The MATH TEACHER
BY ELLEN GILLETTE
As part of classroom preparation today, teachers lead classes through live shooter drills, training for the possibility of emergency situations. Port St. Lucie’s Amorce Jean Baptiste — known as “Mr. J.B.” to his John Carroll High School students — is himself a survivor of an emergency.
In 2013, Jean Baptiste was a math professor in Cap-Haitien, Haiti. “Professors in Haiti get involved; they want to influence students for good,” he says. Jean Baptiste belonged to an organization that openly criticized the government — a government that tried to silence his voice.
He was teaching a class when suddenly, a group of armed intruders rushed in and began beating him. Although the assailants were dressed like police, they wore masks. “The students loved me,” he says with a wide smile. “They screamed and came to my aid. They saved me.”
The government was not the only challenge to living in Haiti. Growing up, Jean Baptiste watched his father work hard as a farmer, waiting for rain. “I knew I didn’t want to do that.”
One of five siblings, two of whom passed away, Jean Baptiste had a difficult childhood. “I was not loved or listened to — but that taught me to love and listen. I wake up every day not looking at my past, because that would make barricades to what I want to build today. The things that happened to me have made me who I am today.”
Moving to Port-au-Prince after the school attack, Jean Baptiste continued to teach, knowing that safety remained an issue. He and his wife, Martine, decided to leave, but where should they go? His wife did not have a visa for France, where Jean Baptiste’s younger brother teaches science. She did, however, have a relative in Port St. Lucie.
Martine’s cousin picked them up from the airport in Fort Lauderdale, offering them a place to stay and encouraging them to consider the area as a long-term solution. “I thought, ‘This country is so big. Can I find my way and pursue my dreams here?’” Jean Baptiste prayed about what he should do. “I woke up the next morning and thought, ‘I am here.’ And I am still here.”
The switch from visitor to resident required a petition for asylum; Jean Baptiste’s case is still pending. In the meantime, he has been busy. He longed to teach again; when he Googled “education in the U.S.” he saw a link for the Florida Department of Education. The application fee for a certificate was $75. “We had $100.” Martine encouraged him to move forward. It was a step of faith which proved to be in the right direction.
Although Jean Baptiste has a master’s degree, his diplomas and transcripts had to be translated and approved; an accreditation organization would evaluate his education. All of this required more money than he had. His career would have to wait — it was time to find a job.
Fluent in both French and Creole, Jean Baptiste worked as a tire technician for six months, learning English as he changed tires and cleaned toilets. “I tried to be the best version of myself, embracing it as an opportunity.” He worked for a boat company for another six months. Finally, he’d saved enough to pursue a future in education on U.S. soil.
“In Haiti, the education system is very different,” he says. “Some of the poor may go to public schools but with political problems, there may be no school for half the year. There are education gaps. You must find out what has been missed and make it up.” He remembers one math teacher in particular. “He was so patient. A ‘light’ came on and I saw my potential. I knew I needed to be a teacher.”
Securing his Florida certificate, Jean Baptiste taught for a time at Spectrum Academy, an alternative school in Martin County. This school year, he began teaching at John Carroll and is also part of IRSC’s adjunct faculty. He teaches Sunday school at his church, La Place de la Grace. His philosophy is that every student can learn if exposed to the right teaching style and if given the proper attention. “All students are different. Teachers need to be flexible, providing the right materials at the right time, matching a student’s reality to the subject, making it interesting.”
Until Jean Baptiste’s asylum case is completed, he cannot return to his native country but he does dream of one day making a positive difference there. “Ten years after the earthquake, debris has been picked up but Haiti is not rebuilt. I am not seeing change, unfortunately, but apathy and selfishness.” He dreams of empowering the next generation to see life in a different way. “With education and God, they can take their lives to the next step.”
For now, Jean Baptiste helps students navigate the sometimes-turbulent waters of math while modeling a lifestyle of gratitude and perseverance.
AMORCE JEAN BAPTISTE
(“My parents named me Amos, but the official wrote it wrong. I like Amorce!”)
Lives in: Port St. Lucie
Occupation: Math teacher
Family: Wife of five years, Martine
Education: Bachelor of science in pure mathematics from the State University of Haiti; master of science in applied economics and math modeling from the University of the French West Indies and Guiana
Hobbies: Basketball, reading science journals, music, movies
Who inspires me: “I am more inspired by situations I face than a person.”
Something most people don’t know about me: “People see this ‘nice guy,’ but I wasn’t raised to be soft or patient or sensitive.”