Before she made it to the chambers of Congress, Jahana Hayes was walking the halls of Waterbury’s John F. Kennedy High School.
She spent more than a decade teaching history before making history as Connecticut’s first African American woman elected to Congress.
At Kennedy High School on Thursday, Hayes was described by colleagues as a civically-minded teacher who made it her mission to get students involved in their communities.
Now, she is once again representing hers on the national stage.
“I always saw her as doing more,” said Kara Sullivan, an English teacher.
The pair worked together on an interdisciplinary program that combined social studies and English lessons.
Sullivan said she wasn’t surprised when Hayes, 2016’s National Teacher of the Year, decided to throw her hat in the ring to represent Connecticut’s 5th District in Congress.
“Tremendous charisma, personality,” Sullivan recalled.
Kennedy Principal Robert Johnston agreed. Hayes did her student teaching observation in Johnston’s classroom when he was head of the school’s social studies department.
“Very dynamic, very energetic, she had an ease at which she was able to establish relationships with students,” said Johnston. “Here’s someone from Waterbury, grew up in Waterbury, went through Waterbury public schools, and now is attempting to represent us in Washington D.C.,” he explained.
There’s little mention of Hayes in the high school. All displays from her state and national “Teacher of the Year” awards were taken down before voters cast their ballots in November because the school serves as a polling place.
Though most of her students have graduated, Hayes’s story continues to inspire both the students and the staff who walk these hallways.
“You know, she didn’t grow up very easy. She grew up in a hard life,” said Jake Liquindoli, a Kennedy High School sophomore who volunteered on her campaign.
Many we spoke to made reference to Hayes being a teen mom, which she spoke openly about on the campaign trail.
“It was nice to see the hometown girl make good. Somebody that really had to overcome a lot of struggles, a lot of obstacles,” said Sullivan.
“What I learned from her is do not let difficulties or little bumps in the road definitely take you out of the game,” said Jenilyn Obuobi-Djam, a former student.
Obuobi-Djam also serves as president of the service group HOPE, which stands for Helping Out People Everywhere. Hayes started the organization and continues to help out as an advisor. Most recently, she traveled with students to California to help build houses.
“Having the foundation to go back to and always help out is really important to her,” said Obuobi-Djam.
A teacher who inspired students in her own classroom, Hayes is now considered by some to be a role model who broke down barriers in her bid to become Connecticut’s next congresswoman.
“I’m more surprised that a teacher from this type of area could be a politician. It makes me want to believe that anything is possible,” said Marquise Blegmon, a Kennedy High School Senior and member of HOPE.
“When I started working for her people told me, ‘you know she has no experience, right?’ But, I don’t think you always need the experience to do the job,” added Liquindoli.
Hayes’s colleagues believe her skills as a teacher will serve her well in Washington. While her former boss said teaching high school students is one of the toughest jobs in the world, Johnston believes, “It might be a little bit more challenging trying to get Congress to work in some sort of united fashion in our present climate.”