The principal of Riley High School in South Bend, Indiana, is a gentleman named Shawn Henderson. Henderson has been Riley’s principal for two years, and his affection for and dedication to the school has endeared him to the students and their families. It is evident in everything he says and does. In addition to his own administrative responsibilities, Henderson attends as many athletic and club events, school competitions and student performances as any given 24-hour day will allow (and his Twitter feed is proof).
Henderson is a physically imposing man, tall and muscular, but has an affable demeanor and a contagious grin. In every conversation with him about Riley, he exhibits that quality that excellent educators strive for: a commitment to high standards fueled by love of the students and belief in their capabilities.
Last week, Henderson released a brief but powerful video on YouTube that offers an even deeper glimpse into the strength of his character. (www.youtube.com/watch?v=nXz1He-09hw&fbclid=IwAR0JrEOGqcE__UQMcPnaF9mIYMFHEL9PqLQJyTnVw42fHPPu49AlYxRs7yQ)
In one of what he calls his “Fireside Chat Conversation With Mr. Henderson” — this one recorded on a street corner in South Bend — he tells the story of how he almost killed his best friend 25 years earlier, at that very location.
In the video, Henderson explains that hatred, gang violence and even murder were common in his neighborhood, and it affected his view of himself. “I didn’t know what ‘being the best you’ meant. So I wanted to be everything that everyone else was,” he says. Henderson and his friend were standing out on that street corner that August evening in 1994 and saw a guy walk by who they knew carried a weapon. Henderson called out to him, “Hey, man. Let me see your gun.”
The man removed the clip and gave the gun to Henderson, who, thinking that there were no bullets in the gun, jokingly held it to his best friend’s head, more than once.
Henderson relates that they were all laughing and cutting up. “I was going to pull the trigger. Because I thought it was the cool thing to do.”
But he hesitated. “I kept hearing this voice say, ‘Cock it back.’ ... When I cocked the gun back and put it up to my friend’s head again, a bullet fell out of it. There was one in the chamber.”
Henderson pauses at this point in the video, and the realization of what almost happened resonates just as strongly in his voice today as it must have when he was a high school freshman. He is blunt when he acknowledges how close he came to destroying a life and a family, all because of teenage bravado and poor choice of role models. “(I was) mimicking things that I’d seen on TV, mimicking things that I’d heard in music videos,” he said.
The story is dramatic, but the lesson, Henderson feels, is a simple one: He did not know what being his best self was. So he closes the video with this admonition for his students: “(M)y words today is to tell you to ‘Be the best you.’ There’s gonna be temptations out there. There’s gonna be obstacles that you’re gonna face. There’s gonna be a lot of challenges and different things that you may not want to do, and you may feel like quitting, but don’t quit.”
I spoke with Henderson a few days after the video was released, and he stated that although he had shared the story with individual students in the past, this was the first time he had made a public statement about it. The timing was right, he says, because students today face even more challenges than he did.
“Sure, we had movies and music videos,” he says. “But students today have the internet, smartphones and social media. They’re exposed to everything, and it’s 24/7.”
That pervasive culture is hard to counter, Henderson says. He also expressed concern that so many of Riley’s students face pressure not to achieve. “They want to fit in, like we all did,” he explains. “But being their best selves is not accepted by some of their peers.”
In that climate, Henderson believes that the best approach is openness and honesty. “The faculty and I want to focus on building relationships,” he says. “I’m open with the students. I don’t lie to them.”
Henderson made the video because he wants his students to understand that he faced many of the same challenges they do — and that he overcame them. So when he tells them, “I believe in your potential,” they believe him.
Shawn Henderson has been surprised by the positive reaction he has received to his video. He shouldn’t be. He may have intended his video for Riley High School students, but his message has a much broader audience. No matter what their circumstances, young people can find themselves teetering on the precipice of decisions that have tragic, permanent consequences.
It takes courage to admit one’s own failings, especially in a leadership position. But the power of example is more persuasive than perhaps any other lesson can be. Shawn Henderson is that kind of exemplary educator.