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Story By John Murray
The photograph is an exclamation point in the improbable story of Jahana Hayes.
There is no action in the photograph, and for a woman known for her huge smile, all we can see is her eyes. Hayes is wearing a face mask, and so is the man seated next to her in the backseat of The Beast, a heavily armored Cadillac limousine used to transport and protect the President of the United States. Seated next to her in the backseat of the limousine is President Joe Biden. They are headed to Biden’s first stop in Connecticut during his visit to the state October 15th.
I looked at that photograph for more than a minute, pausing to reflect about the extraordinary and inspirational story of Jahana Hayes. She is a Waterbury kid raised in the Berkeley Heights Housing Project in the North End of the city. She told Essence Magazine in July 2018 that, “I know what it’s like to go to bed to gunshots outside, I know what it’s like to wake up in the morning to a dead body in the hallway. No job gives you that kind of experience. Life gives you that kind of experience.”
Her mother struggled with drug addiction and at one point the family lost its apartment.
She was a high school honors student who got pregnant at 17 and had to transfer schools to enroll in a special program for teen mothers. She graduated from Crosby High School and started working. Seven years later she went back to school at Naugatuck Community College, earned a bachelors degree from Southern Connecticut State University, and then two advanced degrees from University of St. Joseph’s and the University of Bridgeport.
Hayes became a history teacher and in 2016 she was named Waterbury’s Teacher of the Year, Connecticut’s Teacher of the Year, and was then touted as the National Teacher of the Year by President Barack Obama in a ceremony inside the White House. Hayes spent the next year traveling around the country speaking about education.
In the Spring of 2018 she was recruited into politics - a world she knew very little about. She ran as a Democrat, and in November 2018 she became the first African-American woman, and African-American Democrat, to represent Connecticut in Congress. Three years later she has been on the cover of Rolling Stone Magazine, held the gavel and presided over a session in the House of Representatives, won re-election in 2020, and has joined an exclusive club of passengers inside The Beast with the President of the United States.
We shared the photograph of Biden and Hayes on our Facebook page and asked our readers to put aside partisan politics and celebrate the inspirational journey of a Waterbury kid raised in poverty who overcame her circumstances to take a seat at the table of power. The response from our readers was swift and positive and getting a thousands likes. There were some - predictably - that chose to attack Biden and call him names, but Hayes was showered with love.
Here’s a sample....
Jennifer Michelle - I have been telling my students for years it doesn’t matter where you come from or what odds may be stacked against you…don’t stop pursuing your dreams. What an amazing example for our Waterbury students.
Mary Beth Scriven - This brought a tear to my eyes. I grew up in Waterbury and to see what her dedication and accomplishments have done for her students is inspiring. Much respect and love.
Chrissy Emanuel - This is in fact extraordinary. It goes to show that anything is possible in America with hard work, dedication, and passion regardless of your race/religion/past. God bless this amazing country
D.S. DiVito - I do not agree with their policies but do agree with you that it is an incredible accomplishment for her. She should be proud.
Sandy Lee - No matter anyone’s beliefs, it is a remarkable journey. Congratulations to her.
Patrick Maloney - A wonderful example of hard work, perseverance, compassion, and a desire to serve the greater good. And a terrific role model to all of Waterbury’s youth.
Frank Cordon - Goes to show that their are no boundaries for Anyone of any decent, if you work hard and put your mind to it.
Kristin Colella - That’s awesome, inspiring.
Elisabeth Med - Jahana Hayes is such an incredibly bright and strong woman. She has a great story, but she has also accomplished so much for us in CT. So happy she had this moment and will keep pushing for excellence.
Whether Observer readers agree with the policies of President Biden or Congresswoman Hayes, most agree that her story is a terrific example for youth in Waterbury, and beyond.