Michael Hassett’s life can best be separated into three stages—four if you count the present. There was The Early Years when he was a young kid, going through the awkward adjusting period that most young kids experience. And there were The Teen Years, with the sports and the popularity that came with it and the crazy adolescent antics that came with that. And then there was his Re-education Period, when the accident happened, and he went to college, and for the first time he interacted with people very different from himself.
Michael sat across from me in a maroon Texan A&F hoodie and some slightly worn blue jeans. He kicked up his leg on the old plaid couch and sipped from his tea mug; it had been a long day for Michael, so he got comfortable.
“Tell me about the early years,” I commanded.
Mike rubbed his right brow, trying to recall the memories. He started with general information. He was born in South Side, Pittsburgh. He attended a Catholic school until he was seven. His mom moved them out of South Side and up to their farm in New Castle where his family still lives. He did sports like many of the other boys and adjusted to the rural life.
The recollection of these basic facts are delivered calm and casually, with little emotion.
But immediately he is drawn back to a story, from a time before his move to the farm and you can see a light turn on in his head. He remembers Catholic school, the little classroom, the nun named Ms. Nebble who he playfully called “the nibbler.” His voice brightens and a mischievous smile animates his face.
“She was an ex nun really,” he clarified, “but they still had her at the school.”
He recalls her horrible hatred for farting. “Anything that sounded like a fart, anything that resembled a fart, she would just wig out.”
During class Ms. Nebble’s would have story time. The floor was an old wooden floor and was prone to making sounds that mimicked human bowel movements. The kids knew this well and would rock back and forth, causing the floor to erupt in a hysteria of farts. And Ms. Nebble, with her hatred of the inappropriate natural human release of gas, would react in ferocious anger.
‘She would say, ‘That’s inappropriate, stop it!’” said Mike mimicking the shrill high pitched squeak of his beloved teacher.
“One time I totally farted,” he continued without a shred of embarrassment. “We were going up to get our test, and I farted. I walked up and down the aisle to get my test, and the whole place stunk. And she evacuated the whole room, not knowing who it was, and we stayed outside for twenty minutes.”
Mike took a sip of his tea. I laughed. It was hard not to. He told the story with conviction and honesty. And this was the way he was. You asked him a serious question and it led to a funny story about things that should be embarrassing. But somehow they weren’t.
“What about after the move?” I asked. “Tell me about that.”
Mike thought for a moment, stroking his dark brown hair, and launched into one of his painful memories. “When I was in fourth grade, I was forced to play the clarinet, and I was crucified. And I mean crucified. I was the only male clarinetist in the whole school.”
“Dude,” I said unimpressed, “I played flute, man. I know how you feel.”
“Yeah, but flute’s awesome.”
“Flutes are worse!” I retorted.
“Yeah man,” Mike said in agreement. “I was trying to help you out.”
Junior high was pretty brutal for Mike, much like elementary school. He didn’t do any sports then and had few friends. But by the 8th grade he had picked up wrestling. Before long he was doing track. By high school he picked up football and had become quite popular at his school.
“My high school was a very rural high school,” he continued. “We had ‘Take Your Tractor to School Day’ which was always a fun event for everyone.” They also played Cow Patty Bingo for fundraising he explained. Mike saw the confusion on my face and chuckled as he tried to explain the concept to me.
They would rope off a large part of the parking lot and draw bingo squares. They would then have two cows run around and wherever the cows defecated that’s where you would place your chip. It was a big bingo board in the parking lot, and people would bet on a square. And if the cow took a large dump on your square, you would win. “And then there was donkey basketball,” he said casually without an explanation.
New Castle is separated into two distinct areas: farmland and the city of New Castle itself. There are really no suburbs that form a buffer between the two different lifestyles. Where Mike lived people defined themselves not by the city or the county. No one said they were from Pittsburgh. Such a vague term did not encapsulate the subtle and dynamic distinctions among the different “tribes.” In the country people were known by their school district. I’m from Laurel. I’m from Shenango. I’m from Union. School district was everything and that didn’t change with adulthood. Mike still talked this way. “I am from Laurel,” he said confidently.
