Ray Bailey always wanted to be a teacher.
That’s perhaps not unusual for someone who grew up around education. His grandmother taught Sunday school. His mother, Paula Bailey, was an Ottawa High School alternative education aide.
“She would come home with inspirational stories about her time in the classroom from the time I was 8 years old until I decided teaching would become my profession,” Bailey told me last week. “As an only child, I was very imaginative, but not very vocal or sure of myself.”
Knowing those traits aren’t typical of those who choose a profession that requires commanding a classroom of young, boisterous bodies, Bailey identified a turning point: It was his senior year at Ottawa High. He was enrolled in a philosophy class with teacher Harry Adrian, slated for induction into the school’s Hall of Fame next month.
“He challenged each of us to present songs and poems of our choice and then lead a class discussion,” Bailey recalled. “Up to that point, public speaking was terrifying. As soon as I stood up in front of my peers, something just clicked.”
Bailey graduated from Ottawa High in 1996 and Illinois State University in 2001. He taught in the Oswego School District before landing in La Salle, where he’s taught fourth and fifth grade since 2009. It’s in front of pre-teens he feels most comfortable.
“They truly are a unique age,” Bailey said. “They are in many ways still kids, yet the young adult they are becoming is developing quickly. I am and hopefully will always be a kid at heart.”
So formative was that moment in Adrian’s class that Bailey still has the packet of song lyrics, poems and quotes he shared with his classmates, complete with blurry ink and the telltale signs of dot matrix printing, something any child of the mid-1990s understands.
The project, and Adrian’s class, were for Bailey a “gateway to challenging myself to become the best version of me that I could possibly be.” He took what he learned about himself and uses it as a pillar of the classroom environment he tries to create for his own students. They’re younger than he was in that philosophy class, but not too young to internalize a core principle.
“If they stay true to themselves, challenge themselves, keep an open mind, stay positive and learn something from each experience, everything else will fall into place,” Bailey said. “All of those things I learned from that presentation, along with the other experiences and influences in my life.”
In a way Bailey is still learning from Adrian’s project. He said many of the lyrics and verses he shared with his classmates aren’t ones he’d choose in 2018, but even back then he understood his own likely evolution by quoting Muhammad Ali, who said, “A man who views the world the same at 50 as he did at 20 has wasted 30 years of his life.”
Bailey also cited the influence of Pirates teammate Ryan Nevins, a 2017 OHS HOF inductee. Cancer took Nevins’ life in 2016, but not before he influenced hundreds of Ottawa students.
“I only knew of Ryan, the supremely gifted, energetic and driven athlete,” Bailey said. “I heard from others the love and passion of music and poetry that he shared with his students. I always looked up to him as an athlete and leader. It turns out he is touching lives in my classroom. Each life touches the next, hopefully in a positive way.”
I asked Ray to share his story for a few reasons. One, I’ve gotten to know him through social media in recent years and his passion for inspiring young people is a testament to everyone who influenced his career. As the father of four school-age sons, I don’t think it’s possible to give great teachers enough credit for the work they do in shaping young lives.
Second, as I thought about my writing in The Times over the past decade, it seemed like a good time to offer fewer opinions and tell more stories. There’s always time to rail on Springfield or city hall, but those folks get enough ink. Meanwhile countless people in our communities toil away almost anonymously, making a real difference, and I want to use my platform to give them a chance to talk about what lights the fire in their souls.
If you know someone whose story should be told, reach out. The moments that move us as individuals might well inspire others.