A nonprofit publication of the Kentucky Center for Public Service Journalism

Voices from Classroom: As a morning monitor at Dixie, I am going to channel the ‘Handshake Guy’

By Jennifer Henry
Dixie Heights High School

This school year, my assigned morning duty is to monitor the main entrance of Dixie Heights High School from 7:20 to 7:50 and greet the approximately 1,300 students that file through the doors into the Commons. As far as duties go, this is a sweet gig — and pretty easy. Except, as the days pass, I have become a bit unsettled.
When the school year began, I had no idea just how significant this task would be. We are now entering the third week of school, and I can count on my fingers and toes how many students –total — have reciprocated my morning salutations.

It is safe to say that my penchant for morning enthusiasm is not matched by the teenagers who sidle by me in their iWorlds and hoodies. Everything about these young people and their body language hollers “don’t engage with me” or “I’m not interested” or “step back.” But I know better. How do I know? Because when I do manage to lock eyes and swap smiles with a young lady or young man walking by me, though brief, we have had a conversation. We have made a human connection, and it feels wonderful — even if just for a moment.

Jennifer with “Handshake Guy.” 

And, I am practically sent into orbit when a student initiates a “Hello.” 

I know when something has become very important to me because the thought of it lingers outside of school hours and invades my evenings and weekends. Out of nowhere, nameless students’ faces that I see every morning have been coming to mind. I can’t shake it. 

Last Sunday, I was thinking about this challenge of not being able to get students to look up and smile, and I was reminded of one of the reasons why I love my church: Handshake Guy.

I attend a megachurch with three services and two satellite campuses, and there is a lot to love about the service, but one of its true gems is the moment when my family and I exit stage left to go through Handshake Guy’s door. He is an elderly cherub of a man with a golden smile and dancing eyes and contagious joy. He is a greeter of Olympic proportions.

I have no doubt that he has enough concern for others that he would change your tire, invite you to Thanksgiving dinner with his family, or walk your dog…cheerfully. I don’t even know him personally, but I feel like he loves so freely and so deeply that he is my own grandpa. He makes me feel special.

It’s that simple. 

This man does not even know how much his handshake means to me…which is precisely the thought that emboldens me to look past the barricades that students have constructed. I am willing to risk looking foolish as I relentlessly pursue making human connections. 
Perhaps it is out of fear of looking foolish, but–all the time–I think things that I don’t say but should. This past Friday, I noticed a very quiet, timid student standing nearby and holding some of her artwork. Even from seeing just the edge of her pieces, I recognized her talent.

I told her so and asked to look a bit more closely at her drawings. Startled by the request, she began to show me more. Then I noticed something on her face that wasn’t there before: dimples. I never would have seen her genuine smile if I hadn’t said what I was thinking.
So, from now on, if I like a student’s pink flamingo shirt, I am going to tell him so, because I do.

If I notice that a girl who normally wears sweats has dressed up and curled her hair, I am going to tell her that she looks pretty, because she does.

If I see that a student is newly on crutches, I am going to inquire about his injury and say I hope he heals soon, because I do. 
I am going to channel Handshake Guy and help students feel that they are special. Because they are. 
Jennifer Henry is in her 20th year in education. She teaches 11th grade English, AP Language and Composition, and dual credit courses at Dixie Heights High School. She is passionate about working with teenagers and using innovative teaching strategies to help them realize their potential. 

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  1. Jane Rega says:

    Congratulations! You are taking a giant step toward making students feel connected (perish the thought that your effort might be the only way they experience that some days). Also challenge yourself to see how many names you can learn/use by the end of the year. Nothing more empowering, for them and for you. See Linda Albert’s book, Cooperative Discipline (2012). Out of print but hopefully used copies are still floating around. Her “3 C’s” (Connected, Capable, and Contributing) and how to achieve them are amazing.

  2. Allyson Hurtt says:

    All three of my children were lucky enough to experience the love and dedication that is Jennifer Henry. Thank you for being an inspiration and friendly face to the students of Dixie Heights, Mrs. Henry!

  3. I taught with Jennifer at Dixie Heights many years ago. I was the veteran. She was the new blood. What a refreshing boost she gave to all of us on the English faculty! Thank you Jennifer for your enthusiasm and caring. I’m glad to see you have found a new way to show students how much you care. The students and teachers, who know you, are blessed to have experienced your spirit of energy and love for learning.

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