Around this time of year 15 years ago, one of my former students lost his mother. Around this time of year one year ago, another of my former students delivered the most inspirational salutatory address I have ever witnessed. These two young men, Mike Moore and Joey Newell, are both successful college students now.
The stories of how they overcame tremendous adversity to find academic and personal success give us insight into and hope for building an educational system that meets the needs of all Maine students.
With this hope in mind and a great love and respect for these two young men, I hope the words that follow honor their stories and give you a better understanding of the challenges facing Maine’s students and schools.
While Mike and Joey are unique young men, they share a lot of commonalities. Like many young men, they both enjoy sports and video games. They both graduated from Shead High School in Eastport. They also both have Passamaquoddy heritage and spent part of their lives living on the reservation in Pleasant Point ( Sipayik). Most important for the sake of this story, they both know a lot about the elephants in our community and our classrooms.
You see, in a survey of the 2015 state Teachers of the Year, these teachers named “family stress, followed by poverty, and learning and psychological problems” as “the greatest barriers to school success for K-12 students.”
As Jennifer Dorman, the 2015 Maine Teacher of the Year explained, “those three factors in many ways are the white elephant in the living room for us in education. As teachers, we know those factors present huge barriers to our students’ success. … But on a national level, those problems are not being recognized as the primary obstacles.”
Like many students throughout the state of Maine, our students at Shead High School live with the elephants of family stress, poverty and psychological or learning problems daily. The percentage of students receiving free and reduced-price lunch is often used as a way to gauge the number of economically disadvantaged students in a school. At Shead High School, 60 percent of our students receive free or reduced-price lunch.
In Washington County, 26.2 percent of children and 19.5 percent of all individuals live in poverty; the unemployment rate in 2014 was 8.4 percent, compared to the statewide rate of 5.7 percent.
As if those figures were not daunting enough on the county level, Perry, one of the towns Shead High School serves, recently was identified as the poorest town in Maine, with 35.1 percent of its residents living in poverty. While the connection between poverty and low levels of academic achievement are well-established, the stories of how students are able to overcome family stress, poverty and psychological or learning problems to achieve academic and personal success often are not told.
Mike and Joey’s stories give us insight into just what it takes for students who face these elephants in our classroom to achieve.
Mike can tell you about family stress. Mike lost his mother suddenly and unexpectedly on May 18, 2001. While his father, Doug Moore, did his best to provide for and support Mike after his mother’s passing, the loss of a parent can cause tremendous hardships for a family, even if the family has significant financial resources. Dealing with their grief and a lack of resources, Doug and Mike struggled.
As Mike grew, the absence of his mother sometimes was just too much to bear. On occasion, the family and psychological stress of this loss prevented Mike from being able to focus during class. Rather than attend class, some days, the best Mike could do was attend school. On these days, he would find a quiet classroom with a supportive teacher who would allow him to grieve until he was capable of returning to his lessons.
While family stress often drew Mike’s attention away from his studies, he always had caring individuals around him, encouraging him to prosper. Joseph McLaughlin, the recreation director at Pleasant Point Recreation Center, was one such individual. Joe always saw the fight in Mike. He helped Mike develop his capacity to persevere through wrestling and mixed martial arts training. In addition to martial arts techniques, Joe taught Mike spiritual lessons, lessons about character and kindness and Passamaquoddy culture.
While Joe mentored Mike through athletics at the rec, Shead High School special education teacher Christina (Chrissy) Greenlaw nurtured Mike at school. Chrissy supported Mike by helping him manage the details of high school, providing the mixture of love, resources and discipline best exemplified by motherhood.
Throughout his high school years, Chrissy checked on Mike. Did Mike eat this morning? Did he finish his homework? Did he have a clean uniform for his soccer game? Did he have money so he could buy dinner on the way home from his away game? If the answer to any of these questions was no, Chrissy would help Mike change that negative into an affirmative.
