James: A teaching legacy

“I try every day to embody Pathways values, by making sure the kids in my class feel at home.”

Some people wear their passions on their sleeve; others speak them aloud.

James though, a Pathways alumnus from Gary, Indiana, is a different kind of cat. He displays his passion proudly on shelves in his basement — colorful assemblages of Japanese anime figurines of all shapes and sizes, called amiibo, lined up in neat rows.

“Being into anime,” he begins, with a smile, “I’ve always been interested in the writing behind it. Pathways helped with that.”

Most Pathways Scholars begin their journeys in high school, continue to higher education, then follow a path into a chosen career. But for James, now a full-time substitute high school geometry teacher at Lighthouse College Prep Campus, a Gary charter school, his personal and academic evolution is characterized by challenges, perseverance, and resilience.

Nine years ago, when James was a Pathways Scholar and sophomore at West Side Leadership Academy in Gary, his Pathways teachers recognized his leadership abilities and worked to shape them.

“Pathways prepared me by putting faith in me and putting me in a leadership position,” Wordlaw reflects. “It put a lot on me to be the voice of a group of people and represent them properly. That gave me a perspective that when you’re affiliated with a group, you represent those people. It gave me a sense of priority in how to carry myself.”

That same year, Wordlaw showed precociousness with the pen. His poem, “Optimistic Outlook,” was published in Scholar Voices, the annual Pathways to College literary magazine, showcasing Scholar works in writing and art. In that piece, he writes, “Storms don’t last forever/neither does pain. That’s why I’m walking on sunshine, even in rain.”

The next year, as a junior, James’s boldly outspoken original work, “The Police Force From Hell,” won a national Scholar Voices award for poetry. The prose James composed in 2016 would, tragically, prove prophetic in the following years when African American deaths at the hands of police officers, including George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and many others, spiked. “Your job is to serve and protect/not to destroy and neglect” James wrote, “but your concern is your check/not the lives of the rest. It’s a likely chance I could die just because I’m black.”

That same year, through graduation and the next seven years, James interned at the Gary office of a national social media marketing company. And then, three years ago, James had an opportunity to fulfill a desire to contribute to the youth of his community — in some cases, the younger siblings of his high school peers. Through the suggestion of a longtime mentor, he applied for and earned his current substitute teaching position.

Quite a bit was on James’s plate then, so he pushed the pause button on his degree program at Indiana University Northwest to focus on his immediate family. He and his girlfriend married. Later, they welcomed into the world their first child, a son. Although they are now safely housed, financial challenges rendered the couple temporarily homeless.

It was as if James were living out in adulthood the very words he wrote as a teen in his first Scholar Voices poem: “People always ask me, ‘How do you stay sane?’ Honestly, I just smile, although I have a lot on my brain.”

Henry Skinner, now James’s teaching colleague at Lighthouse Prep, shepherded James as a teen, through an after-school young men’s program. Skinner says that James, as a teacher, “seems to have a way of saying the right words to students. He always comes at them with a level of respect. When he addresses the class, he says, ‘Ladies and gentlemen…’”

Even spending a few minutes talking to James, it’s easy to see why his students are excited and engaged in his classes. James has both a presence and energy when he speaks that infects all those around him — and as a young educator, James easily bonds with and builds trust with his students.

Henry describes one incident in which potentially damaging drama erupted among a group of students and how James handled it.

“He took those kids who were having a rough time, with their emotions running high and he told the attending staff, ‘Just send them to me.’ That was the end of it. Those students had no more problems.”

James describes his leadership style as one in which he balances tough love with realism, while being compassionate and fair. Those last two traits, he says, are ones he learned from his Pathways teachers.

“A lot of self-discovery was involved in Pathways,” James recalls, “not just, ‘Where do you want to go to college?’ and ‘What do you want to do as a career? but, ‘What do you want to do in college?’ and ‘What makes you the individual you are?’”

“College wasn’t shoved down our throats,” James continues. “There was a lot of love given to us. All the Scholars felt that way. Younger Scholars were like my little siblings. Pathways teachers took us on college tours, fed us, and brought us into the family. They made subjects interesting. They made it so that what they taught was relatable and you could apply that to everyday life. I try every day to embody Pathways values, by making sure the kids in my class feel at home.”

James leans on his more experienced teaching colleagues to hone certain lessons, but he relates to present high school generation students by making his math lessons more accessible to them than abstract.

“I could spit out formulas,” James says, “but I know I have to simplify things. I always give them something visual. I show them what a figure they’re drawing should and shouldn’t look like. That method is more transferrable to students.”

While James was in high school, he also had a Pathways teacher with whom he strongly connected. That teacher took James and his fellow Pathways Scholars to a Chicago anime convention.

Not surprisingly, James introduced, and is the faculty sponsor of, the school’s anime club.

“That club is the biggest that has ever hit the school,” Henry says, with a laugh. “He’s gotta be running a gambit. He was showing a film recently and 40 kids were in there. I know they all can’t possibly wanna watch an anime show — it’s because they want to be in there with him.”