Paul A. Henderson
At the time Paul Henderson started to write his book, he felt as though he was going through a tunnel "and I just didn’t see the end of it." (Tom Kojcsich, University Marketing)

Meet-a-Ram: Paul A. Henderson, an educator who wrote a book about perseverance

Henderson, a former track and field athlete at VCU, strives to help students be the best versions of themselves.

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Editor’s note: Meet-a-Ram is a VCU News series about the students, employees and graduates who make Virginia Commonwealth University such a dynamic place to live, work and study. In this episode, we meet alum Paul A. Henderson, the dean of students at Elijah House Academy and author of “Slave No More: Conquering the Master Within,” which was released in January.

Henderson earned a bachelor’s degree in history in 2007 from the College of Humanities and Sciences and a master’s in teaching in 2008 from the School of Education, and he was a member of the Rams’ track and field team during his undergraduate years.

His book is the story of a young man named Bobby who is disturbed by impressions from his past. When struggles with a work project bring back memories of family challenges, school failures and athletic disappointments, his thoughts paralyze him from completing his task. But Bobby meets someone who teaches him how to break free from his thoughts and changes his life for the better.

Why did you want to write the book?

Being a history major, a lot of the classes that I took centered on slavery in the Americas, including the Caribbean. In classes with Bernard Moitt, Ph.D., we read stories about slavery. Then I would see stories about the Emancipation Proclamation and how slaves were freed, but then you would hear about the slaves that would go back and work for the same slave master. So, I'm like, “Man, they don't have a title of a slave, but they're still doing the same thing.” I related that to present-day life. I would see Person A dealing with a certain set of circumstances, and Person B dealing with the same circumstances. Person A chose a way to overcome and win by identifying and pursuing a strong vision, while Person B continues to talk about the past circumstances.

It led me on this journey to write this book. One of the amazing stories of people I know that show up in the book focuses on Reva Dugger, who watches my boys. She lived through racial trauma growing up in Prince Edward County, Virginia, when in 1959 public schools shut down when the officials refused to integrate. She was in second grade when the school was closed. When she was 12 years old, they opened the school back up and they put the students back into class based on their age rather than their level of comprehension. She tells a story of how she persevered and how she ended up graduating despite having that awful experience. She ended up having a 40-year career at VCU Health as a nurse. She's 70 now.

You wrote the book after you lost your job at another school and your wife was expecting your third child. How did your life circumstances play into the writing process?

I was going through a tunnel, and I just didn’t see the end of it. But it was during that time that a mentor in my life said, “Paul, there's something more in you. And I think you need to figure out what that is.” On that night, April 5, 2017, I wrote the words “Bobby was frustrated,” which are the first three words in my book. I would look for a job in the daytime. Then, between the hours of 11 p.m. and 3 a.m., I'd be writing. I'm thankful for that time. Because I didn't have a job to go back to, my mind was a bit clearer for me to be able to write. I had more time to be creative. I didn't know that it would come out as inspirational fiction with nonfiction stories woven throughout it.

You then worked in corporate sales. How did you get back into education?

A lot of what I do at Elijah House Academy asks, how can we build our students to be the best versions of themselves? The head of school saw a lot of what I was doing with my blog Fatherhood on the Fly with the motto, “We're learning. We're growing. We're getting better one day at a time.” And he said, “I would love to see this implemented or imparted into our students.”

What is the connection between sports and faith and why do you think it's important?

I was involved in the Fellowship of Christian Athletes as a student-athlete. It had such a positive impact on my life that, once I graduated, I was approached to come on board as a staff member. I did that for eight years. From time to time, I still volunteer.

While sports are great, there's something about knowing more about who you are and being defined by more than just your sport. If that sport is taken away from you, if you suffer an injury, if you graduate, even if you make it to a professional level, eventually you're going to retire.

I'm 36 years old now. I finished running track at VCU when I was 21. So, if you think about it, I spent eight years running track and field between high school and college. At the time, that was a long time. That was most of my life. But now, it's been 15 years since I've competed in a track and field race. So there has to be a bigger foundation for you outside of that sport because the rest of your life eventually will outlive whatever that given sport is that you've chosen to compete in.

Who was your favorite professor at VCU?

Bernard Moitt, Ph.D., was my favorite professor because he challenged my thinking regarding slavery. He challenged me to dig deeper and develop my own thoughts based on the facts presented.

What's the best piece of advice you ever received, or the worst?

When I was getting married, I went around and asked a bunch of guys for general marriage tips. And it's one piece of advice that I've applied to marriage and to everything else because I feel like it's just a universal quote and it's something along the lines of, “What's right is more important than who's right.” I apply that as a dean of students as well.

Why did you choose to attend VCU?

I came for the reputable teaching program. Also, VCU was close enough to home, where, if I wanted to go home, I could. But it was far enough that my mom could not call me to wash the dishes. I received so much more value, from my sports career to the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, to the academic, to the dinners that I was able to attend. So much has come out of it.