Many of us chose education as a profession because we saw the impact the best educators can have on a young person’s life. Often, adults can point to someone at school (and it doesn’t have to be a teacher or coach) who served as a role model and/or mentor to help them navigate through what are often very trying times in their lives.
One of the most rewarding experiences a school employee can have is for a former student to thank us for being a role model or mentor for him or her. Sometimes, we filled that role without even realizing it. But, improving kids’ lives is the fuel that keeps the fire burning in the best educators.
Of course, just as students can point to certain school people who positively impacted their lives, many educators can point to students who did the same for us. After all, who isn’t motivated by a youngster’s positive attitude, outstanding achievements, wisdom beyond their years, and perseverance through difficult times? I know I had one such student, and his name is Michael Ham.
When I was Superintendent of Troy, I heard of Michael soon after he moved to Troy from Florida. I was told about this new student at Troy Junior High School, who, despite being wheelchair-bound with cerebral palsy, was flourishing. His positive attitude, vibrant personality, and maturity were infectious.
My interactions with Michael were intermittent throughout his junior high and high school years, but he and I periodically kept in touch during that time. Then, when he was a senior, he approached me about being his mentor for a semester. His goal, I’m sure, was to gain some insight into what the job of a superintendent entailed and to, hopefully, be exposed to leadership skills that he could use later in life.
When I agreed to mentor him, little did I know that he would mentor me, too.
Once a week for a semester, Michael would drive his wheelchair across the Troy High School and Board Office parking lots where we would sit in my office and engage in many meaning-of-life discussions. Our conversations ranged from discussions of our lives, our dreams for the future, and what was both right and wrong with our schools, to name a few. We even discussed (gasp!) our religious beliefs. Our conversations were similar to those a father would have with a son, which was appropriate given the fact that Michael’s father had abandoned him years ago.
I was always struck by the positive attitude he had maintained despite a lifetime of struggles that most of us can only imagine. As an educator, I was particularly impacted by the stories he told of his time in school in Florida, where his school experience was negatively impact by laws that restricted his access to an education that was most appropriate for him simply because he sat in a wheelchair.
I learned that, despite all the roadblocks adults placed in his path to success, he was amazingly unaffected by it all, telling me on more than one occasion that he never felt any incorrect decision made on his behalf was made out of malice, even when it made his life more difficult. He simply chalked it up to ignorance.
Thus was the greatest lesson I took from our conversations, that being that whenever adults make decisions that adversely impact the children under their care, whether they are made out of malice or ignorance doesn’t matter. They still harm children, and as the old adage says, “Ignorance is no excuse.”
The fact that Michael Ham has steadfastly overcome incredible physical challenges to develop from a young child who was needlessly identified as lacking in ability into a college graduate who now serves on the Troy City Schools Board of Education, as well as other philanthropic boards in an effort to give back to a community that has meant so much to him, speaks to the young man he has become.
We could all learn a lesson from his example. I know I did.
Michael and I have remained close, so I was honored the other day when he shared with me a book he has written about his life’s travels. The book focuses on his never-say-die attitude that has served him so well and the Troy educators who helped him achieve his dreams. The experiences he describes and his positive approach to life are inspiring.
I read his book in one evening.
Michael will be having a book signing on Friday, May 3rd, from 3-7 p.m. in the Troy High School Commons. True to form, he has decided to donate all the proceeds to The Future Begins Today, which “provides nurturing, mentoring, and scholarship programs for Troy students.”
Please consider spending a few minutes on May 3 and shaking the hand of an incredible young man who has accomplished much in his young life despite great obstacles. Even better, consider buying his book and helping a future generation of young people to improve their lot in life.
Just like people did for him.
Tom Dunn is the former superintendent of the Miami County Educational Service Center.