Plymouth High teacher uses life’s challenges to inspire others

 Plymouth High teacher uses life’s challenges to inspire others

Scott Thomas talks to students during a class at Plymouth High School.

A few months after graduating from Plymouth Salem High School in 1991, Scott Thomas moved to Sault Ste. Marie to pursue a business-related degree at Lake Superior State University.

“Once I graduated from Salem, I decided to go into business because everyone said that’s where the money is — and who doesn’t want to make a lot of money coming out of college?” Thomas reflected, smiling. “But I didn’t like any of the courses I took during the first semester. I found out quickly business wasn’t for me.

“So I moved back to Plymouth and enrolled in basic requirement classes at Schoolcraft because I didn’t know what I wanted to do.”

While at Schoolcraft, one of his professors — Dr. Taylor — repeatedly told Thomas he had the potential to be an outstanding teacher.

He followed her advice.

And over three decades later, the hundreds of students whose lives Thomas has positively impacted at the Plymouth-Canton Educational Park can be forever thankful for his decision.

Looking at the bright side

An educator at the “Park” since 2000 — the first two at Canton High School, the past 20-plus years at Plymouth High School, where he is one of the school’s original teachers — Thomas has been like a ray of sunshine breaking through a bank of dark clouds for those who have crossed paths with him.

Born with cerebral palsy and living with the debilitating and painful symptoms of Adult Stills disease since 2007, the interpersonal communications/honors debate/American literature teacher inspires people with a level of positivity that defies the rough cards life has dealt him.

For Thomas, the glass isn’t just half full, it is overflowing with optimism.

Every. Single. Day.

“One thing I tell my students is it’s OK if you’re upset when something bad happens, but don’t dwell on it,” Thomas said. “Don’t waste your time complaining because time is a non-renewable resource — once it’s gone, you’re never going to get it back. I encourage them to spend their time being optimistic, not dwelling on negativity.

“On the mornings I wake up and I’m mad about the pain Stills Disease is causing, I’ll let myself be upset for 10 minutes, but that’s it. Then I move on.”

Super sports fan

A lifelong lover of athletics, Thomas has been an assistant basketball coach in some capacity for Canton High School since his teaching career began. He has filled out the scorebook for Chiefs basketball players for an estimated 1,900 games.

Scott Thomas pushes his then infant son Matthew as he completes a 5K run with his brother JT and good friend Megan McCormack
Scott Thomas pushes his then infant son Matthew as he completes a 5K run with his brother JT and good friend Megan McCormack

His passion for hoops was born in the backyard of his family’s Plymouth home, which was equipped with a half-court basketball set-up (with official free-throw and three-point lines hand painted by Thomas and JT) and a swimming pool.

“Every day during the summer, my brother, myself and our friends would play basketball — or JT and I would play one-on-one — jump in the pool to cool off, then play more basketball,” he said. “Those were great times.”

Thomas said he wasn’t allowed to compete in school-sponsored athletics while in high school due in part, he believes, to his cerebral palsy, but that didn’t stop him from becoming a super fan for his twin brother, their sister Traci, who is older than her siblings by two years, and all of the teams on which they played.

He only missed one of his siblings’ high school sporting events — JT ran cross country and track, and played basketball through his junior year; Traci competed in track and cross country — because of a work obligation at Arby’s.

Thomas — who compares his level of fandom to that of current Canton High School super fan Robert Mitchell — was unexpectedly rewarded for his loyalty during the Rocks’ track-and-field banquet at McClumpha Park toward the end of he and JT’s senior year.

“Geoff Baker was the head coach and Gary Balconi was the athletic director,” Thomas said. “When they were passing out varsity letters at the banquet, Geoff called me up and presented me with a letter as kind of a reward for being such a dedicated supporter of the program. Back then, it was Plymouth Salem, so the letter I received was a ‘P’. They won the league that year, so the letter has ‘Champs’ sewn onto it.”

The story gets better

A staple in Thomas’s interpersonal communications classes is “Show and Tell Day” when students are asked to bring in one of their prized possessions and describe to the rest of the class what it means to them. While explaining the protocols for the project, Thomas would bring in his varsity letter.

“One day when I was out of school, unbeknownst to me, two students — Joe Abate and Avery McGinnis — talked to the whole class about collecting money for a special gift for me,” Thomas said.

