Teaching Compassion

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How this Latin teacher, swim coach and college counselor is shaping young lives and shattering stereotypes.

A few years ago, the entire faculty at St. Andrew’s Episcopal School went through a process to figure out what their one goal is for students across the board. And that’s what they came up with: compassion. In a sometimes graceless age and a culture that can reward instant gratification over intellectual inquisitiveness, Nathan Michaud is leading by example in his role as a Latin teacher, swim coach and college counselor at the private school. Entering his fourth year as a teacher this fall, Michaud has an advantage in understanding the culture at St. Andrew’s because he is an alumnus.

“Teaching compassion goes through every aspect,” said Michaud. “Everything is taught with compassion and with a culturally open lens. It’s about service to the community and being a gracious person.”

3-1“You remember your favorite teacher’s name. Who will remember yours?” the ads are usually seen on television or while riding mass transit. Meant to inspire young people to consider a teaching career, they also remind each of us how much we valued the relationships we formed with our teachers. You saw your teachers day in and day out, you watched their every move and learned their personality quirks. Whether revered or feared, they helped form the adult you became. Michaud is shaping young lives every day.

Affable and modest, Michaud loves what he does. His ability to teach compassion stems from how he lives his life, treating everyone he meets with respect; his easygoing demeanor and calm self-confidence are an asset in the day-to-day demands of his work.

At St. Andrew’s, the relationship between student and teacher is all-encompassing. Michaud teaches Latin five days per week, but he’s also involved in many other aspects of his students’ lives through his roles as college counselor and swim coach. He credits the school’s abiding teaching philosophy and the teachers he had as a student there from seventh through twelfth grades, with motivating him every day. As a private school, St. Andrew’s is freed from the strictures of state-ascribed curriculum so that teachers are allowed and encouraged to think outside the box and act as mentors to their students. The school was founded in 1952 and initially encompassed only first through third grades; over the years, it expanded and opened a high school in 1998. Each of the classes has from 12 to 18 students, so unlike in some larger public schools, there’s more one-on-one attention.

“As a student, I never felt like I was going to school,” Michaud said. “It’s so much more than a job to me.”

Languages have always been a passion for Michaud. Having fallen in love with Latin as a student, he’s quick to emphasize its versatility–despite the dead language arguments that some people make– as he teaches students how to understand the grammar and how to read. A self-confessed Latin grammar nerd, Michaud said at some point in the year, his students will usually have an “aha” moment and observe that Latin grammar makes much more sense than English grammar. Michaud’s enthusiasm for teaching the language is about more than the mere mechanics of it, though. “The joy is that I’m not just teaching a language class; I’m also teaching history, philosophy and religion,” Michaud said. “It’s the history, culture and mythology of ancient Greece and Rome.”

Michaud described the St. Andrew’s community as very accepting. Although he doesn’t hide the fact that he’s gay, he is still taken aback when people are surprised to learn his sexual orientation. “I feel like the first thing kids are saying when they go home, is ‘oh, I learned this today.’ Not, ‘Mr. Michaud’s gay.’ I think the greater feeling with families [of students], is if they know me and they’ve met me, they’re going to feel–at least I hope–I’m glad that he’s working with my children.”

He believes the response speaks more about stereotypes than anything else. “I hate to think that to be gay or straight you have to be this one way. I’ve never felt that I’m overly masculine or overly feminine. I run the middle,” he said, offering a quick example. “One of the first things I ever wrote when I was 3 or 4 years old, was ‘My Little Mermaid poster is hanging on my wall and I’m wearing my favorite shirt today.’”

Michaud’s dedication to his work is evident not just to the parents of his students, but his peers as well. “Nathan is authentic, generous of spirit and he sees the world from a positive point of view,” said Rebecca Yacono, director of diversity and multicultural development at St. Andrew’s.

“That, combined with his open-minded outlook, his consummate professionalism, and the fact that he consistently puts his students first, makes him an incredible colleague.”

