Vanderbilt fans know him as the football player making tackles and catching passes on Saturdays, but to many area youth in Nashville, Jamie Graham is known more for what he does off the field than his heroics on it.
It is a day after Vanderbilt’s season-finale against Tennessee, and Graham is on the move. It has been a long week of school and practice, and a long season with no bye week. A lot of his teammates have missed playing time due to injury, and Graham is no exception; he to suffered a concussion early in the year. His body aches all over. He could spend his Sunday afternoon resting his body on the couch after the day’s practice, but that isn’t who he is.
Instead, Graham is heading to a speaking engagement with a youth football program. He isn’t going to talk about his play on the field or what it’s like to play college football, he’s there to fill them with confidence that they to can make it through the difficult times they may be encountering or will encounter in the future.
Graham can relate to the kids he speaks to. He was raised in Nashville and has already dealt with more traumatic experiences than most people will in their lifetime. His mother was stabbed to death when he was 8 years old, and he’s since lost friends to violence. From it all, he has maintained a straight path that led him to Vanderbilt, where he is working toward his degree in special education.
When Graham speaks to children, he provides them with a beacon of hope that if he can stay on a straight path after what he’s gone through, so to can they.
“I’m basically just trying to give back and trying to tell a story to the kids that it is possible,” Graham said. “That way they actually know somebody that came from where they came from.”
Graham’s work with area youth has nothing to do with recognition. It has everything to do with his desire to help others. He’s not going to talk to children because he has to, he is going to talk to them because he wants to.
“The whole fact of me getting out into the community without anyone telling me I have to is something I enjoy,” Graham said. “I don’t think that I would be out in the community as much if I was part of a program that had to do it because I just want to do it on my own.”
Speaking to groups is nothing new to Graham. Since his freshman year at Vanderbilt, he has spoken to anyone from youth football programs to high schools. People will ask him to speak, and unless something conflicts with school or football, he will oblige.
“I enjoy the fact that I can get out and see kids and just take a little bit of time from what is going on at home because you never know,” Graham said. “I learned it growing up that you never know what kids are going through at home. Just to be able to take their minds off of that and let them know that nothing is impossible and whatever they put their mind to can definitely happen.”
As he has spoken more, he has grown more comfortable and confident in himself in front of an audience.
“The first time I spoke was at Ewing Park Middle School,” Graham said. “I actually wrote a speech out for that one, and I don’t know why. I guess I was a little bit nervous for that one. Ever since then, it has been off the top of my head, and I basically just go from my heart. I try not to fill them with a bunch of cliché sayings that they always hear. I try to speak the truth and not sugarcoat anything.”
Now, speaking to groups has become old hat for Graham, who graduated from Whites Creek High School. Last fall, he spoke in front of his largest group when he talked to students at Hillwood High School as a part of the “Cool Schools” program produced on Friday mornings by WSMV-TV.
“It is easy to talk in front of groups now,” Graham said. “I find someone in the crowd that I can connect with. I get somebody’s eye that I can look at and feel that I’m actually speaking to them. When you are speaking, you never know how many people you are actually touching. Even if it is just one, it is always someone that you are going to touch and will take your words into consideration.” Speaking to another audience Every Monday and Wednesday morning this fall, Graham has found himself in the classroom. He hasn’t been there to take notes while listening to a lecture, instead he’s been there to help teach students with special needs.
It wasn’t too long ago that Graham had his career path mapped out. He would play football as long as he could, then he would go on and teach at a high school and coach football as a secondary education major.
Graham still wants to play football, he still wants to coach and he still wants to teach, but it is who he wants to teach that has changed. This semester, he has spent two days a week assisting a special education class at Pearl-Cohn High School. He has taken to the experience so much that he would like to teach special education when he graduates.
“It has been one of the best things that I could have experienced because you are actually dealing with kids with way more problems than just the regular children,” Graham said. “To see them come to school every day and live with some of the conditions and keep fighting to be something in life, I think it is one of the greatest things to see as a person, and I think every person should experience that.”
Lindsey Bray, who teaches the class that Graham assists at twice a week at 7:30 a.m., has appreciated what Graham has brought to the classroom and school.
“Jamie has been an absolute pleasure to work with,” Bray said. “He always comes in with a smile and never leaves without giving all the teachers a hug. ‘We are Family’ is the classroom slogan, and laughter and love are what build the positive climate. Students must feel safe and cared for before any learning can take place, and Jamie always brings those essential elements to the classroom.”
By helping, Graham has been able to lead the class through different activities and has become a popular figure among the students.
“The kids in the class love me,” Graham said. “They didn’t believe that I was good at football, and they were asking me what my number was and they never saw me play. I brought in some of the pocket schedules with me on them and the classroom went crazy. They looked at the inside and just saw the schedule, and then they turned it over and saw me on the front.”
The positive bond the students have developed with Graham is something Bray noticed immediately.
“The students love having Jamie in the classroom,” Bray said. “They bonded with him the minute he arrived in the classroom and still get excited every time he visits. They respect him as an authority figure and as someone they can relate to, which is the key to being a successful teacher and preventing students from dropping out. He promotes success through hard work and never giving up, no matter what life throws at you.”
Through his time at the school, Graham has formed a fond appreciation for the students. He has connected with the students in ways he had never done before, and the experience has changed his life.
“The enjoyment to be in the classroom and be able to work with those kids is amazing,” Graham said.
The connection he has felt this fall has ensured him that he has found exactly what he wants to do.
“I picked special education because I want a job that in the long run, I don’t care about how much money I make, I don’t care about all the other nonsense others have to deal with … I just want to do what fits me.”
Given what she has seen Graham do in her classroom this fall, Bray knows he has the capability to be an outstanding teacher.
“He has a big heart and knows how to get kids excited about learning,” Bray said. “Students will always know whether someone has their heart in it or not, and I know the class can see his devotion. I know he will make a positive change in this world, and he has all the qualities to become a successful, exceptional educator.”