By Craig Williams
Joey Daniken teaches English to high school students and, from To Kill a Mockingbird to Romeo and Juliet, she appreciates a good storyline, I suspect, a bit more than most. In fact, when I asked her why the humanities, and specifically literature, matter today, she unwrapped a compelling story that left me spellbound.
“Good literature,” she said, “helps us find our voice, and by reading through the experiences of characters worlds away from our own, we develop empathy for others.” She continued, “Learning how to write, and to value that skill, gives our kids greater access to their own voice.” She tells me how she loves to see kids develop their own story, not only because of their own backgrounds, but often in spite of them. But as I listen to her wax very nearly poetic in her expressed love for literature and written expression of stories she shares, I wonder if she sees the richness in her own story.
Joey and her older sister are first-generation college graduates. That’s been a game-changer for both of them, but it wasn’t a straight-line victory. She shared with me that there were times growing up when they were on public assistance, and when struggles and hardships were just a way of life for their family. After high school, Joey began to more clearly see the arc of this generational cycle, and resolved to do something about it. Her first attempt at the college track didn’t go quite as she’d hoped, but it did provide her with an opportunity to work in early childhood education, where she began to understand her ultimate calling as an educator. A few years later, she went back to college at age 30, this time earning her 4-year degree and resolving to become a full-time high school teacher.
She was mid-stride in what psychologists call a ‘pattern interrupt,’ a courageous stand a person takes against the grain of comfort or convenience, reclaiming their power from entropic circumstances. Then, in 2015, just a few years into her teaching career at Vandalia, she was diagnosed with cancer. It was then that she realized, in Vandalia, nobody fights alone. The support she received from her colleagues, from administrative leadership, and from the community was overwhelmingly positive. That’s when she realized what a good choice Vandalia had been. She’d made it to this better place through her own grit and was sustained by a community that saw her humanity and responded with its own. She’d managed a hat-trick pattern interrupt; college, career, community.
In November of this year, Joey will be seven years cancer-free. But when I offer her the metaphorical magic wand, she uses it not for a cure, but for the means to share the world of learning with her students through travel. She would wish for them to be able to experience, first-hand, the wonders inherent in diverse cultures and in the texture of the stories others around the world have lived. Magic wand or not, the students of Joey Daniken are very fortunate, indeed, to have access to her story and to the world of possibilities it will open for them.