Mike’s football team was consistently the better football team among the county. The year his brother graduated, they had the strongest athletic presence for all the sports, especially football and basketball. Mike continued to tell me about the things he did in his free time. He would go fly fishing during the spring and summer, like many boys his age. And then when fall would come around, he would go hunting.
“Hunting was huge,” he said. “First day of deer season, we didn’t even have school. It was like shooting your first deer was a rite of passage. Going deer hunting is like you versus nature and all that stuff.
Mike also spent a lot of time camping and hanging out in the woods with his friends. They would have parties there, when the weather was right. They would have camp fires, go camping, and have cornfield parties.
“We had these large fields,” he described. “People would say, ‘We’re going to Rodger’s field.’ Everyone would go there and have a big bonfire.
This was the time in Mike’s life when things started to change. And it started with an accident. It was two days before college. Mike had been doing masonry labor over the summer which included heavy manual work of all kinds. The last job site was a basement. This had taken up his day and by the end of it he was exhausted. But Mike didn’t go home. He went to a bonfire, since it would probably be his last before school. Mike was too tired to stay awake and before long he fell asleep in the chair next to the fire.
Mike woke up freezing. It was around 5 AM, still dark and about 50 degrees. The fire had died down so Mike pushed his chair closer to get warm. But he misjudged. “Both my legs seared off the metal fire ring, used to control the fire, and I fell in.” The fire had been burning for over twelve hours. Mike suffered second degree and third degree burns on his back, and a piece of flaming rebar went two inches into his skin. He had to go to skin debridmen which postponed his college experience for 3 months.
“I didn’t want to go to college,” he said honestly. “I was scared and I didn’t think I was smart enough.” Mike graduated high school with a 2.6 GPA, so he was very fearful of going to college and failing so the accident allowed him to avoid his fears.
While he recuperated, Mike went back to masonry labor. He worked through the fall and winter. Mike remembered most fervently the brutal days in December, when it was too warm for the ground to freeze over but still terribly cold and wet. He remembered trudging through slopping mud holes, trying to push a wheelbarrow along filled with mortar. “I would come home with mud all over me. It was miserable and terrible.”
The fire accident and the experiences thereafter literally put a fire under Mike and he enrolled in school and did well. By the end of college he had a 3.9 GPA in History and Political Science.
“What made you want to pursue those subjects?” I asked.
“My father got a Masters in History and worked for La Roche College as the Director of the International Program,” Mike expressed. “He is now the Director of International Admissions Department at Gannon University. He would go on trips and bring back artifacts from these various cultures and would always suggest books and other things I should read. The movies we watched were also always historically based and I was always interested in them. So going to college I thought I wanted to become a History high school teacher so I majored in History, and then ended up double majoring in History and Political science. By the end of college I realized I didn’t want to become a high school teacher. That’s what pushed me in the direction of teaching at the college level or becoming a diplomat.”
“Why a teacher or a diplomat?” I asked.
Mike explained that the fire forced him not only to realize he needed to go to school but also forced him to realize he didn’t want to go back to manual labor.
“Falling in the fire also served as a catalyst to my maturity level,” he continued, “because it forced me to not be stagnant and do well in school, and by doing well, that made me go in various ways to understand different cultures and understand different types of people, and mature as a person altogether.”
Growing up in Laurel, Mike was part of the majority with an almost non-existent minority. Laurel was 99.9% Caucasian. He didn’t get the opportunity to interact with people outside his race and culture. So when he hit college he went through the first real culture clash of his life.
