It just takes one

CJ Kaplan
July 31, 2023

Playmaker Dwayne Nunez shares his story

Sometimes it takes just one decision to alter the course of your entire life. And sometimes, it takes just one person to help you make the right one.

For Life is good Playmaker Dwayne Nunez - his decision came in high school when he chose not to retaliate against a group of teens who shot at him while he was playing basketball with friends. The person who helped him make this life-altering decision was a student teacher he barely knew.

As Dwayne sat outside the school plotting his revenge, Ms. Banuelos noticed his distress. She sat next to him, put her arm around him and said, “I’m here for you.”  Dwayne never heard those words from a teacher before. Or anyone else for that matter.

“Growing up, I experienced a lot of trauma and – as a result – I didn’t do well in school. I acted out. Teachers saw me as a troublemaker.”  

Ms. Banuelos saw something different.  Even though she hardly knew him, she invested in him. She made sure he got home safely from school every day because his walk home was dangerous. She became his fiercest advocate - even accompanying him to class every day when a frustrated teacher made having an “adult chaperone” a condition for Dwayne being allowed in his class.

“Ms. Banuelos was my Playmaker. And what she did for me made me want to do the same for kids like me.”  

After college, Dwayne deferred admission to law school to teach at Head Start in Boston. He fell in love with teaching and chose to pursue a career in early childhood education instead of law. At first, other teachers were skeptical of Dwayne’s approach. While they prioritized kids sitting still and doing lessons focused on early literacy and numeracy, Dwayne prioritized play. He believed that play was the only way to get young kids actively involved in learning. 

Dwayne recalled, “I remember attending my first Playmaker training with my colleagues.  Hearing them teach about the importance of using play to help children thrive was so validating for me. After that training, the teachers in my school looked at me differently. Instead of being skeptical of my approach, they wanted me to teach them how to do it.”

While teaching at Boston Public School, a Senior Administrator reached out to Dwayne to see if he would consider taking a student (we’ll call him Andre) who – by the age of 5 – had already been expelled from several schools for violent behavior. “I was his last chance”, Dwayne recalled. “It is too easy for teachers to give up on kids. I needed to give this young man another chance.”

Dwayne witnessed Andre’s outbursts. When they occurred, Dwayne would gently hold him and whisper in his ear that he was there for him and that he would never, ever give up on him. This consistent, loving contact and gentle reassurance helped calm Andre and - over time – he learned to use words instead of tantrums to communicate how he felt and what he needed.

Love and compassion are not taught to kids. They are caught by kids. And they are wonderfully contagious. At school one day, Dwayne got news that his grandfather had died. Deeply saddened, Dwayne struggled to hold back tears. None of the kids noticed Dwayne’s pain except one – Andre. Andre refused to leave Dwayne’s side.  When Dwayne assured Andre that he was okay, Andre snapped back, “You’re not okay, Mr. Nunez and I’m not leaving until I see you happy. Let’s go outside and play together so that we both can be happy.” 

Today, Dwayne is no longer a classroom teacher. He’s the principal of the Ellison Parks School in Boston. Andre is no longer a preschooler. He’s a student leader prepping for college. I can’t help but wonder how this story might have ended if Ms. Banuelos didn’t stop to let a young man know that she was there for him. By doing so, she might just have saved two lives that day.