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Bradley Dehart taught English at the International School of the Americas (ISA), a small magnet high school in the North East Independent School District (NEISD).
Dehart passed away on Saturday, Feb. 18, after a car accident on the frontage road of Nacogdoches Road, where his car struck a light pole in the early morning. He was 45.
On the Sunday following Dehart’s passing, more than 200 people descended on the otherwise empty campus to share in one another’s grief in an emergency session led by NEISD’s crisis counseling staff. Among the mourners were faculty and staff, current and former students, and parents. Their presence – and the outpouring of grief and love, both on- and offline – in the week since, illustrated the impact a teacher can have on a community.
Dehart taught at ISA for 15 years, where he was known to generations of students as a buoyant, energetic presence on the small campus. He played guitar with two fellow teachers in a band called The National Standard, originated and managed the Garage Rock Club, and organized the school’s annual Battle of the Bands fundraiser. He was father to three young sons – Isaac, Parker, and Elliot – and husband to wife Laura Dehart.
More than 1,000 people have joined a private Facebook group set up in Dehart’s honor. Students have posted videos of their teacher playing music and have created graphics with his signature phrases: “What a world,” to express wonder or delight, and “There it is!” when a student said something especially insightful in class.
In the group, current and former students and faculty have spent the week sharing memories of a man who many say changed their lives in profound ways – because of his almost unerring positivity and because of what Galen McQuillen, a former math teacher at ISA who posted in the group, described as a kind of radical acceptance.
“When I was 22 years old and didn’t know anything about the world, I thought my role – as somebody who had an education and had a lot of exposure to culture – was supposed to be a kind of a cultural arbiter,” McQuillen told the Rivard Report. “[Dehart] showed me, mostly through example of just how kind he was to everybody’s desires and ways of expressing themselves, that there is always a multiplicity in what is good and acceptable and meaningful to people.”
McQuillen and Dehart ran the Garage Rock Club during their time teaching together.
“He wanted to give [students] a place where they could go and feel free to just let themselves express in whatever way they wanted to, whether that was punk rock or death metal or folk or screamo or whatever it was that they were into, he wanted a place where they could do that,” said McQuillen.
“No matter how silly, or poorly conceived, or poorly rehearsed their ideas were, he would always just say, ‘Yeah, here’s the part of that that I love, and I can’t wait for that to come up a little bit.’”
“So you know, it was more than just humility, because Brad was above all else exceptionally humble. But it was a sort of transcendent level of humility that says, ‘It’s not that you’re nothing, it’s not that your tastes are just one person’s, it’s that yours is one of many, and the many together is what makes meaning,’” McQuillen said. “It’s this diversity of ideas and this diversity of approaches to teaching kids, and seeing kids, and approaching them that’s meaningful and important.”
Nick Polito, who teaches physics at ISA, and played in The National Standard with Dehart, described his friend and colleague similarly.
“He just exuded positivity toward the students, really toward everybody,” he said. “There was never a wrong idea, there was never a wrong way of thinking about something. [If] someone said something totally out of the blue it was just, to him – and he made everyone else feel that way too – an exciting new opportunity to see a different perspective.”
Bianca Lopez, who graduated ISA in 2013, shared one such story of Dehart’s particular brand of acceptance. During her junior year, she struggled to focus in class.
“One day I got up and was going out for a bathroom break, and he followed me out to the hallway,” Lopez told the Rivard Report. “I had never seen him give anyone a harsh talking to. But he was like, ‘Bianca, I have been timing your bathroom breaks all week, and you’ve taken like an hour in bathroom breaks. How do you feel about that?’ I instantly felt so embarrassed. I remember distinctly, he said, ‘You just can’t take it?” I teared up in front of him and we sat down in a little nook in the hallway.
“There was always this sense that he was a retired troublemaker, that he was one of us who grew up,” Lopez said. “And it was always important to me that he was like that because I never felt like someone who could be a great kid all the time, and I feel like he understood that. And I feel like Mr. Dehart saw the [good] in people like me.”
Since Dehart’s passing, teachers and students at ISA have supported one another in their grief. They have worked on exercises together, trying to find meaning in Dehart’s sudden absence.
Mitzi Moore, who teaches digital interactive media at ISA, said she and other staff had worked with students on a protocol provided by NEISD’s crisis counselors.
“It involves a lot of Post-It notes, and asking questions and sharing,” she said. “The interesting thing about the questions is that they moved from hopeless questions to more hopeful questions. So as we engaged in the protocol, the mood in the room just shifted. And you could see that instead of being devastated, people were appreciative of the gift that they had been able to know Mr. Dehart.”
Students and teachers emerged with ideas on how to honor Dehart’s memory in their lives.
“Some people said things like, ‘I’m going to be more positive,’ or ‘I’m going to accept everybody for who they are,’” Moore said. “One person said ‘I’m always going to write an MLA heading on my paper.’”
Moore explained that in his classes, Dehart would ask what he called “noble questions.”
“‘If you could do anything and not worry about money, what would you do?’ Or, ‘What do you burn for?’” Moore recalled. “He helped students get at their most important mission in life and figure out what they wanted to do. And that came up in the questions too. That I want to find what I burn for and live my life with for those things.”
McQuillen said Dehart practiced that ideal in the classroom every day. To Dehart, he said, the students were always the primary focus.
“They weren’t there to learn subjects, they weren’t there to learn the things that the State of Texas said that they had to learn. They were there to learn how to be human, and how to be the humans that they wanted to be. And you know, maybe Walt Whitman can help them get there. And Brad was there to help point them in that direction, and he did it masterfully.”
Since his passing, current and former students have raised more than $75,000 of what was originally a $10,000 goal on a GoFundMe campaign to support Dehart’s family.
“The students, on their own, have developed all of these different ways to remember him,” Moore said.
“When we came to school there were 500 hearts on the lockers that said “We heart Dehart,” she added. “And people made bracelets – I’m wearing one right now – that say ‘Be-Hart.’ I think that’s some sort of inside joke.”
Students developed a Spirit Week in Dehart’s honor, Moore said. Each day, they did something special to honor their teacher, such as wearing “Plaid for Brad,” as Dehart was known for his plaid shirts.
“[Thursday] was Teacher Appreciation Day,” Moore said. “I didn’t know what that meant until they started bringing us flowers and candy and presents, and really sweet cards or letters, so we’d know that they appreciate us.”
“The students, the things that they have done for each other, that they have done for the Deharts, it’s just wonderful to see,” Polito added. “Some that I don’t really even know have come to see … if I’m doing alright.
“And that’s [Dehart], right there,” he said. “That’s just the kind of person he was, and he brings that out in people, even now. Already we can see those ripple effects of his life and the way he lived it.”
A note from the author: I graduated from ISA in 2010. During my time there, Dehart was the Dean of English and was a ray of light in human form. He was one of the best parts about going back to visit my high school, and I will miss him greatly. What a world, indeed, that we spent some time on it with him.