Changed for the Better

Changed for the Better: the power of arts in education, episode 14

Jean-Guerdy Saint-Louis

In today’s episode, we travel back to the class of 2003 and get an inside look at the life of a first responder/law enforcement professional. The epitome of “protect and serve,” he has had a long and varied career, who has worked in a multitude of areas: EMS, fire, law enforcement, emergency dispatch. Even back in high school, he started his commitment to serving his community, volunteering for the Spring Valley fire department. 

Jean-Guerdy Saint-Louis was born and raised in Montreal, Quebec and as fate would have it, he would be living in Spring Valley, New York at just the right time for us to cross paths. I remember him as a gregarious, enthusiastic young man with a beautifully bright smile. He was one of the few young men who braved the waters of my dance class, eager to learn, and thrived in performance experiences like the dance concert and Thespian musicals. In recent years, I have enjoyed random Facebook connections with him, where he has told me just how important those experiences were to him then, and how much they have helped him, even today.

After spending his early adult life burning the candle at both ends as an emergency responder, Jean-Guerdy is now slowing down just a bit, trying to enjoy his day to day life a little bit more. His family, a blend of teenagers and small children, have taken more of his focus; instead of running towards fires, he is finding more quiet time for his babies (a 3-year-old and a 19-month-old). The work phone gets turned off when he is off-duty, and he has created stronger boundaries so he can take care of himself and his young family.

Like most of us, Jean-Guerdy saw the pandemic as a time where there were both losses and gains. First responders, of course, took the brunt of the losses. They all worked seven days a week, picking up the slack for each other as COVID went through each team. The fear of bringing the virus home was imminent, and the importance of staying healthy was a severe reality check. He got the virus twice – once early on, again with the Omicron strain. Though the second bout was less severe, after being vaxxed and boosted, the lingering health effects were no less real. Imagine running into a fire and not being able to catch your breath. Scary.

He also noticed the eerie quiet of his community; while the hospitals were brimming with patients, the roads were empty and businesses were shuttered. As he observed the oddity of his environment, he understood that while this too shall pass, there was a significant shift in his perception of his world and there was no way to know when or if things would return to normal.

One of those shifts that came out of the pandemic for Jean-Guerdy was learning to embrace disconnecting from the world, even temporarily. We talked about how technology had improved so dramatically since he was in high school and how dependent we have become on it. He commented on the growing fear of the unknown, likely exacerbated by that hard focus on technology and how it brings the outside world much closer to our inner circle.

He took advantage of the required social isolation of the pandemic and used it as an opportunity to spend more time with his family going camping, playing in the backyard and getting his hands dirty in the garden.

We closed the circle a little bit; we closed out the social media dependency, everyone always on their phone and running around, the hustling and bustling got slowed down and we really took a step back in time. It was very reminiscent of my teenage years; you wanted to reach me, I’m not home, well, you can’t reach me. You don’t know where I am, that’s all that it is.

He’s learned how to put the phone down, check in once in a while so he doesn’t fall too far behind, and then spend his energy and attention on what matters most – his family.

Young Jean-Guerdy

After all of the reflection on how challenging today’s world seems to be on our senses, the mention of high school brought back that familiar smile. Jean-Guerdy was a sponge for learning, relatively naive to the challenges of adult life.

Being young and so optimistic, so ready for the world, naive in a lot of ways, we are given all of these skills, desire and abilities to perform and be great and solidify ourself into the world. We quickly realize we are literally a grain of sand in the sandbox.

While for some, that idea may seem cynical, he looks at it through a different lens: all those grains of sand working together have the ability to have a much larger impact on the world than any single individual one could. This seems to play directly into his affinity for his career path. No matter what area of first response he was in, he was always part of a greater team that worked together to help heal his community. It also explains, in part, his love for the performing arts; working together with a group of like-minded people to create something much larger than himself was very appealing to him.

In high school, Jean-Guerdy was one of the few young men who decided to take dance instead of PE. While technically, he was initially “thrown into” the ballet class, it tapped into some deep-seeded needs and interests that were valuable to him:

I took that class because I was like ‘I can’t do one more fake basketball game, one more run around the field’; I wanted something new. Dance was something that I loved but I never had time for it. To have it now put in a place where I can absolutely take it and make time, and it’s part of my curriculum; it was so amazing and freeing. Walking into your class, everything was just left behind. That history exam, who cares? Let’s get some steps in.

For Jean-Guerdy, dance was more than just a class for credit. He pulled many lessons from the class that he found he could apply directly to everything in his life:

I know it taught me to live in the moment a bit more and to appreciate the little things, the different levels of expression. It helped me in my own careers – body language, facial expressions – all those things I learned in your class. How people cannot hear what you’re saying but they can see it, and you need to tell that story using your body; you learn a different way of communicating. Those unique experiences build you. It made you more resilient. It helped me get through life as it stands, as I fall and I needed to stand up each time.

Of course, Jean-Guerdy took some significant ribbing from his friends for taking ballet class. However, when he started to see the benefits he received form the class, none of that mattered. He developed resiliency, and a way to process the things that he was going through. For example, being a young Haitian man, where feeling emotions is often not a culturally acceptable thing, Jean-Guerdy was very appreciative of having a safe space where he could feel what he needed to feel.

