Day after day, Richard Stokes rode the bus past his alma mater, New Hope Academy, until he decided to drop in one day and say hello to the teachers and staff who helped him rise above the problems that landed him at the school for behaviorally and emotionally challenged students.
And he never really left.
The 20-year-old has returned to the nonpublic school in Baltimore as a teaching assistant, helping to mentor students, some of whom display the sort of verbal and physical aggression that Stokes did as a student.
"When I graduated, my key plan was not to look back," said Stokes, who graduated last year. "But this was such a positive place for me. And I always wanted to be a role model, so I thought I'd give back through this."
Educators call Stokes' return to New Hope Academy this year an example of what can result when a school program works for students, even those who are deemed the most challenging.
"We have a decent number of students who come back and visit, but with Richard, it was the volume where we knew it was different," said James Young, New Hope's senior director. "For us, it's kind of full circle to have someone come back and work. You can't have a better testament than that."
Stokes returned to the school last year — saying that if he had never attended there, he would be a dropout — to start a six-week bullying program, which led to him volunteering at the school twice a week. Soon he walked into Young's office and asked: "When can we take this to the next level?"
He was hired full time to assist in classrooms, offering an ear and a perspective that teachers and students say is invaluable.
He began as a behavioral specialist, where he would defuse situations before they started or just employ a strategy he knew better than most: "Students don't go to teachers for all of their problems," Stokes said.
He slowly moved to helping students with academics, and teachers said it has increased their efficiency in the classroom and decreased frustration that some students had in keeping up with lessons.
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"It just makes everything so much easier," said Jordan Atkinson, who has been teaching for five years at the school, which serves students in sixth through 12th grades. "He often models some of his previous teachers. His responsibility is building by the day."
For students, Stokes represents where they can be in just a few years. Many have had a one-on-one conversation with him when no one else seems to understand.
"He can read my body language," said Kevin Johnson, an eighth-grader at New Hope Academy, who admits that his temper sometimes gets the best of him. "Seeing as though he's a really young man, and he went to this school, he understands what we've been through. It was rough not having someone to talk to and relate to — be real with me about my actions and my options."
The experience with Stokes, Johnson said, also presented new options for his future.
"I think I may take the same path as him," he said, "and become a teacher."