While Mike’s father, Doug; his coach, Joe; and his teacher, Chrissy, were watching out for Mike in our community, Mike was also receiving support from his godfather, Robert (Bob) Koronas, from afar. Bob lives in New York, and, while more than 450 miles away, Bob made sure Mike received his and his family’s love and encouragement. I never saw Mike more excited than the day Bob made the drive to watch him play in a playoff soccer game in Bangor during his senior year.
With the encouragement of Doug, Joe, Chrissy and Bob in addition to his own determination to follow his dream of becoming a neurosurgeon, Mike persevered through the family stress of the loss of his mother to find academic success. He recently finished his sophomore year at the University of Maine at Machias, and I know he will be an outstanding doctor some day.
Joey can tell you about family stress and learning problems. He opened his salutatory address at Shead High School’s class day in 2015 by introducing himself and saying, “I’d like to share some personal things about myself. … I’d like you all to know that my life, unfortunately, hasn’t by any means been easy, so there is a lot that I am going to tell you tonight.”
Joey did tell us a lot that night. He described how he was diagnosed with ADHD and Asperger’s syndrome at the age of 2. He shared with us how his “family’s health cracked away at the inside because of grief.” He recounted the loss of his brother, Levi, because of premature birth; the passing of several other relatives within a year; a father struggling with a “longtime addiction to alcohol”; and being separated from his parents and siblings by the Department of Health and Human Services.
He chronicled his family’s eviction from a house in Brewer “a few days before Thanksgiving” in November of 2011. Clearly, Joey was not exaggerating when he said his life “hasn’t, by any means, been easy.”
However, there he was, standing before a crowd in an overflowing gymnasium, delivering a powerful speech as the salutatorian of Shead High School’s Class of 2015. Joey was not only the salutatorian of his class but also a three-year starter and a senior captain on Shead High School’s baseball team. He was the captain of the cross-country team and a Downeast Athletic Conference Cross Country All-Star. He received highest honors in 2015 and an award for exceptional acting in the 2015 Eastern Regional of the Maine Drama Festival.
How was a young man who faced such adversity able to persevere to acquire such accolades? In his words, Joey said, “I want success more than anything, so I will always keep going no matter how tough it gets. Always keep friends close, too. I couldn’t have done all of this without my friends or family.”
Even with his disabilities and the tumultuous family life he experienced, Joey always believed in his dream and found others who supported his quest to make them real. He overcame the challenge he faced in attaining academic success from his disability through visiting “a great place in Bangor called ‘Catch a Falling Star’ for a year or two, so [he] could learn coping skills and things to help [him] with both in my early life” and through the support of his caseworker, Molly Benner, who became a lifelong friend.
He overcame the challenges he faced in his immediate family with the assistance of his aunt, Molly Newell, who provided him with a safe and loving environment during his high school years and who was granted permanency guardianship on July 3, 2013.
The combination of Joey’s will to succeed and the support of extended family and social services have lead Joey through the storm and to the successful completion of his freshman year at the University of Maine at Presque Isle.
Joey will continue to follow his dreams and pursue a career in law at the University of Maine at Orono this fall. He will be a tenacious and outstanding lawyer.
You can do a lot right in baseball and still not score. You can hit a single, a double and even a triple, and unless one of your teammates gets a hit, the likelihood is that you will continue standing on that base and not advance. Educational success in Maine is a lot like that. Students can do a lot right and still not succeed. Sometimes, despite their and our best efforts, our young people find themselves stranded, needing one of us to pick them up and help them achieve their dreams.
We can learn a lot from Mike’s and Joey’s stories. We can see that, when students, parents, families, teachers, mentors and social services work together, our students can and do succeed, regardless of the challenges they face. We, working together as a community, can help our disadvantaged students realize academic success.
When we do, we all win.
Benjamin Brigham is an English teacher and technology coordinator at Shead High School in Eastport and is the 2015 Washington County Teacher of the Year.