(We talked about this a bit in episode 10 with Tendrina Alexandre.)

The importance of having and accepting your emotions; boys having emotion was very taboo. But this [the dance class] was a safe space that was acceptable to feel emotions through the music and dance, so it allowed you to get accustomed to your emotions. As teenagers, our emotions are all over the map; everything is the end of the world. Being in an environment where you can process that safely and not have to worry about judgement or fallout from feeling emotions was so important.

He also enjoyed participating in our Thespian musicals as well. Many of our Thespians are athletes, and having the artistic, humanistic training from our shows helped him to regulate the downturns in his life:

I’d lose a race, I’d come off the bus and be like ‘okay we’ve got to go to theater practice now.’ Theater practice helped me process that emotion of working so hard to get to something and not really achieving it. It’s okay; it’s a lesson for next time.

Part of my process with dance and theater students is to do a post-experience debriefing; a reflection on the activity so kids can check in with themselves and recognize whatever feelings they might have about it.

Jean-Guerdy still uses that strategy, particularly as a first responder who sees a lot of traumatic events. It’s hard helping people through the worst parts of their lives. He shared a little “then and now” experience from his career. Twenty years ago, when first responders went through traumatic events, the attitude in the industry was “suck it up buttercup.” Now, the debriefing and processing of their emotional responses is par for the course. There is now a place at the table for the discussion of mental health in emergency work.

So what does he do to decompress when he gets home after a difficult work day? He leans on his love for theater, puts a movie musical on television and lets it all wash away:

It brings me back to those great memories of being on stage and in class and it really helps me regulate, even today. I can listen to a song that tells me exactly how I’m feeling; sometimes I don’t know how I’m feeling, I can’t put it into words, and then you listen to a song and it’s like ‘wow, that’s exactly how I’m feeling.’

This is what the performing arts does for kids. It provides a vehicle for kids to connect and process those difficult emotions that are sad, scary or traumatic. The best part is that these are important skills that kids learn as part of the regular course of practice. These skills become permanent fixtures in the minds and hearts of growing adults that get carried through to the next generation. The arts teach us how to be better, more effective humans. The best part: Jean-Guerdy is actively sharing what he learned with his children, and teaching them those same lessons.

He’d like to remind all teenagers of this very important concept:

It is okay to not be okay, and it is important to say when you are not okay. You don’t need to always be okay. It’s okay to need to speak to someone other than mom and dad and confide in someone that you trust.

How has Jean-Guerdy changed?

He admitted that in high school, he always put on an air of self-assuredness. However, deep down, he always felt like he was putting on a show. This is very typical with adolescents who feel like they must appear unstoppable, unbreakable, with a shiny patina that fools everyone (it fools no one, by the way). Now, after all the years of life experience, and processing everything that life has thrown his way, I finally feel like I’m fitting in my own skin. I’m finally the person that I always aimed to be. He brought up my favorite phrase which I use all the time in class: fake it ’till you make it.

He remembers the focused simplicity of the high school routine, where his sole responsibility was studying and learning new things. He also misses that “butterfly” feeling that you get with new experiences, which he doesn’t experience as much as a crusty adult. Perhaps his many career changes within the auspices of community health were driven by his love of learning new things.

Still grappling with…

Jean-Guerdy felt that his generation were taught to be very career-focused. He has given so much and sacrificed for his career that it has become tough to let go. But I’m realizing now that it doesn’t matter what I do, as long as I’m happy doing it. He has seen many changes and shifts in his career path. He spent the past 20 years chasing fires, chasing criminals, saving people’s lives, and training others to do the same. Now, he’s looking ahead, taking his aging body more into consideration and figuring out how to spend his time in more restorative ways. He is wise to the idea that if you don’t take care of yourself, you can’t take care of others; burning the candle at both ends is not a healthy option, especially when you have little ones.

Self care

Stepping back [from work, family, friends] – sometimes, you need ‘you time’, and it’s just as important as being with them because it makes you better in their presence when you take that time.

Jean-Guerdy makes it a priority to take care of his mental health. That is especially important being in law enforcement and emergency response. They, of all people, need better supports and better outlets to process the complex and often traumatic events that they experience in their day-to-day lives. With the right level of support and intervention, they can be even more effective in serving their communities so they don’t go into “robot mode.” Jean-Guerdy looks at the state of attention on mental health in his field:

In the last decade, it’s the best I’ve seen officers supported because we can take a leave and say ‘I need to speak to someone; I am on the edge and I feel like if I don’t go speak to someone I am going to become ‘that guy’ who made ‘that mistake.’

Sage advice

Jean-Guerdy had a few gems to share.

Enjoy it. Don’t rush through it. The people who got me to slow down and be in the moment – those moments have shaped me. Taking the time to be present is so important.

He is also a big advocate for college and lifelong learning.

Having that studious mind that can absorb and learn, keep it going. Keep your interests up. I find that the darkest times in my life was when I stopped the process, when I was stagnant. I didn’t gain anything new, I didn’t try anything new. The moment I tried something new, a new window had opened. The desire to learn came back.

And my favorite:

This too shall pass. You will weather that storm, just like you’ve weathered all others.

Thank you Jean-Guerdy, for your dedicated service to keeping people safe. It is people like you who make this world better.

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