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Amid chronic pain, graduate transformed behavior to reach finish line

Grad with Grit: JB Barnes

Kentwood — For Jayden “JB” Barnes, keeping up with school not only meant homework, studying and tests, but doing so while receiving blood transfusions, taking medications — “12 pills on the daily,” he said — and enduring muti-day hospital stays.

The pain was often unbearable, recalled the Crossroads Alternative High School student, who graduated May 16.

“My whole body and my joints, they just cramp. They make you stiff so you get paralyzed and can’t move. It’s like a freeze gun.”

JB was born with sickle cell disease, a red blood cell disorder that affects hemoglobin, the protein that carries oxygen through the body. He also has acute chest syndrome, a complication of sickle cell disease that can cause lung injury, breathing difficulties and low oxygen levels. For him, it led to a collapsed lung. 

JB Barnes graduated May 16 from Crossroads Alternative High School (courtesy)

He continues to face complications from the disease, and was hospitalized again just a week after graduation.

Due to his health struggles and other difficulties he had in a regular classroom environment, JB struggled in school and slid further and further behind. He passed only one class his freshman year at the East Kentwood Freshman Campus; he returned there for a second year and only passed one more. 

He said part of his frustration was due to the pandemic, when virtual school wasn’t going smoothly. His health made it even harder. Shortly after he returned to in-person learning, he was hospitalized multiple times at Helen Devos Children’s Hospital.

“I couldn’t get nothing done,” he said. “Freshman year I had over 42 absences. I was in the hospital from January to May, probably eight times.”

When he was at school he had a hard time controlling his behavior, which led to fights, suspension and other consequences. He said he also has attention deficit disorder and often acted out as a class clown. He always reacted on impulse — and his pain made it all worse.

“Most of the time when I wasn’t feeling good … I would just walk in (to school) angry, because I would be hurting,” he said. “It would be like ‘hangry’ but 10 times worse.

“I had a bad temper. I didn’t like to listen to authority. When (teachers and administrators) tried to correct me, I would blow up on everyone.”

A Complete Transformation 

While sitting in a meeting room at school, JB reflected on the fact that he managed to graduate with his original class. “Honestly, I feel good; it’s like, unreal … Graduation’s going to be very emotional.”

He credits the environment at Crossroads, his teachers and guidance from his dad, Kevin Brame, as what changed his attitude and perspective.

At the alternative school, he found he could excel thanks to the at-your-own-pace curriculum complemented teacher support. He also enrolled at Kent Career Tech Center in the Auto Collision Repair Program, where he could spend time on his hobby, working with cars. 

At Crossroads, he made up 10 classes and finished his courses in early April — before the end of the school year — receiving all A’s and B’s his last quarter. His favorite subject was World History. 

“This year I was good at checking in with my teachers and getting my work done,” he said. “I got a lot of one-on-one help.”

He is now enrolled at Ancora Truck Driving School to study for a commercial driving license. He hopes to someday have a job transporting luxury cars and to own his own trucking company.

‘JB is probably one of our greatest success stories of doing a complete 180.’

— Crossroads Alternative High School teacher Mike Ketelaar

While teachers played a big role in helping JB turn things around, his dad was a critical influence.

“He has supported me from day one. Most times he would be at the hospital staying the night with me, because my mom — she’s a nurse and she had to work every morning,” JB said. “I would want him to go down Michigan Street to grab me some McDonald’s breakfast.”

JB moved in with his dad, Kevin Barnes, when he was 14.

“When I started living with him he helped me become a wiser man,” JB said. “The first thing I remember him teaching me is, ‘You can’t let someone bring you down knowing that you’re higher than them,’ and ‘You have to be the thermostat, and not the thermometer.’”

Another quote from his dad was a paraphrase from Benjamin Franklin: “Early to sleep, early to rise makes a man young, wealthy and wise,” JB recited. “He started teaching me simple stuff that you would think would go in one ear and out the other, but it helped me better myself.”

JB and his dad also have a shared love of cars and are working to restore a 1964 Ford Galaxie.

“I like how cars are built; I like the architecture,” JB said. “I like the time it takes to put into the engine. I like the power you make out of a car just by doing simple stuff. Cars remind me of grown-people Legos — how you can snap everything off and put it right back on.”

‘Yeah! JB’s Here!’

Crossroads teachers said they’ve been amazed at JB’s transformation. Teacher Mike Hall said JB has learned to rein in his emotions and handle situations better, despite having the world stacked against him.

“He’s just a pleasant guy to be around,” Hall said. “I’ve watched him grow from exploding to sitting back and understanding what people are trying to say and not blowing up on people.”

JB’s also made connections.

“I met him at (East Kentwood) and I watched him go from not talking to anybody to being the person talking to everyone here at Crossroads,” Hall said.

The transition wasn’t completely smooth, Crossroads teacher Mike Ketelaar said.

JB Barnes has sickle cell disease, which led to many hospitalizations and school absences (courtesy)

“JB was kind of a nuisance in school. When we saw him we were like, ‘OK, what is JB going to do today. Is he going to act a fool? Is he going to be a disruption?’ There was about a year span there where it was very challenging to have him in the building. 

“JB is probably one of our greatest success stories of doing a complete 180. It kind of went from, ‘Oh, man, JB’s here’ to ‘Yeah! JB’s here!’ He went from darkening the building in terms of his mood to walking in the building and bringing a light.”

Kevin Barnes said things began clicking for JB that he needed to change, and Crossroads staff played a big role in helping him succeed.

“He’s come a long way. In anybody’s life, progress starts to happen when they decide to make a change,” he said. “He had the support of the school, which I am indebted to. I give lots of credit to Principal Ian Gibson and the staff because of the amount of support and love they give, which matches the amount of love and support we give.”

Kevin Barnes said that while sometimes he wondered if his guidance was having an impact on his son, he now tells other parents that some students need more time and grace to come into their own.

“He’s a good kid. I’m thankful to be a part of his life.”

JB said he’s proud of what he’s accomplished and ready for the next step.

“I feel good that I was able to turn it around and make it a good outcome. I feel good knowing it didn’t matter how I started; I ended on a good note with everybody.”

Read more from Kentwood:
High-schoolers share experience in AP African American Studies with State Board of Education
Parade of Nations is celebration of diversity

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Erin Albanese
Erin Albanese
Erin Albanese is managing editor and reporter, covering Kentwood, Lowell and Wyoming. She was one of the original SNN staff writers, helping launch the site in 2013, and enjoys fulfilling the mission of sharing the stories of public education. She has worked as a journalist in the Grand Rapids area since 2000. A graduate of Central Michigan University, she has written for The Grand Rapids Press, Advance Newspapers, On-the-Town Magazine and Group Tour Media. Read Erin's full bio


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