Against The Tide

Unlike many swim coaches, Michaud didn’t start to swim as a very young child; while his brother played soccer, Michaud was engrossed in books. He quit gymnastics after a few years when he was 14; he was already too tall to compete. When he needed another athletic credit to graduate high school, diving was suggested; he joined the swim team in November of his senior year and four months later he was competing at the national level.

When it came time to apply to colleges, UT was a natural fit; he majored in Latin and minored in Italian. Referring to swimming, Michaud said, “I went from zero to a hundred without really having time to think about it,” adding that he didn’t make the UT swim team until his sophomore year after a lot of rigorous training. “Most of the guys swimming at UT had been doing it since they could walk. Those guys have gone to the Olympics.”

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Michaud was already coaching as an assistant at St. Andrew’s during his freshman and senior years at UT. “Swimming completely changed my college experience,” Michaud said. When he graduated, St. Andrew’s made him the head coach.

Tightly Knit Bonds

An early indication of his family’s open-mindedness came when they were in San Francisco en route to Hawaii. Michaud was about six years old and there were two men holding hands nearby. “I remember my mom saying, ‘Sometimes men can be in love with other men.’ The way she said it was so matter-of-fact, like yeah, it’s normal.”

Although his parents and his brother and sister-in-law live in Austin now, Michaud was born in Hartford, CT, near where his father ran the family business. When Michaud was 7, the family relocated to Chapel Hill, Texas; his dad’s automotive parts company had opened a factory in nearby Brenham. Although Michaud doesn’t aspire to work in the family business at this point, he worked in his dad’s factory three days per week during the summer.

“There’s nothing I can’t talk about with my parents; they know everything about me,” he said. “We have fun and goof off together.”

6-1That acceptance extended to his coming-out process, which Michaud said was an inner struggle, but something he always realized. Being a college athlete and being gay made Michaud feel compelled to lead two separate lives. Even so, he doesn’t fault his teammates or his coaches. “Maybe that environment is just not there yet. I had so many physical battles to fight, being a lower-ranked member of the team, just being able to make it through the practice.”

After coming out to a few friends toward the end of high school, his family came to the rescue. Smiling at the memory, he said his parents sat him down after his freshman year at UT and told him they knew he had something to share with them. “I said it and they were like, ‘Finally!’ they had a meeting months before to figure out how to get me to tell them.”

Although he sees his coming-out process as easy, his family felt like they missed out on his experiences with first loves. “I played catch-up and there was a whole lot of mom talk.”

Finding Balance

In 2004, Michaud’s boyfriend, Justin Stephens, although living in Houston, was visiting a mutual friend of theirs in Austin . They were attracted to each other, but didn’t initially act on their impulses. Stephens remembers thinking, ‘oh, that’s a cute guy and he’s really young.’ (Michaud was 18 at the time.) Two years later, they began to see each other around Austin  more often, and Stephens invited him to his New Year’s Eve party. Even though Michaud had a swimming competition the next day, he went against his better judgment and attended.

Their first date–not to mention their first big fight, six months later–was over dinner at South Congress Cafe. Three years and eight months later, they’re living happily despite their unique personalities. “He’s super laid back and easygoing. I am so stringent, I have to know the sequence of events for a day,” Michaud said. “I will cry in any movie that I watch; he’ll roll his eyes.”

Although they disagree like any other couple, balancing each other out is their strength. “I could tell instantly that he was very smart,” Stephens said. “One time, we went to dinner and we were all gonna go drinking. He went home to study for finals. I remember thinking, ‘he has will power,’ and I respected that.”

Two years ago, Michaud wanted to buy a house and discovered a lot with two bungalows in Hyde Park. At the time, they weren’t ready to move in together, so it was perfect. Michaud lives in the fully furnished one-bedroom house in front, surrounded by his books; Stephens has the back house, with its vintage jukebox and room to dance, which is where they host parties. “I’m sure that someday we’ll actually physically live in the same building,” said Michaud. “He helps me be a little bit less neurotic and calm down about things I should not waste energy on.”

