Custodian offered scholarship following viral video
Last month the internet was introduced to James Anthony, a custodian at Hickerson Elementary School, through a viral video of his being surprised by the school’s kindergarten class with an American Sign Language rendition of “Happy Birthday.”
The video warmed the hearts of the thousands of people who watched it, but Anthony – or Mr. James, as he’s called by Hickerson Elementary School staff and students – was treated to an extra surprise when he appeared on the Nashville-based morning talk show “Pickler & Ben.”
After talking about the video, the Hickerson kindergarteners and Anthony’s dream of going back to school, host Kellie Pickler told Anthony of an offer from Motlow State Community College and its president, Michael Torrence: If he wanted to, Anthony could go back to school tuition-free at Motlow through the Tennessee Reconnect program.
Anthony was shocked to hear of the news, saying he was “very honored” to be given the opportunity.
In fact, all the attention he’s gotten since the video went viral has been “shocking” and “very surprising” to him.
Being a guest on certain shows and having the video shared by large national news outlets was “a good feeling” for Anthony, but being offered the chance to go back to school at little to no cost was “terribly shocking.”
“I am honored,” he said of Torrence’s offer. “I still need a little bit more help in the classroom.”
While he said he has “a little bit of fear” about going back to school, he’s ready to “face that fear head-on.”
For his part, Torrence said making the offer was just something he felt called to do.
“I just thought it was an opportunity to help someone in our community, someone local,” he said.
Torrence said he had heard of the video when it first went viral and was touched by it, but once he kept hearing Anthony’s name he knew he had to do something.
He called the multiple references to Anthony’s video a “soft sign” that he should step in and help Anthony achieve his dreams.
“Our leadership team said we needed to do something about this, because I’ve seen this man three times, so that was my magic number,” he said.
Anthony’s opportunity relies largely on the Tennessee Reconnect program, a last-dollar scholarship opportunity for adults without a post-secondary degree to go back to school and a spin-off program of the Tennessee Promise.
That’s not all that’s being offered to Anthony, however. Torrence said Motlow would also take a few extra steps in order to make sure Anthony has all the tools and resources he needs if and when he attends Motlow.
“We know that in order for him to be successful, there would be some support services that we would have to put in place if he decided to come back and go to school, someone who would be able to interpret for him, to sign,” Torrence said. “We do have third-party resources and partnerships with community members that would be able to support him and work at his goal, academically.”
Additionally, Torrence said, Motlow would be willing to work with him on the cost of textbooks in order to ease the financial burden of attending the school, though nothing has been fully decided as of yet.
“I know that it probably sounds a little hokey, but the term community in community college is what we should be about, and this just happens to be an example that highlights what Motlow State has chosen to do,” Torrence said. “It’s very similar [to] and mirrors what our community colleges and technical colleges across the state would do.”
However, nothing can be done until Anthony makes a decision.
“It’s really in his court at this point,” Torrence said. “We’ll await to hear from him.”
‘I’m going to accept it’
For Anthony, the matter isn’t an if situation, but a when.
“If Motlow State wants to help me go back to school and is willing to work with me, I’m going to accept it,” he said.
The main thing he was concerned about was having an interpreter in the classroom with him in order to understand what’s going on, but other than that, he was excited about the opportunity.
As far as what he wants to study, Anthony said he was thinking something in the realm of social work or counseling.
“Working with students with disabilities would be wonderful,” he said. Helping students with disabilities or challenges to continue their education would be the way he felt he could have the most impact.
“I want to try to find a way I can be useful to society,” he said. “I want to be able to be in a post to help other kids stay in school – especially kids with a disability. They get discouraged.”
Harkening back to his own experiences when he was in high school, Anthony said he wanted to keep students with disabilities from losing confidence in their abilities or in themselves.
“When you’re hard of hearing, you will lose a little bit of confidence,” he said. “I lost that confidence in myself and my ability to do things.”
Anthony also wants to be an example for his son, DJ.
“I want to be an encouragement to my son to earn a degree,” he said. “He only has two more years of high school. I want to show him that, if mom and dad can earn degrees, he can, too.”
Anthony isn’t planning on leaving the Hickerson family in a lurch any time soon, however. He still plans on finishing out the school year with the Hawks.
“I’m leaning towards 2020,” he said of his retirement plans, though he and his wife, Robin, are in discussions on the subject.
For now, though, he’ll still be lighting up the hallways of Hickerson Elementary with a smile.
Erin McCullough may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.