How One Student Mastered Their Own Mindset
Meet Ricksen Opont. He’s a muscular, baby-faced 20 year-old with a soft voice. When Ricksen was in my 7th grade English class, he was a small shy kid who could barely speak for fear of ridicule. Now, Ricksen carries himself with a humble confidence. He has a passion for helping kids find their inner strength and overcome challenges in their life. And it’s no surprise that he’s good at it. He’s been there. And he mastered the mindset to succeed.
Ricksen was born and raised in Haiti where “education was exclusive and expensive…. If you wanted it, you had to pay.” Ricksen’s mother “worked hard so that [he] could have a good education.”
Teachers in Haiti “gave us a list of words every night. Up to 2 or 3 chapters of vocabulary to memorize.”. The next day they had to recite by memory every word. Ricksen recalls, “the number of words we got wrong is the number of times they beat us.”
Ricksen was sent to live with another, wealthier host family where he attended a ‘better’ school. Ricksen visited his mother on weekends. Separation from his mother was hard. He cried as he left her, every time.
At nine years old, his mother put Ricksen on a plane and sent him to live with an older sister and her husband in Florida so that he could ‘get a better life and a better education.’ Ricksen cried the entire trip and many times when he was in Florida. He never felt acceptance in his older sister’s home. He felt unloved much of the time. Feelings of low self-esteem grew in him. He shaved his eyebrows as a signal that he “felt unloved.”
Ricksen’s only language up to this point was the creole patois of Haitian French. Ricksen was terrified to attend an American school. But on his way to his first day of school the phone rang. His mother asked Ricksen if he would rather live with his father, in New York. Ricksen had been in touch with his dad but rarely seen him. Without hesitation, he said yes and headed north.
Ricksen attended elementary school in Nyack, NY as an ESL student - English as a Second Language. Coming from his the strict, discipline-focused schools of Haiti, he was immediately aware of the difference in educational approach that his new teachers offered. “The teacher’s were like totally different than the way I was brought up so I took advantage of that right away. I mean, I was eager to learn,” Ricksen recounts, his eyes looking up and out with fondness. His work ethic helped him “[pick] up English very quickly. Within 5 or 6 months (he) could have a conversation,” even though his grammar still needed work. But he noticed that his teachers “were more concerned making sure that students actually were learning.”
By 5th grade, Ricksen realized that he was a different learner than other kids. “I knew I was capable,” he says, and he wanted it. Badly: “I ask a lot of questions for clarity, then I attack the task. If a teacher helps me get started, then I am good to go,” he says.
Ricksen realized that he did not have to be too dependent on the teacher or anyone else if he knew what to do. All he had to do was ask enough questions to get there. For a shy kid, Ricksen discovered the power of being his own advocate: when in doubt ask.
“One thing I do need,” he said, “is the reassurance of the teacher that I’m going in the right direction.” For Ricksen, the feeling of being unloved at home in his sister’s house, separated from his mother, carried over into the classroom where he craved the acknowledgement that he was okay. He needed validation, and once he had that, he was fine.
“Teachers are so important,” Ricksen points out. “They lift people up. They give kids hope.”
And then, Ricksen entered middle school. “Being from a different culture made me different from other kids,” said. “I got bullied and made fun of because I was from Haiti and for no other reason.”
Ricksen recalls that his lack of self-esteem kicked in because he lacked confidence. He was nervous and shy. Like many kids, he was a “visual and hands on learner.” If he could watch “someone else do it [he could] do it [himself]” or if someone physically walked him through the steps of a task, he could carry on from there.
However, Ricksen “realized he was different [from other students] because he had a good work ethic” and this helped to separate him from the crowd. “I started getting good grades when I applied myself. School and sports helped me escape the bullying and gave me the confidence to deal with other things…. It showed me that I think differently.”
Imagine, just having a good work ethic separated him from his other classmates.
More importantly, a solid work ethic attracted influential teachers, some of whom had a huge impact on Ricksen. His ESL teacher in middle school refused to accept ‘lesser’ as an option. She wanted to “make sure they would be ready for general education classes’ when they left ESL. She was very demanding, but at the same time, very encouraging. The perfect kind of teacher for Ricksen’s learning needs, and a great match for his work-ethic.
In 7th grade, Ricksen entered my English class. He was small and shy. A sweet boy who wanted to please. He sat in the back of the class and often worked alone. And he worked hard. His writing was sparse, but passionate. For a 7th grade poetry assignment all the students had to recite their poem in front of the class. Public speaking is a difficult but necessary skill to learn. For some kids, taking the stage and moving the crowd comes easy. But not for a shy boy, coming right out of ESL classes with self-esteem and confidence issues.
I loved what he had written and I told him as much. His message was deep and inspiring. It was, of course, a poem about the power of love. All he had to do was read it.
Ricksen got up in front of the class, his big eyes, wide with fear. He looked out over the sea of his classmates, all eager to hear what he had to say. It was daunting and he was petrified. Ricksen started to cry out of nervousness. So, I did something I almost never do. I got up, stood beside him, and let him know he was cared for and it would be okay. Ricksen was crying. I was crying. And when he was done, the class gave him a standing ovation. It was one of the most beautiful moments of my teaching career.
“There will always be a time when you are afraid,” Ricksen says, “but it teaches you that you can overcome those times and become a stronger person.”
The confidence that grew from that experience led Ricksen to make a bold and brave move. For his 11th grade English class, Ricksen signed up for honors, a more demanding class with a heavier course load.. After the first semester of procrastinating and underestimating the course expectations, Ricksen was failing. His teacher suggested that he downgrade to a less challenging class.
Ricksen said, “No.” To leave was to quit, and Ricksen knew he “could not quit on himself.” He told his teacher that he knew honors would be hard, but he wanted the push, and he was willing to do whatever it took.
For every assignment, every essay, he went to his teacher for help. He asked the questions he needed to ask and he attacked each task. It was just a matter of effort and desire.
Still, some texts were too challenging. So with the teacher’s assistance, Ricksen used audiobooks to listen and read. That’s how this Haitian born young man conquered Grapes of Wrath.
Perhaps most influential in Ricksen’s growth is his coach and mentor, Jose St. Victor, better known as St. Vic. St. Vic cultivated in Ricksen the mind of a champion. They were always together in high school and often, when asked if Ricksen was his son, “he would say yes,” Ricksen recalls.
St. Vic developed Ricksen into work-out fiend. He lifted weights for track, where he threw shot-put, javelin and discuss, among other sports. Ricksen excelled and continues to compete at the college level.
Today, Ricksen wants to help other kids find their passion and their inner strength. After finding his own path through the help of others he seeks to pass on his positive outlook to kids who need it. He regularly posts inspirational messages on his social media accounts. He said, if he can do it, anyone can. It’s a great life, you just have to go out and get after it. It’s a choice. And I choose to succeed.
Hi. My name is Stephen Tesher. I am a writer and an educator. Most importantly, I am a father. I've authored three books, staged numerous plays and written screenplays, articles, and this blog.