Changed for the Better

Changed for the Better: the power of arts in education, episode 6

Hernz Laguerre, Jr.

Once upon a time, Hernz Laguerre, Jr. graced the halls of Spring Valley High School. Somehow, he balanced his time with his hands in many pots. He played Defensive End and Linebacker for coach Andrew Delva’s Spring Valley Tigers football team and ran track. Countless clubs and organizations benefitted from his participation. Of course, he was also one of my star dance pupils and Thespians, gracing our stage as an actor, singer and dancer. All the while, he maintained high academic standards and enjoyed a close-knit home life.

After graduating in 2012, Hernz enrolled in Syracuse University’s Bachelors in Broadcast & Digital Journalism and continued on for his Masters degree in Television Radio and Film from S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications. Now, Hernz is a talented, self-proclaimed storyteller, videographer and editor.

Hernz runs HWH Productions, his freelance production company for his many personal projects, and recently landed a position with The Detroit News as a Multimedia Journalist. You can visit his page on the Detroit News Website to see his recent work.

If you haven’t guessed, Hernz is one of my all-time favorite people and we have stayed in close contact over the years. More recently, we reconnected and worked intensely together for two different pandemic virtual productions for Thespians (more on that later). It has been my honor and privilege to be his teacher and now, collaborator and close friend. He is, quite literally, one of the most humble, positive and best people I know. 

No, this is not a pandemic pic. We initially reconnected in 2018 when we ran a frozen Turkey Trot together. It was 16 degrees that day. We barely made it through the Turkey Trot with a pulse. The masks were so our lungs didn’t spontaneously freeze.

Looking back

Back in high school, Hernz was the type of person who brought everything that he was to everything he did. A self-proclaimed optimist, he was ever-present, curious with abandon, with a laser-focus on the task at hand. In today’s lingo, he practiced mindfulness and seemed to enjoy being in the moment at every moment. Looking back at his high school yearbook, he was in most of the club photos, and remembered the picture day when he kept stepping in and out of different group shots.

As we chatted, he remembered his younger self as very enthusiastic about everything, loved people, and wanted to get his hands into everything he could. As focused as he was on so many different things, he embodied the exceptional “Everyman.” His hands were in so many pots and easily switched roles throughout the many facets of his high school life, sometimes at the cost of not having enough hours to sleep. “I had to focus on the passions that I had and realized that there were only 24 hours in the day.”

Being so involved, he quickly developed a greater awareness of time and how his effort impacted those around him: “The things that you do leave an impression upon people. You do things and people attribute those things to you.”

Wise words, Mr. Laguerre.

Being comfortable with being uncomfortable

Hernz’s characteristic involvement and investment in the activities he enjoyed eventually benefitted my circle of the world in Thespians and dance (as evidenced by the above pics, complements of Mr. Laguerre himself). I remember him participating in the musicals, thinking to myself how incredible it was that this young man could both enjoy so many differing aspects of the school experience. What a joy it was to be able to discover and utilize his unique talents.

For his part, Hernz had to learn how to learn through being uncomfortable. As a 6’2’ football player who suddenly saw ballet on his class schedule, he had to give serious thought as to whether he’d keep it or not. After all, as a football player, it could have made perfect sense for him to take Weight Training or Physical Education and stay “in his lane.” Thankfully, for both of us, he decided to step out of his comfort zone and stay in the class. There were a few other young men in the class, which gave him some confidence to persist as he worked to make his giant, muscular body move with flexibility and grace. Challenge accepted.

This part of our conversation made me think of athletes like football Hall of Famer Lynn Swann, who used ballet as part of his training. When Steve McLendon was nose tackle in 2013 with the Steelers, he recalled how he discovered ballet in his senior year of college and, at 6’3″ and 320 pounds, how it had built his strength and flexibility to keep him in the game for the long haul (he played with the Bucs for the 2021 season). If only ballet was a required skill set for football players in high school…

Hernz wisely and astutely offered, “Adolescents are not comfortable with being uncomfortable.” What he came to understand is that it’s okay to be in a creative, artistic space. The studio was a safe place to stretch, be silly, be wrong, be out of the ordinary. This gave him comfort in his space and his own skin. Once he fully embraced these things, he was free to explore more options in his high school, college, and professional career. “There’s a freedom to the vulnerability.” Brené Brown would be proud. She has a whole chapter on rumbling with vulnerability in her 2018 book Dare to Lead.

We must be guardians of a space that allows students to breathe and be curious and explore the world and who they are without suffocation. They deserve one place where they can rumble with vulnerability and their hearts can exhale. And what I know from the research is that we should never underestimate the benefit to a child of having a place to belong-even one-where they can take off their armor. It can and often does change the trajectory of their life.

