JOHNSTOWN — Johnstown ninth grader Maci Rose didn’t expect to cry at 9 a.m. on a Thursday. Neither did eighth grade social studies teacher Jennifer Sweeney.
But that was exactly the kind of emotional gut punch that saxophonist and motivational speaker Reggie Dabbs delivered to seventh, eighth and ninth grade students at Johnstown Jr.-Sr. High School on Thursday. He spoke to older high school students later in the day, too, after spending Wednesday talking to younger students in the Greater Johnstown School District. Dabbs also addressed Johnstown families at the Knox Auditorium on Wednesday evening.
And while promotional materials connoted a message that may criticize abortion or shun sexuality, Dabbs’ presentation was entirely optimistic – a broad and powerful buzzsaw of hope punctuated with music and lots of humor.
“When he started I was a little bit like, ‘What’s going on here? What is this all about?’ It was kind of shocking and bold,” Sweeney said. “And by the end, just the positive energy and his message, I thought it was phenomenal.”
Dabbs, who no doubt tailored his delivery to the age of the audience, spent the first half of his roughly 45-minute presentation charming the students with jokes and music.
For instance, he conducted a singalong by playing pop songs like Katy Perry’s “Roar” and “Let it Go” from “Frozen” on his soprano saxophone. A joke about a ninth grader’s Abraham Lincoln beard landed particularly well. As did his detailing of the four differences between boys and girls – girls can never go to the bathroom alone, girls sneeze pretty, girls are superior drivers, and when a dollop of toothpaste drops on the sink girls wash it away while boys scoop it onto their bristles, according to Dabbs.
The students ate it all up, belting out lyrics and swaying their cell phones above their heads at Dabbs’ urging.
But then Dabbs quieted them down, and the presentation took a serious turn as he told a personal story about how in first grade, he didn’t have a last name. That’s because he’d been born to an unwed teenager who lived in a chicken coop in Louisiana. Promotional materials said Reggie’s birth mother had contemplated an abortion, but Dabbs did not say this in front of the students. Instead he talked about how his birth mother called up her favorite teacher, Mrs. Dabbs, to help care for the new baby. And Mrs. Dabbs, an English teacher, and her husband, a school custodian, officially adopted Reggie when he was in fourth grade, bestowing the Dabbs name upon him.
Dabbs spoke candidly about his struggles as a kid, including the time he was 13 and awoke at 3 a.m. with a voice in his head telling him “nobody cares about you.”
When his adopted father came into his room after hearing him cry, Dabbs rediscovered he was truly loved. He told students that while life is a rollercoaster, “never give up on the ride.”
Dabbs ended the presentation with a rousing rendition of Justin Bieber’s “Let me Love You,” and all the students rose to their feet to sing along to the chorus: “Don’t give up/I won’t give up.”
After the presentation, Dabbs said his goal is to leave students with a message of hope.
“No matter who they are, where they are from, when they leave, they’ve got hope today,” he said. “We are just trying to let people know that no matter what you’re going through, there is hope. I may not know the details of your life, but our lives are right beside each other.”
Dabbs, who lives in Florida but also identifies as a Texan, has been sharing his message professionally for more than 30 years.
His personal message resonated with students like Rose.
“When he said he wanted to give up, it made me emotional because I’ve felt that,” said Rose. “My biggest problem was feeling alone and not knowing other people have gone through this. I felt like nobody understood.”
Sweeney, who comforted Rose as she teared up, said Rose’s strong reaction speaks to the depth of the burdens students live with.
“It just makes you realize that these kids are carrying so much more with them than what we know,” the teacher of 25 years said. “She is not a student that I would think of as being triggered by this. But it just goes to show you that you never know.”
Scott Chamberlain, a math and computer science teacher, said throughout the presentation he was looking around the auditorium and making a mental checklist of all the kids he suspected were relating to Dabbs’ story.
“I was mentally matching the kids that I knew who were in similar circumstances – who had a comparable, difficult backstory,” he said. “Then also knowing that there are a lot of students that I haven’t taught and that I don’t know, and I can just imagine how that is multiplied across that whole audience of students. I don’t know their situations but it is probably just as heartbreaking.”
Chamberlain said it was obvious that Dabbs made an impact.
“I think they connected to him just because his approach was so disarming and he was so relatable,” Chamberlain said. “His sense of humor, his talent, just his rapport with the kids.”
Johnstown Principal Scott Hale said, after talking with fellow educators at other schools in the region who’d brought in Dabbs to present, he knew it’d be worthwhile to welcome the motivational speaker in Johnstown.
“You understand that every kid has their own story and every story is their individual truth. Sometimes their individual truths can lead to that wall,” Hale reflected following the assembly. “To have someone who has had their own wall and to inspire them to say, ‘It’s OK, it’s OK to say I’m struggling,’ it can give any kid hope that they can succeed.”
Still, even if Hale had a sense about the dynamo he was bringing into his school, most people in the auditorium clearly had not braced for Dabbs’ energy. As Dabbs himself said during the presentation: “Y’all didn’t see me coming this morning, did you?”
Andrew Waite can be reached at [email protected] and at 518-417-9338. Follow him on Twitter @UpstateWaite.