Remarkable Senior: A chance encounter changed Michael Van’s Life

(Bob Self/ The Florida Times-Union)  “He’s just one of my best buds,” Terri Hayes says of Michael Van.
(Bob Self/ The Florida Times-Union) “He’s just one of my best buds,” Terri Hayes says of Michael Van.

In the early years of his education, an elementary school teacher remarked that Michael Van was “not the brightest crayon in the box.”

What that teacher didn’t see through her cardboard vision was that Van was, in fact, never in the box. Given the opportunity to shine, he was always just too bright for it.

Entering school, Van struggled to grasp his first mathematics and reading lessons. However, his obstacle was not one of understanding; it was of communication. Born hard of hearing, blind in his right eye and with a cleft palate, Van had to learn to balance between three languages, English, American Sign Language and his first language, Vietnamese.

A decade later, as he prepares to graduate with honors and a 3.7 GPA from Edward H. White High School, it is clear his future was one not meant to be boxed. A conversation with the 17-year-old reveals a quiet charisma coupled with an infectious smile and quick-witted sense of humor.

“He is someone I won’t forget,” said Tammy Ruffian, a counselor at Ed White. “He is so endearing, just a down to Earth, bright young man”

It was on a seemingly routine afternoon, Van staying after school in his parents’ nail salon, when Terri Hayes walked in to get her nails done and ended up changing his life forever.

A sign language interpreter and mother of a hearing-impaired child, Hayes struck up a conversation with Van when she overheard him talking and recognized that he was hard of hearing.

“We started a little friendship,” Hayes said. “He’s just one of my best buds.”

Since that day, Hayes has been at Van’s side as a translator, tutor, mentor and friend. Two to three days a week, Hayes returned to the salon as an unofficial tutor for Van.

“He was fun,” Hayes said. “Even at that young age he had a good sense of humor and was curious about life. He didn’t have a lot of language, always wanted to know what things were called.”

In a little room nestled behind his parents’ shop, she helped Van begin to find his voice. Together they watched cartoons and worked on homework.

“Without her, I would have struggled throughout my life,” Van said.

Entering high school presented a new series of challenges for Van. As he grew, his cleft palate, which had been surgically closed in early childhood, began to separate and made it increasingly difficult for him to speak clearly. At the same time, he began to experience involuntary muscle contractions, or dystonia.

“That was the hardest,” Van said.

Despite this experience, he never let what he teasingly refers to as his “issues” define him. He excelled academically and socially. He participated in the National Honor Society, remained at the head of his classes and found the time to go out with his friends.

“I’ve seen him become a young man who’s interested in other people, what they think, how they feel,” Hayes said. “I’ve seen him want to become his own person and not dependent on others.”

In the fall, Van plans to attend Florida State College at Jacksonville, where he hopes to pursue a degree in accounting and technology. Attending college courses alongside him will be Hayes, who will remain by his side offering a set of helping hands to translate.

Although he has seen many students lose focus on their goals along the way, some slouching into their seats like crayons slipping into a box, he refuses to do the same.

“I push myself to the limit, knowing that I can do it,” Van said.

By showing perseverance in his actions, Van believes that he can inspire others to confront their own “issues” and strive to reach their potential beyond the box.

“I feel wonderful knowing that I can change a life.”