By Michael L. Ham
Society has a certain set of criteria that it uses to define the characteristics of a hero. Some classify those who serve in the military or as first responders as heroes because of the way they put their lives on the line every day to protect those they serve. Others consider figures in popular culture, such as actors, athletes, and other celebrities worthy of the title of “hero,” because of their degree of influence or fame.
Strong arguments can be made for why both of these groups deserve the distinction of being idolized. However, I think we sometimes tend to overlook a certain type of hero, and while their selfless acts may not have the visible results as that of a soldier on the frontline or a first responder keeping our communities safe, the sacrifices of this all-too-often forgotten group are nonetheless just as important and far reaching.
Speaking as a student with significant physical disabilities whose own father disowned him because of those challenges, I was fortunate to have many educators in Troy that looked beyond my challenges and focused on my on my strengths. Two teachers in particular will forever stand as my heroes. Scot Brewer and Gene Steinke are social studies teachers at the high school and junior high respectively. I was an aide for both of them during my time as a student in their buildings. Through their mentorship of me at a crucial point in my life, they became the standard I set for myself as a young man — and symbolized everything I wanted to become, because they went the extra mile and tended not only to my academic needs, but to my physical, social, and emotional needs as well, and every day during my tenure as a student in the Troy City Schools. Each day at different points in my scholastic career these two men surrounded me with the support, love and encouragement, they taught me the values in life that can’t always be found in the confines of a textbook. Together, Scot and Gene helped me become the adult that I am today that’s why they are my heroes.
It seems that educators today are discussed only in terms of the value they bring to a student’s academic growth. While that is certainly important, to define them in such limited terms is far too confining, because they are so much more than that.
The best teachers don’t just stand in front of a classroom and give advice. They live what they speak, and they recognize that teaching and making a difference in their students’ lives requires the gift of time; time to provide their students with any support they need.
For me, personally, this meant that when I became part of two public speaking groups for Troy Schools. Scot and Gene supported and encouraged my talents while always on hand to be a captive audience when I needed to practice a speech, or build me up on the rare occasions when I wasn’t sure how a particular message would be received, they would even tie my tie in preparation for a competition, because I was unable to do so myself.
I’m quite certain that responsibility was never included in their training manuals.
Yes, they both certainly prepared me to be successful academically at Wright State University, but to characterize their work with me only in only those terms would be to miss out on the very core of job they did for me. Scot and Gene were always there for me when I needed them, despite the demands that being teachers, coaches fathers, and husbands presented; somehow, they always there when I needed them; ready with advice, two ears to listen, or a joke when I needed a laugh. They brilliantly combined the roles of being a father figure, brother, best friend, and confidant. Even today, long after I have graduated from high school, Scot and Gene still fill those roles in my life; and I am all the better for it.
Educators often seem to have a sixth sense about knowing when a student needs that extra bit of attention. For me, for example, other than the fact that I was confined to a wheelchair, there was nothing in my scholastic record that would have given Scot or Gene any indication that I needed what so much of them brought to my life. My grades were above average, and I was never in any kind of trouble. Yet somehow, they knew I needed them, and in doing so they took a boy without a father and taught him to be a man that wasn’t defined by a physical disability, but someone who could use his strengths to help make his corner of the world a better place than when he arrived.
Teachers have an incredible power to inspire students to become all they can be and to change their lives by opening their minds to opportunities and experiences which bring about the gifts and talents that are uniquely their own. But, just as importantly, they can keep those in their charge grounded. I am thankful, for example, that Scot and Gene took me under their wings and were as honest with me as they were supportive. Never did they ever tell me that I could do anything I wanted to do, because we all knew my physical challenges restricted some things I was capable of doing. To pretend otherwise would have done me a great disservice.
But, what they did was foster those abilities they knew I had, and they taught me to do them well. More than anything Scot and Gene showed me that they truly cared about me. That, and not an ability to pass a state test, was the greatest gift they gave me. In the final analysis, state standards and educational mandates don’t matter. Teachers spend their lives caring for kids and doing their best to make a positive impact that will last their entire lives. That is what Scot and Gene did for me-and what good teachers everywhere do each time they stand at the front of a classroom. They change lives in more ways than one can imagine.
And that’s what makes teachers the unsung heroes of our age.
Michael Ham is a city of Troy employee and a member of the Troy City Schools Board of Education.