When Teacher of the Year finalists are formally recognized by the Board of Regents, they typically bring their parents, spouse or a special student to join them for the big honor.
For Bronx science teacher William Green, the choice was unconventional but simple: He brought Jane Kehoe-Higgins, a former teacher who literally saved his life.
The moment was not lost on Regents Chancellor Betty Rosa, who invited Higgins to the front of the room to join Green for the emotional presentation.
“Billy just shared with me that this is the ninth grade teacher who saved him from the streets,” Rosa said. “Billy spent much of his childhood living on the streets and in shelters."
They posed for a photo and Rosa and Higgins dabbed away tears.
Truth be told, there have been a lot of tears — both sad and joyful — along Green’s journey to becoming one of two finalists for 2019 New York State Teacher of the Year.
He got off to a rough start with Higgins. The two met in an eighth grade summer school bridge program. Green said he was totally disrespectful and cursed Higgins out, telling her he didn’t need “some great white savior” like Michelle Pfeiffer in the movie “Dangerous Minds.” After three days of Green’s relentless interruptions, Higgins kicked him out.
‘‘This is not a mandatory program,” Higgins said. “You may leave. Now."
That summer Green did a lot of soul searching and wanted to start his high school career with a better attitude. But when he walked into first period class at his new school, he was shocked to see Higgins standing in front of his ninth-grade English class.
“Imagine out of 350 high schools in New York City, we ended up together again,” Green said. “I couldn’t believe it."
Looking back now, he believes their second chance together was meant to be.
“Jane was not only an amazing English teacher, she was relentless in terms of fighting for her students — both inside and outside the classroom,” Green said.
Aside from pushing him academically, Higgins made sure he had a winter coat and food since she knew he was living in shelters and squatting in buildings. She guided him toward books that helped him come to terms with his identity as a gay teenager. When his appendix ruptured, she met his mother, who struggled with heroin addiction, at the hospital and the two stayed in close touch.
“His mom made a great sacrifice by knowing she needed others to help as she battled the disease of addiction,” Higgins said. “Without her intelligence and love, Billy’s success and his place in this world wouldn’t have happened."
Higgins later met with his mother at jail and the two “conspired” to get him out of the city for college.
“We knew that if I stayed in the city, I would have ended up a drug dealer or dead,” he said.
The day after high school graduation, Higgins packed up her car and drove Green to Williams College for his six-week summer science program. She left him with some cash, a phone card and hope.
“He was entering pre-med, and I was glad,” she said. “I told him to be powerful, make money, dream big! "
When he went to South Africa on a medical mission, Green discovered his true love was being an educator.
He also couldn’t forget the last words that his mom left for him on a voicemail message, shortly before she passed away. “I know you think I want you to be a doctor,” she said. “Follow your heart. Go with teaching."
“It really was a calling,” he said. “I knew I had to go back to Spanish Harlem and teach It forward."
After serving as a science teacher at the East River Academy at the Rikers Island Correctional Facility, Green is now a chemistry teacher, the science department chair and new teacher instructional coach at Frederick Douglass Academy III High School in the South Bronx.
He is involved with a wide range of community-based programs, including an LGBTQ support group serving more than 150 kids.
Higgins, who is now director of the NYC Writing Project at CUNY Lehman College, is glad Green didn’t listen to her and became a teacher.
“He chose the right path ... I’m thrilled that Billy teaches and will move on to a PhD program and help us make change in our education system,” Higgins said. “He may not be rich, but he is powerful."