Throughout the course of time, there have been many schools that have proven to be special environments for kids to take part in.
However, few, if any of them, have as many locals singing a school system’s praises as much as the Bloom-Vernon Local School System does.
There have been many stories that have been passed around of the kind of dedication that teachers have shown to their students, which include staff members coming in at 6 a.m. and staying after school until 4 p.m. to assist students — who may not have computers or the ability to work from home — with their studies and even giving students clothes, food, or other necessities that will help them survive and thrive as they begin their foray into the real world.
This latest story, however, may be the biggest testament to the sacrifices that Bloom-Vernon actually makes for the students.
Joden Blackburn is a 13-year old seventh-grader at South Webster Junior-Senior High School. Like most kids his age, Blackburn is just coming into his shell. He’s a quiet young man who doesn’t talk much.
But he doesn’t have to — because the actions and the transformation that he has made as an individual speaks for itself.
As a sixth-grader, Blackburn accomplished a amazing feat by scoring well above the state and school averages in math, english and language arts, and social studies by accumulating scores of 739, 737, and 766, respectively.
Those marks, alone, are impressive.
When you consider the journey that Blackburn has taken to even get to this point, however, no superlative would even come close to describing the qualities that the young man has in his arsenal. That’s because the narrative could have been a much, much different outcome.
When Blackburn was a fifth-grader in 2015, it seemed like nothing would ever end up going his way. His Mom was dying from complications of drug abuse, and his Dad, who also was suffering from drug abuse problems of his own, seemed to care more about where he would get his next fix than if his 11-year old son had a comfortable house to call his own — leading Blackburn to resort to other ways to obtain a meal.
Blackburn’s neighbor, Rose Watts, proved to be at the right place at the right time for the 11-year old on many occasions. Watts fed Blackburn and occupied the youngster for hours at a time.
“I talked to (Aunt Rosie) a lot,” Blackburn said. “I came up to her house about six months before (she obtained custody of me). She fed me. She had a bunch of food, so I’d come up to her house and she’d feed me.”
“He stayed at the house until 10 p.m. every night until I would make him go home,” Watts said. “He didn’t want to go.”
As Watts got to see Blackburn more and more often, the South Webster lifer — a Class of 1983 graduate — could tell that there were a lot of basic qualities that Blackburn lacked. In addition to not wanting to head home, Blackburn was rail-thin to the point of undernourishment and was forced to wear the same clothes on a regular basis.
“Joden was malnourished,” Watts said. “He wasn’t in very good shape. He just wanted to stay away from (his house) all of the time. I knew that there was a problem because he never wanted to go home. He was a lot skinnier then, and you could tell that he wasn’t being fed right.”
As Rose found out, Blackburn had many additional legitimate reasons for not wanting to return home. Because of his father’s drug addiction, Joden was left alone on many occasions in a tent and then an abandoned house — with no food around to eat.
“I just had to get used to it,” Blackburn said. “I knew that I wasn’t going to have food. I watched a TV show — I forget what it was — and it said, ‘Do whatever you can to get food.’”
So Joden took matters into his own hands.
Desperate for food — as any of us would be under similar circumstances — Blackburn stole to fill his hunger needs and even ate food that had been deposited into trash dumpsters in order to survive.
“One day, I was down there at Fresh Stop, and I saw where the employees were throwing out a box full of stuff,” Blackburn said. “It looked like food, and I heard them saying, ‘Bring all of that cold food out and throw it in there.’ I just thought that there was no reason to do that. I had to deal with it and steal a lot.”
Rose, too, saw firsthand how bad the drug addiction had become for Joden’s father. On his 11th birthday, Watts gave Joden $10 to spend for his birthday. Joden’s father made him spend it all on cereal and milk, after Joden didn’t receive anything for his birthday from his Dad.
“One day, he came up to the house,” Watts said. “It was his birthday. He didn’t get anything. I gave him $10. A few minutes later, his Dad came up and wanted to know if we would take him to the store. We took his Dad to the store, and he made Joden buy cereal and milk out of his birthday money.”
So this young fifth-grade boy, who had worked to support his Mom and who had worked up the courage to eat out of dumpsters in order to survive, not only didn’t get anything, but had to spend $10 that he deserved on his father. Even with those circumstances in front of him, Blackburn persevered.
“I don’t know,” Blackburn said. “I just kept telling myself, ‘I guess I’ll give him a break.’ He needed money, so I gave it to him. It’s just money, and I didn’t really know how to use it that much. I always kept jobs and tried to keep jobs because I would come back and forth between my Mom and Dad’s house. I used to work in Sciotoville a lot because I had to pay a lot of money for my Mom’s medicine. It took a lot of money to pay for that.”
