The Long Road Taken

DATE: Tuesday, May 29, 2018

Nicholas Parenteau completed his HCC degree online after relocating to California.

Nicholas Parenteau with his family at PTK induction

There's a lot to unpack in Nicholas Parenteau's spoken word piece, "153 Years of At-Risk Youth."

It begins like this:  

By the age of 13 I was arrested, fingerprinted, and convicted
For breaking a window while playing at the park with my friends.
Circumstanced without privilege
No path laid out before me.
Blind eyed and ignorant  

The 29-year-old Holyoke native, by birth Canadian and Honduran, talks a lot about race – "our pigment" – and realizing at an early age that skin color did not define intelligence – or character – despite what others told him.  

There isn't a tone of integrity, or a hue of dignity and tolerance.
Future determined
Bleached faced "You will never make it."  

The rest of his story, as written and lived, is about how he rebelled against presumptions of inevitable failure and uses that message to teach and inspire others, at-risk youth in particular.   

"I'm really attached to this piece because I put so much of myself, my trials and tribulations, into it and just the experience, altogether, of growing up," says Parenteau. "I just want to make a difference. I want to be a better mentor than I had. I want to be a better instructor. I want education to be fun. It wasn't fun for me."  

Parenteau will perform his piece at the MassMutual Center on Sat., June 2, during the 71st Commencement of Holyoke Community College, when he will graduate with high honors and his associate degree in liberal arts and science.  

Earning that degree represents more than a symbolic triumph for Parenteau, who had had been diagnosed with ADHD and hyperactivity as a child and placed in special education classes. He now lives in California and completed his last semester of classes at HCC online, determined to graduate from his hometown college.  

"Finishing up in Holyoke was important because of the road that I traveled," says Parenteau. "I wanted to do the best I could in my hometown before I decided to fully leave and separate myself. I wanted to finish what I started."

Parenteau hit some roadblocks the first time he tried HCC after graduating from Dean Technical High School. Working three jobs to support himself and his two young daughters, he failed a couple of classes and dropped out, deciding the only way he could ever afford college was through military service.  

He joined the U.S. Army, spent a year at Fort Benning, Ga., and then transferred to the Massachusetts National Guard, earning his sergeant stripes as a member of the 126th Brigade Support Battalion in Springfield. Eventually, he settled into a job with an electrical engineering company, but he grew unhappy working 12-hour days.  

"I feel like there's better out there for me," Parenteau complained to his partner, Billy, who replied, "Well, I guess it's time to go to college then."  

Meanwhile, Parenteau had met some administrators from Peck Middle School, which he had attended himself years ago and where his partner was then working as a special education teacher. He started volunteering there, cleaning, painting – and talking.     

"I just started chit-chatting with them about my education and how I grew up and how it was tough for me, he says. "They were like, you need to tell your story to these kids."  

As the guest speaker at a school assembly, he made the kids laugh telling fart jokes.  "I told them, I went to these schools," he says. "I sat in these seats. I wanted them to see that I am a person, just like them."  

After that, he accepted an offer to run an after-school enrichment program at Peck a couple of days a week and started a junior drill team modeled partly on the ROTC program he'd gone through himself at Dean Tech.    

Soon, as he had once envisioned, Parenteau returned to HCC, courtesy of the GI Bill. He immersed himself in college life and thrived there, joining the Military Club and the Student Senate, and taking classes to improve his communication skills, analytical reasoning and understanding of child development and psychology. Just one highlight: In March, he was inducted into the Phi Theta Kappa national honor society. In the audience to share the recognition were his mother, Yolany Parenteau, who still lives in Holyoke, and his daughters Crystalee, 14, and Jade Kiannie, 9.  

Initially, he had planned to relocate to California after Commencement to join his partner and other relatives already living there. But he was offered a job as a physical education teacher at Acorn Woodland Elementary School in Oakland and signed a contract to work as a mentor and coach at a new Bay Area chapter of Up2Us Sports, a national nonprofit  that provides sports training to underprivileged kids. And Parenteau is still a soldier, now with the California National Guard.

His decision to leave HCC early was bittersweet. "I was walking away from a lot," he says, "but I have a lot to learn, and I needed this experience."  

At his new school, he sometimes feels like an ambassador from the East. He wears his HCC shirts proudly, eliciting the inevitable question from his students. 

What's that? 

"That's the college I go to in Holyoke, Massachusetts," he tells them, "an amazing place, 3,000 miles from here." 

A long road indeed, and he made it. 

STORY and PHOTO by CHRIS YURKO: Nicholas Parenteau, with his mother, Yolany Parenteau, and daughters Crystalee and Jade Kiannie, after his induction into the Phi Theta Kappa Honor Society in March at HCC.