A few days later, the class presented Thomas with an official Plymouth Salem varsity jacket purchased at Plymouth’s Trading Post along with a gift certificate that would cover the cost of having his varsity letter sewn onto the jacket.

“That gesture, as you can only imagine, meant the world to me,” Thomas said, his voice cracking with emotion.

Accomplished educator

Admittedly terrified of public speaking when he was younger, Thomas now helps students overcome public-speaking anxiety with a finely-honed method of instruction that assists even the most-anxious students overcome their public-speaking hurdles.

Of the hundreds of students he has deftly guided through the nerve-wracking experience, one stands out for Thomas — a student named Grace.

“Before the class started, I was told by Grace’s resource room teacher that she would never be able to give speeches in front of the class because of her anxiety,” he recalled. “I was told she’d have to give the speeches to me during lunch or after school and she’d have to be allowed to sit down and read the speech.

“I told the teacher, ‘That’s not happening. We’re going to get this girl delivering speeches in front of a class.’ I mean, that’s what this class is for; students need to learn to speak in public before they leave this place.”

Thomas told Grace her first speech could be presented after school to him, but she had to bring one friend.

“During class, I teach them about non-verbal cues — eye contact, hand gestures, tone of voice — and Grace could barely look up the entire first speech. But she did it.”

Scott Thomas is pictured with his wife Kelly and son Matthew
Scott Thomas is pictured with his wife Kelly and son Matthew

Grace was told she had to be accompanied by three friends while delivering her second after-school speech to Thomas, “but one had to be from her fifth-hour (public speaking) class,” he added.

Grace gradually improved with each speech and was informed by Thomas that she would have to give her final big speech in front of the entire class.

“I cut her a deal, though,” Thomas said. “I told her she could split her eight-minute speech with one other student of her choosing.”

Half way through Grace’s portion of her final speech — which she completed with exemplary results — tears were welling up in the eyes of Thomas — symbols of the pride he had for the perseverance Grace had developed.

“When the speech was over, the class gave Grace a standing ovation,” Thomas said. “Grace came up to me afterward and said, ‘Why are you crying, Mr. Thomas?’ All’s I could say was, ‘I told you you could do it.’

“A number of studies have shown that public speaking is people’s No. 1 fear. The only way you’re going to get better at it is by doing it. Grace proved that. I found out she took a speech class in college and earned an ‘A’.”

Importance of family

Family means everything to Thomas — from his parents Roland (Tom) and Mary, to his siblings, wife Kelly and son Matthew.

“My parents, brother and sister have always been super-supportive of me,” he said. “Even though I had cerebral palsy, they didn’t treat me any differently than anybody else,” he shared. “I was so sure of myself because of the way I was raised that I thought I walked normal and everybody else walked funny.

“Kelly is the love of my life, my best friend, and I wouldn’t be able to do what I do without her. And Matthew is so special. He’s always smiling … just a happy kid. He’s my Mini-me. Four years ago he saw a story on TV that showed kids in the hospital during Christmas. He said, ‘That’s so sad’. So I wrote down a list of things we could do to help them.”

For four years running, Matthew Thomas has collected toys for hospitalized children — the count currently exceeds 1,200 — that are distributed to the University of Michigan’s Mott’s Children Hospital during the holidays.

Like father, like son.

Athletic prowess

After being denied the chance to play sports in high school, the Plymouth Canton Junior Basketball Association finally relented mid-way through Thomas’s senior year and allowed him to play on a PCJBA team coached by his dad.

“The games were divided into 10 four-minute segments and each player had to play a minimum of three segments,” Thomas said. “For whatever reason — probably due to my cerebral palsy and because I tended to fall a lot — my dad only let me play three segments a game, I’m assuming to protect me from getting injured.”

Thomas’s final PCJBA was one to remember.

“I finished with eight points, six rebounds, two steals and four assists,” he proudly recounts. “I remember it like it happened yesterday. There was a referee who had the nickname ‘Junkyard Dog’ who worked that game. He still refs KLAA freshmen basketball games and every time he sees me he reminds me of that game.”

Thomas said that was his greatest athletic feat until just over two decades later when he completed his first 5-kilometer race, while pushing young Matthew in a stroller and running alongside JT and good friend Megan McCormack.

“I have a lot in life to be thankful for,” the eternal optimist concluded. “I have a wife, a son, friends, family and student basketball players in my life.

“I love what I do. Everyone can choose how they want to live their life. I choose to be happy.”

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Ed Wright

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