Teacher uses Haitian childhood to connect with John Tyler students
Jean-Max Dorval doesn't tolerate laziness especially when it comes to getting an education. He expects his students to bring their books to class. And when they don't, he asks why.
"I left it in the locker," or "I left it at home because it's too heavy," are some occasional excuses.
To which Dorval replies, "How did you get here this morning?" And when they say by bus or a parent's ride, he goes for the zinger.
"I would walk about 10 or 15 miles every day to school," Dorval said of his childhood. "I didn't have money to take a bus. I didn't even have money to eat. I had a heavy backpack on my back, and I would carry that all the way, no help. For you to tell me that one book is heavy, that's sad. I say that, not criticizing them, but making them understand my cultural background, how we take education seriously."
If the story sounds like the proverbial "I hiked 10 miles in the snow ..." it might be, but in Dorval's case, he has the real-life experience to back it up.
The 29-year-old grew up in poverty in Haiti. He called a one-room house in which he could see the outside through holes in the walls and ceiling home until he was 16. That's when he, and the seven or so other people living in it, were kicked out because they couldn't afford it. It cost the equivalent of $60 a year.
Dorval often went to school without adequate food and to an environment that would make any teacher cringe. Fifty students could fill a classroom with no chairs or tables for any of them.
Dorval said he even carried his own chair from home one time.
Although the students he teaches at John Tyler High School don't live the way Dorval did, Dorval said he still uses those experiences to better relate to them and motivate them for the future.
"I teach them if I can do it, they can do it," he said.
Looking back at his life, Dorval said something was guiding him even though he didn't always know what he was doing.
An example of this would be his drive to learn English. His father bought him a grammar book and someone else gave him a French-English dictionary. So, he challenged himself to learn 10 English words a day.
"When I was learning English, I always thought that that was my (way) to go out of Haiti," he said.
And, in part, it was.
At 17, he got connected with a Haitian Christian Mission and started serving as an interpreter for doctors and nurses who came to do volunteer work.
It was there he met Cindy Booker, a registered nurse, who along with Tyler gynecologist Dr. William E. Brown, had come to work at the clinic in 2005. Dorval served as Ms. Booker's interpreter and his story touched her so much she told Brown about him.
"My nurse approached me and said that Max was absolutely exceptional, and that if there's any way, (we) could help Max, that would be absolutely wonderful," Brown said.
Dorval said he always was praying for God to use someone to help him so he could go to the U.S. to get an education. A lot of people he met said they would help, but then they left and nothing happened. It was different with Brown.
After hearing from his nurse about Dorval, Brown asked someone at the mission hospital about him.
"I asked (her) what she thought of me trying to get Max to the U.S. to study," he said. "She said, 'I always hesitate to make those kinds of recommendations, but I don't think you can go wrong with Max.'"
So with those two recommendations and prayer, Brown decided to invest in Dorval.
Brown registered him at Tyler Junior College and Dorval obtained the necessary student visa to come to the United States. He arrived in August 2005.
Brown said he believes God used that trip to connect him with Dorval.
"I think I did the right thing," Brown said. "There's no way I could have absolutely known that. I think that was the purpose for me to go to Haiti was to do this for him. Yeah, I made a difference in one person's life, but there's no doubt knowing him that he's making a difference in lots of people's lives."
Upon arriving in the U.S., Dorval planned to study to become a nurse, but after taking a couple of courses such as medical technology and anatomy and physiology, he realized he didn't enjoy the field.
So he earned an associate's degree in general studies from TJC. Then he went to Stephen F. Austin State University in Nacogdoches where he majored in French and minored in Spanish.
The decision to get a foreign language degree was a bit strange for Dorval. He said in Haiti people don't value languages. They want to see someone become a doctor, engineer or lawyer. But he had a gift and he decided to use it.
Today, as a high school Spanish teacher and assistant soccer coach, Dorval said his past enables him to better relate to students and have high expectations for them.
He said at the first district he worked in, many people had a negative attitude toward the school and the students because of their poverty. But he didn't.
"These kids have more than I used to have," he said of his thoughts at the time. "That helps me to relate to them better. Though they're acting out, you know, I try to create a relationship, understanding their resources, how they grow up."
He said his students think it's strange and interesting that he can speak so many languages. He said students have come up to him who are not even in his class and asked about what it's like for him to speak multiple languages and if he gets confused.
"I think that inspires a lot of them to understand that, 'Hey, you can do it,'" he said.
Jessica Horn, a John Tyler sophomore and one of Dorval's Spanish students, said he is a good teacher who helps his students and shows them how Spanish can be useful in their lives.
Although Dorval takes his teaching position seriously, he does not plan to stay in the field forever. He already has a master's degree in theology, and plans to pursue a doctorate in theology or ministry.
Dorval is married to Daphnee, who also is from Haiti. The couple has a 16-month-old son, Jean-Quincy, and a daughter on the way.
Dorval said his desire is to return to Haiti and help his people.
"It seems like every time, every day I spend in America, it's like a burden in a sense," he said. "It's comfortable. I'm good. I have my family here. I'm happy. When I think about what's happening (at) home, when I think about how many people are going through what I went through (in) Haiti, that makes me still sad. It's like a burden in my heart to go, to go help."