“Nathan has taught me to make time for others and not to spend so much time on my own,” said Stephens, who works in implementation design for Bazaarvoice. “It’s about give-and-take.”

“I hope that I’ve just made him happier,” Michaud said.

Staying Grounded

Michaud is a self-described “book fiend” and always reads before going to sleep. His bookshelves are a mix of high-minded literature, language and history tomes and science fiction titles. He loves Tess of the D’Uubervilles, virgil’s Aeneid and post-apocalyptic books such as The Road. As a child, he made frequent trips to the library, taking out as many books as he could carry home. Beyond reading, he likes to cook, really enjoys cleaning his house (which he said “sometimes drives Justin batty”), and he’s into comic books.

For many years, Michaud swam 40 hours a week and had a diet to go with it. When he wasn’t swimming on the team anymore, he wanted to pursue athletic activities that he couldn’t before because of the injury risk. He started running and on a whim, he completed the Capital of Texas triathlon with his brother a few years ago. “For me, fitness is tied to competition,” Michaud said. “I’ve got my usual weight circuit that I do, but I also like to go kayaking on Town Lake. I started doing yoga recently and it’s absolutely awesome.”

Michaud sees his faith as being equal with fitness and intellectual pursuits. Although his family is Catholic, Michaud was baptized in the Presbyterian Church; his family’s openness extended to religion. When he arrived at St. Andrew’s, it all clicked. “It’s so much more open. I don’t want to say what’s right or wrong in terms of interpreting Jesus’ teachings,” he said, noting that he considers himself Episcopalian today and attends services each day at St. Andrew’s Chapel. “Our chapel service is as likely to have a musical performance as a Muslim speaker or a sermon. It fits for me.”

Looking Ahead

Michaud and Stephens both want to have children– for Michaud it’s a logical extension of his teaching career. “I love kids. That’s maybe one thing that’s been a strong desire that has never changed,” he said. “One way to really change the world is by having kids. I think its part of why I love being a teacher.” Nevertheless, they both acknowledge the financial impact and other logistical hurdles that they’d have to overcome before having a family.

Next year, Michaud will be in charge of the school’s Junior Experience Travel Program, which allows students to take trips abroad that pull them out of their comfort zones. St. Andrew’s has always prided itself on promoting study outside the confines of geography and socioeconomic status. It helps students see the world from a vastly different perspective. Half the students choose a school-sponsored trip to West Virginia, Greece, Italy, Spain or China. The other half can craft their own trip through an independent organization. Some of them have visited Nepal and Thailand.

Constant communication with his students’ families is part of his job. He’s the advisor to eight students and will meet with their families at least three times a year. In addition, every teacher at St. Andrew’s maintains office hours.

When asked to cite who he admires the most, he lists several people as having changed his life in positive ways: his parents; his high school Latin teachers, Jennie Luongo and Clint Hagen; his high school swim coach; and Stephens. Although he is certainly grateful for the trappings of success–his career, the love of his boyfriend and his house–Michaud is self-deprecating and grateful through- out our discussion.

Michaud realizes that digging through past pain and successes alike can yield valuable resources for his work. “I’m absolutely a result of all the mistakes I’ve made,” Michaud said. “One of the things I hope to teach kids is to love the mistakes that they make. I am my mistakes and I am my successes.

In his role as a counselor, he may learn something that one of his students isn’t comfortable sharing with Mom and dad. Ultimately, it’s his job to be understanding and to help learn from their experiences and advocate for their safety.

“One thing that I would love to have more of is for students to look at me and feel they can be comfortable to be authentically who they are,” said Michaud. “If it’s an athlete and a nerd. Or a jock who’s gay. I want them to see that, yeah, that’s who I am and that’s okay.”

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