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On Island Profile: Vincent Henley

May 24, 2009 — The health teacher sits at his desk at Gladys A. Abraham Elementary School as the children file out of class, handing in their papers.
"You need a capital letter here," he says. "All sentences start with a capital letter."
The youngster pays attention.
"When you go to college, you won't get let in if you don't know how to write a sentence," says teacher Vincent Henley, 46.
He smiles, welcoming a visitor.
"This may be a health class, but we practice correct English," he says. Teaching health is but one of Henley's passions. He answers to many muses. You could say he is a man for all seasons — gardening, chess, track, swimming, politics, art.
Let's start with the school garden club.
"Last November our principal, Lisa Ford, asked me to create a garden," Henley says. "She had come from Jane E. Tuitt Elementary, which had a garden, and she was anxious to grow one here."
Indicating a small potting table, he says, "We started last November on this." He continues, "Carlos Robles and Albion George of the UVI (University of the Virgin Islands) extension service gave us advice, and the Agriculture Department donated seeds."
The advice was well taken. The club took first place in this year's Carnival Culture Fair, in where the youngsters sold their peppers, eggplants, spinach, tomatoes, basil and more.
"All organic, no pesticides," Henley points out. "We'll do even more next year."
Now, about the chess club.
"When I was chosen for the chess coach a few years ago," Henley says, "I knew nothing about it. Nothing. I read all the books I could find, and I played games on the computer until I had a basic knowledge. We'd play Ulla Muller Elementary with six students, playing one hour per game."
The youngsters learned well. They were part of the V.I. junior chess team that traveled to Halkidiki, Greece, in April 2007 to compete in the prestigious third annual World Chess Youth Olympics. The players qualified in a territory-wide scholastic championship sponsored by the V.I. Chess Federation, sponsors of the trip.
"We went with Dr. Adam Shapiro and his wife and other parent/chaperones," Henley says. "We were there for two weeks — it was an education in itself."
He harks back to his teaching credo.
"Every child can learn," Henley says. "It's up to us. You have to have that love for the children. And you have to listen to them; I'm a good listener."
Henley grew up in Savan, one of seven children.
"In fact, I learned to swim in the pool at Jane E. Tuitt," he says with a laugh. "Swimming is my passion."
He coaches the school's swimming team.
Henley walks with the easy gait of a natural athlete. He is tall and slender and wears a red polo shirt and black shorts. Kids seem to gravitate toward him. One child clings, confiding something.
"He is autistic," Henley says. "He wants to get something to eat now. He can learn just like the other kids; but it takes patience. He's doing fine."
As Henley grew, he says, certain signposts pointed his way.
"I was always running, running though the neighborhood," he says. "The turning point of my life was when this girl stopped me and said, 'You have to go out for track. You should do cross-country. You should see Mario Thomas.'
"I was in junior high at the time, and he was the high school coach at Charlotte Amalie. He told me to see him as soon as I got to high school. I did, and it changed my life, gave me direction, He is my mentor. He's the one who got me into teaching."
Henley continued in track and won a scholarship to Barber-Scotia College, a small school in Concord, N.C., where he found another mentor in college President Mable Parker McLean.
"She'd seen a sign I'd made for a sorority's party," Henley says. "She changed my campus job to her office, where I made all the campus signs. And she influenced my getting into campus politics."
He suddenly jumps up to rummage through a file cabinet.
"Here," he says, pulling out a plaque that reads, "National Pre-Alumni Coordinator 1989."
"That's part of the United Black College Fund," he says with pride.
Henley recalls another pivotal moment in his life.
"When I was a freshman, there was a KKK parade in Charlotte (N.C.), and we were told we couldn't go there," he says. "I didn't know anything about the KKK, so I went on my own. I saw these men in hoods, and kids in fatigues marching. I started crying. I became a serious student after that; I never forgot it."
During the summer Henley runs a 4-H summer program with UVI called the Mini-Society where the students create their own society, currency, flag and businesses.
"They learn economics, civics, entrepreneurship," he says. "It's invaluable training. It ends in a market day where they sell to one another with money their own currency."
Henley is married to Shamika Williams, an Ivanna Eudora Kean High School forensic science teacher. They have two children, Kymani, 8, and Malakai, 2, all of whom beam at Henley from his computer desktop.
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