What It Feels Like to Raise Sequoits

By Jake Henkel // As told to Sadie Vanderwall

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What It Feels Like to Raise Sequoits

Everyone imagines the feeling of walking across the stage at college graduation as a  fulfilling one full of happiness, pride and a sense of excitement for the future. I saw myself being there since I was in 3rd grade, when I knew exactly who I wanted to be. Most kids and even adults change who they are and who they want to be a thousand times in their lifetimes, but after I ditched the idea of being my Irish garbage man and a farmer like the rest of my family;I knew I was meant to be a teacher.

Over the course of my life, being a teacher was always a promise I made to myself. Teachers impacted my life in ways no one has. My 3rd grade teacher, for example, called me Mr. Messy and I loved it. To any other person they could have seen it as an insult, but I saw it differently. It made me feel like she accepted me as the messy, loud kid. She was my idol and my inspiration to who I wanted to grow up to become. That’s why I want to be a teacher: to allow kids to blossom into who they want to be.

Fast forward to college graduation at Illinois State University. I had done exactly what I had set out to do. It felt like my whole life was supposed to be starting right now, but things felt wrong. My whole life seemed to have lead me down the wrong path. In my final semester of college, I had come to the realization that being a teacher wasn’t cupcakes and roses. My cooperating teacher my senior year of college showed me the hardships of teaching. The structure, the day in the life, all of the guidelines and papers wasn’t who I wanted to be. Being a teacher was black and white, when all I wanted to do was show kids a world of color. I kept asking myself: “Where do I go to now? Who am I?”.

Hi, I’m Jake Henkel of Best Buy. I guess that’s who I was going to be for now. Living in the small town of Antioch, newly married and a full time job outside of my field, I was satisfied, but not fulfilled. It seemed like day to day everything was the same. Everyday wake up, go to work, come home and go to bed. Until someday, something small changes. Something as small as a friend, a drive, and a broken down car can change your life.

Eric got me after work and we dropped off my resume to some nearby schools. We stopped at all schools in Antioch, Lindenhurst, Lake Villa and Gurnee. It felt good, like I was putting good in the world finally. I thought maybe him doing this was a sign I need to be a teacher; the universe had put me here and sent him to me to show me I had to do this. Until it just so happened to alternator broke on the way back, and that was a sign if I ever saw one. I got home with so many doubts in my head; who knew a car breaking down could bring me down so much? After so many mixed emotions of the day, I got home to two missed phone calls – from schools for interviews. I went to bed happy that night, maybe even a little fulfilled. I started that week as Jake from Best Buy and ended it as Mr. Henkel, 5th grade teacher at Oakland Elementary.

If you thought the first day of school was scary as a kid, try working your first day as a teacher. The idea of having parents give you their child, a bunch of books and pencils, and attempt to teach them while having fun is daunting. I was responsible for the growth of so many little kids, they put their trust in me. They expected a high quality education to come out of my class and from me. Lucky for me I was able to stay at Oakland for three years, and separated adult life and college life quickly. My door was finally open for me, but when one door opens, another door closes. And the door of my relationship with my first wife closed after one year of me teaching at Oakland.

Although this was definitely a blessing in disguise, a divorce gave me every reason to leave Antioch. I only knew of her friends, her family, and her favorite restaurants. I had followed her and left everything behind in Normal and in Mendota. Everything could have been so much easier to go back, but I decided to stay. There was something about this small town that urged me to stay. For the next year I drove an hour between school and my house in Elmhurst, almost 2 and a half hours on a bad day. I just couldn’t let go of Antioch. I loved the people, my students,and the town, and no other place could mimic the way Antioch made me feel; it’s special to me. It’s still special to me in the same way even almost 20 years later.  

After teaching at Oakland for three years, I decided to take a job at Antioch Upper Grade School. I was sad to leave all my 5th graders and I had so much respect for young kids passion to learn and succeed. Anytime I asked them to do anything in class, they’d respond with, “How high?” Moving on to middle school, I was faced with kids asking, “Why”? Why are we learning this? Why should I care? Most teachers could turn back around, go back the easy way, because that’s a complicated question to answer, but I loved that. It’s a brilliant question that even made me look at myself as a teacher – why am I teaching this? It taught me to have more respect for these students and to have more passion for what I teach. We all know school is important, but WHY is it important? That is is for the teacher to decide, it was up to me to decide. Why am I here?

Recently, I create a program at AUGS called Why Are You Here? This program allows kids to look at themselves and ask the same question to themselves: why are you really here? The Why Are You Here? movement is important to me and is important to my students because it allows the sport, the class, the organization, to get personal. You get more connected to what you do and will achieve more when you find out why you are there. You learn your goals and passions and core drive to everything you do by asking yourself this. I put my blood, sweat and tears into this program. The impact my teaching and this program has on students makes all the meetings, the late nights driving back and forth, the doubts and loneliness, it was all worth it. I have students come up to me and tell me about how I have impacted their life positively and that, to me, is what teaching is all about. That is why I am here. Every rocky road has to come to an end at some point, and my road has lead me here, this is where I’m meant to be.

I wasn’t a Sequoit growing up, but that is who I am. There is only one team who is the Sequoits, and it’s here. Every student I have met, whether they liked me or not, has shaped me into a better person and educator. Every interaction I have beyond the classroom with students is so validating that I am making an impact in the community, and you don’t find this kind of community in every town. When kids leave for college, I always hear them badmouth Antioch, but you cannot deny that this town hasn’t shaped you into the person that you are in this exact moment. I chose to stay here and have made Antioch my home with my wife and my son. My students are like my family, we depend on each other; I’m here to raise them to the high standards of what high school and being a Sequoit is all about.

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