After spending money on his parents for much of his childhood and seeing how he was treated under the care of his parents, Rose began taking matters into her own hands by making up chores for Blackburn to do so that Joden would have the money to spend on him. Eventually, Watts gained custody of Blackburn for good.
With a stable roof now over his head, Blackburn didn’t have to worry about survival anymore. For the first time in his life, Joden had a constant presence that he could look up to — one that would be more concerned about him over a quick fix.
As expected, however, Joden had his struggles. When Rose first started raising Blackburn, she had to deal with phone calls concerning his overall behavior. The kid with street smarts well beyond his years had to learn to take on a new side.
“Joden was a really bad disciplinary problem whenever he started in the Bloom-Vernon system,” Watts said. “They couldn’t handle him.”
However, Watts and the South Webster community banded together. When Blackburn lied to Rosie or stepped out of line in the classroom, Watts would make the youngster write sentences, which Blackburn hates to do, and smashed Joden’s cellphone after further disobedience forced Watts to that point.
“I’ve been raised in the South Webster community all of my life,” Watts said. “I know most of the teachers. They all pulled together and they all helped when he had a problem. They would call me and we would talk about it.”
On several occasions, when Joden, who plays baseball, proved to be a problem in the classroom, South Webster Elementary School teacher Jason Baker would make Blackburn put in extra work on the baseball field through conditioning drills as part of Joden’s punishment.
“The teachers pulled together,” Watts said. “Anytime Joden got in trouble at school, (Jason) Baker would discipline him on the baseball field, because there were times where I just couldn’t always be there. When Joden needed someone to talk to, they talked to him, called me, and said, ‘Joden’s upset,’ and we’d work it out. We all kept working together and kept telling him what he could be if he applied himself.”
However, the same people who disciplined him also showed support in other ways. In fact, Rosie said that teachers from the Bloom-Vernon Local School system, as well as local churches, donated so many clothes to Joden that she had to tell them all to stop giving him so many clothes due to the fact that he’d never be able to wear all of them.
The hurdle for Joden, as it has been for many kids his age, was his own feelings on his overall intelligence. Joden didn’t feel that he could keep pace and transcend his own circumstances.
But Watts and a dedicated South Webster staff that also included SWES principal Sandy Smith — whom Watts referred to as “a person who sacrifices for every kid” — were not going to let Blackburn fail. Rose, in particular, made Blackburn do his homework every night at 7 p.m., and, on top of that, instilled further discipline in Joden by making him read books every night in addition to a shower every evening.
“Joden told me that he wasn’t smart,” Watts said. “I told Joden that there’s two different kids of smart — book-smart and street-smart. My granddaughter’s book-smart and you’re street-smart. I just kept convincing Joden that he was smart, and he was in his own way.”
That message eventually caught on to Joden. Blackburn, in fact, showed off his newfound discipline. He made the honor roll as a sixth-grader for the first time in his life, and, on the state testing scores, collected the aforementioned marks of 739 and 737 in math and english/language arts to score at the accelerated level. In social studies, Blackburn one-upped himself by scoring at the advanced level behind his overall mark of 766.
Rose, however, isn’t surprised. In fact, those accomplishments are accolades that she knew Joden could reach all along.
“Joden was smart and he is smart,” Watts said. “When you don’t have the necessary means, such as food, and you’re worried about your mother all of the time, it has nothing to do with how smart he is. He had no time to concentrate. When Joden found a stable home and people that love him, his bad behavior slowed down, his grades went up, and he had everything that a normal kid had.”
Over the course of his now 13 years of living, Joden Blackburn has been through more obstacles in his childhood that most of us will ever go through in our entire lives. But Joden has not let those obstacles get in the way so far, and as a result, has created a future that looks to be as limitless as the entire galaxy.
“I am proud of Joden,” Watts said. “He’s come a long way, and he’s going to continue to go a long way. He’s doing really good. His behavior is 80 percent better than what it was, and he’s learned to concentrate.”
And that’s all thanks to the hard work of Watts and a caring staff at Bloom-Vernon — who has been there for Blackburn at his best and at his worst.
“My teachers helped me a lot,” Blackburn said. “They told me to be a good person and to try my best. They’d help me if I needed to talk to them, and I talked to them a lot.”
Reach Kevin Colley at (740) 353-3101 ext. 1930 OR on Twitter @ColleyKevin7