Brené Brown, Dare to Lead

I have long wanted to get more young men, athletes or otherwise, to embrace that same vulnerability. It’s a hard sell, particularly in a district where “maleness” is highly defined as anything but creative and vulnerable. When someone like Hernz comes along, it is a gift not only to me, but to the school community at large. He was an exemplar of the well-rounded young man who is unafraid to take off the armor and share his many gifts.

Lessons learned and applied

Hernz, in his adult wisdom, has tapped into many of the lessons, particularly the ones cultivated from his high school performing arts experiences.

As he reflected on his journey, he sees that he’s become more open-minded, more self-aware, more realistic about time-management. He’s learned to celebrate the small wins and be more aware of how he best produces work. He’s also learned to be patient and go easier on himself if he does make a mistake and learn from his experience. Sometimes, it’s about the small wins that help you understand your productivity. Success is not merely an end result; it is a process that lies on a work-in-progress continuum.

When asked what he might now tell his high school self, he quickly replied, “It’s okay, man. Slow down, write things out, take it step-by-step.” He misses the “undying hopefulness” that he once had that now, as an adult, has gotten a little scarred with age. I’ve always known him to be a “wide-eyed optimist” who was attuned to every possibility. Now, his outlook has morphed into what he calls a “realistic optimism” that navigates the “leakage of doubt” that tends to insert itself with adult crustiness…er…experience.

Collaborative connection

I was so fortunate to work with Hernz both as a teacher and an adult artistic collaborator. On the process of collaboration, he offered, “no one person can put on a show. Everyone has to do their part to make the production work.” He finds it applies to everything he does in his career and it requires giving 100% effort in order to make it work. I think his aforementioned “realistic optimism” served both of us well when we worked on the 2020-2021 virtual presentations for Thespians. He was a fantastic partner throughout the process; we were in constant contact, exchanging ideas, making plans and changing them, and digging into each other’s brains to figure out how to make these new artistic ventures work effectively.

When we were executing How Do We Feel Right Now?, my first venture into playwriting, “plan A” turned into “plan Z” over the course of a few months. From rehearsals to developing a shooting plan to editing, nothing quite resembled our initial vision of how the production would flow. It was an insanely stressful project, since we never knew what the next day would bring, much less the next month. We were in a pandemic and schools were all-virtual – rehearsals were remote and filming the kids in-person seemed a remote possibility. Hernz was instrumental in keeping me from crumbling into a pile of uselessness because of his flexibility, his willingness to pivot, and his passion for the project. There was a pay-it-forward feeling at the time; he was actively applying the lessons he learned in my classroom to make this production possible. It was the greatest gift he could have given me.

In that respect, Hernz’s desire to always give it his all was satisfied.

What does Hernz grapple with?

As he envisions his future, he looks at his station as role-model to younger versions of himself, and realizing how much he means to the older adults who are looking to see him succeed in anything he does. These positions carry weight for Hernz; he values the people in his ever-widening circle, particularly the people who have invested in him. He wants to make good on that promise and make them proud. “How I envision the future isn’t exactly how it’s going to be, but it’s all according to plan. It’s all happening the way it’s supposed to happen.” He is making peace with the fact that everything shifts and looks a bit different than his initial vision.

Another work-in-progress for Hernz is in working to balance his adult sense of being “overly cautious” with his adolescent fearlessness. “I want to mix in that fearlessness and match that together to make the Hernz that I want to be; not throwing caution to the wind, but not looking at it every second.” His recent career move that brought him to Detroit, away from his family and community, was a brilliant manifestation of that struggle, as was the moment he was dropped off at Syracuse for the first time. His working theory, “Being in that moment where you are with yourself and you have no other choice but to rely upon yourself in order to get to where you’ve got to go, I think that builds a strength that is unmatched.”

Sage advice

Hernz had a lot to say to high school students today. “There’s a world outside Spring Valley High School. Keep pressing forward; constantly try to improve upon yourself. Be grateful for where you’re at, but know there is much more ahead. We can go ahead and reach for those things, there’s no reason why they are unattainable…try our best to get there. Once we do that, look back and pay it forward.” He believes that Spring Valley graduates have a responsibility to give back to the community where their roots are; it’s the way to make Spring Valley better.

Needless to say, I’m so proud of my former student and current friend. His star is rising a little higher every day, all due to a blessed mix of humility, inspiration, focus, talent, and a million other virtues that he embodies. He is on the path where he needs to be.

Watch our full interview here!

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