The following story was one I wrote recently for the Jersey Journal. It is also up for a New Jersey Press Association award.
SECAUCUS – At the beginning of his first social studies class of each new school year, Michael Gehm gives his students his three rules of history:
1. History is open to interpretation.
2. History has the potential to repeat itself.
3. History is all cause and effect or a connection of dots.
For Gehm, the series of dots that led him to being nominated for National “LifeChanger of the Year” – an award that recognizes kindergarten and grade school educators or employees who make a profound difference in students lives – is an unlikely one.
“If you told me in high school I would become a teacher I would have laughed you out of town,” said Gehm, 54, in a drawl that gives away his southern roots.
Born and raised in the rural town of Bennettsville, S.C., Gehm graduated from high school (where he claims he was a “C” student) and joined the Navy. He served 12 years as a fire patrolman, somebody who launches missiles from a computer.
However, his life would change forever the day of his accident.
Gehm had been repairing equipment on the mast of the USS Normandy, when his harness snapped and Gehm fell 35 feet to the ship’s deck.
“The first thing that went through my mind when the harness snapped was that stupid Tom Petty song ‘Free Fallin,'” Gehm recalled. “I still get goosebumps when I hear that song.”
Gehm was 30 years old, just married and expecting his first child when he became a paraplegic and was medically discharged from the Navy.
“Talk about ‘for better or for worse,’ (my wife) got the worse right off the bat,” said Gehm. “I begged her to divorce me, but the only way I got through that period of my life was because of her. I wouldn’t of made it otherwise.”
Gehm attended rehab for over a year and then pursued a degree in computer engineering at the Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken.
He would never graduate, but there was a reason.
“I had a history professor call me in his office senior year and he asked me if I really wanted to do computer engineering for the rest of your life when I had such a passion for history,” said Gehm, who says he had always loved history growing up.
Gehm dropped out of Stevens his senior year and enrolled himself at Saint Peter’s University in Jersey City, a move he characterized as one of the biggest decisions he ever made in his life. He earned his teaching degree and went on to do his student teaching at Secaucus High School before being hired full time in 1995.
He is now in his 20th year at the school.
Gehm says the irony is that he came to Secaucus because at the time they were one of the most handicap accessible schools in the area.
“Becoming a teacher has been one of the greatest things in my life and I just didn’t realize it at the time,” said Gehm. “I wake up every morning and look forward to being with my students. My wife says during the school year I spend more time with my students than I do at home.”
Today, Gehm teaches two advanced proficiency classes, an honors class, and a law class. He is also the founder and adviser of Secaucus’ chapter of the Junior State of America, a political awareness group that Gehm dedicates an extra 530 hours a year to outside of school.
He lives in Secaucus with his wife and three daughters.
“Mr. Gehm is one of the most compassionate, understanding, and heartwarming individuals I ever met,” said Secaucus High School Principal Robert Berckes. “He leads by example. He means what he says and says what he means.
“He is not popular because he is friendly – he is popular because he respects people. He is a great father figure for the kids and a great brother in education for his staff and colleagues.”
In terms of a teaching philosophy, Gehm likes to think that he is tough, but fair.
“I have expectations of students and I set them very high,” said Gehm. “I tell my students ‘I don’t lower my standards for you, I have standards and I am going to push you until you meet those standards.’
“I wake up every morning and my wife has to help me get dressed,” Gehm added. “It’s not an easy task for me. If I told myself ‘I am not going to do this,’ then I would never get anything done. So I tell my students you have to try. I can accept failure, but what I can’t accept is not trying.”
His students always seem to be thankful in the long run.
“To have a teacher who is all parts hard working, funny, sincere, and imaginative is not something students take for granted,” Gehm’s former student Maria Amato wrote in a testimonial on the LifeChanger of the Year’s website.
“Mr. Gehm is humble, so he’d never talk about how impactful he is, but I can honestly say I’m better for knowing him, and I know my classmates feel the same.”
“Mr. Gehm taught me to always stand up for what is right even if it is not the popular opinion,” another former student, Megan Fitzpatrick, wrote. “He taught me to act with integrity in all aspects of my life – academic, professional, and personal. I can’t thank Mr. Gehm enough for these valuable life lessons that have shaped who I am today.”
Gehm’s prospects of winning “LifeChanger of the Year” are trending upward, according to competition spokeswoman Jillian Rosa, who says Gehm’s profile has more testimonies than almost any of the other 400 educators nominated nationwide.
Rosa said the top three winners – chosen by a committee of past winners and nominees – will be eligible for the grand prize of $10,000, with $5,000 going to the educator and $5,000 going to the school. The program is sponsored by the National Life Insurance Group.
The winners will be announced sometime in April.
“The nomination and all the comments have been very humbling,” said Gehm. “Every teacher believes or wants to believe that they have an impact. I do my job and I love my students and I spend a lot of time with them. But it has been without a doubt one of the most humbling things. I try to reply to every single person who comments.”
Winning would be nice, but it won’t change him, Gehm said.
“In the future I will be doing exactly what I am doing now,” said Gehm. “I could become a principal or a guidance counselor and make more money, but I don’t want to be outside the classroom. I like the one-on-one and the discussion with the students. I like pushing them. I don’t see that changing.
“I wake up every morning and I am excited to come to school. I wouldn’t trade it for anything,” Gehm added. “I traded the use of my legs for teaching and it was a pretty good tradeoff.”