“Coming to La Roche was very daunting, because now I was the minority,” Mike said with a sober tone. “At La Roche there is a large international community. In the beginning, opening up to different kinds of people was new to me. Through those relationships you begin to look at your own life and by building these relationships you look at your own values against theirs. You grow, you mature, you become more accepting. Especially working at the Writers’ Center at La Roche College, that definitely forced me to not only interact to other cultures but teach these other cultures as well, which was humbling in many ways. By working with international students, the team at the Writers’ Center became my very close friends.
“Eventually you reach a point where you start weighing a person’s worth based on your interactions with them. And I am glad I reached that point. But it is continual growth.”
“What are the other reasons you decided to pursue History and Political Science?” I asked.
“I like being in the service of others,” Mike answered quickly and passionately. “And both of my career options do that in some way. One of my goals is that my career path will help me to continue my education, not just in the classroom, but as well as being able to experience new people all the time and being able to become as worldly as possible and as understanding as possible and I think that’s what every person should strive to be. If every person at least attempted this, the world would be a more peaceful place.
“I also want to provide for my future family. I want to have a comfortable life. I am not afraid of hard work but at the same time I would like to reap the benefits of my hard work in rewarding ways. And I would like supply for my future wife and kids if I am ever blessed with that.”
“How many kids do you see yourself having?” I asked with a smile.
“You know it’s funny,” Mike responded, “I can see myself without any kids.”
I laughed knowing the reason for this declaration.
“It really depends on the day,” he continued. “If I am having a rough day at my AmeriCorps site I would say to myself ‘I don’t ever want children!’ But on other days I can see myself with two or three.”
I asked Mike if he would want more sons or daughters. He responded in the way most guys do that have a younger sister.
“I would like the oldest to be a son,” he declared, “so that if he has any younger sisters he could protect them. I would like to know that my daughter is taken care of at school.
“A lot of clowns who tried to date my little sister were turned off by my brother and me. I don’t know how this one has managed to last so long. It’s probably because my sister is so strong, dealing with me and my brother for so long.
“He came to our house for prom and I was cleaning guns. Bless him,” Mike said with a sympathetic expression. He said ‘hello, how are you.’ I squeezed his hand off and was like ‘I’m good, how are you?’”
I asked Mike about AmeriCorps and the hiring process. He articulated that the process of applying to Boys and Girls Club in Lawrenceville had some level of anxiety attached to it. He had been told that another person was vying for the same position. “The boys and girls club ended up taking both of us,” he said with relief, “because we interviewed very well. It worked out. Tiffany and I get along really well, and she has become a really good friend. I am glad we both got hired.”
Mike’s experience in AmeriCorps has been a mixed bag. “I’m very happy with the Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities (RBI) program I am working with. I’m interning with the Pittsburgh Pirates and I get to coach baseball even though I haven’t played a game a day in my life. I am learning though. And just mentoring these kids and using baseball as a vehicle to mentor them is a lot of fun.”
Mike also talked about the more difficult aspects of the job, working at The Zone and having to deal with the difficulties of handling a T-Shirt business with kids. “The kids are great,” he explained to clarify, “but the business aspect is challenging.”
There is another stage to Mike’s story: the future. Since leaving college he has had to determine the next steps in his life. After all the challenges and growth in college, Mike is ready to have his own adventures. The next step for Mike is the Peace Corps.
“I am currently nominated for the Pacific Islands,” Mike declared, rubbing his left eye and leaning back on the couch. “I just cleared medical and now I am just awaiting an invitation from a country. But I have to get my wisdom teeth out they told me.”
“Congratulations!” I said.
It was getting late. Mike leaned forward and leaned on the arm of the couch and waited for my last question.
“So what will be important to you as you move forward from here?” I asked.
“Having religious values and having God in my life is important,” Mike responded. “Being financially stable is also important. Family and friend relationships with other people are important. Being healthy is important.”
I smiled at his response. It was a very good answer. It is not often that you meet an individual with passion and a sense of purpose that extends beyond the self. I knew he would do well in the future stages of his life and that he would experience more growth, more development, and more opportunities as he forged his path, living a fulfilling life. But most importantly, I knew that he would get things done.