Rodney Clayton didn’t plan to finish high school. College seemed out of the question. These days the Tidewater Community College graduate and science professor inspires his students with a can-do attitude about succeeding in higher education.
“I always tell my students you may be like me and have people tell you you’re dumb, and you believe it,” Clayton said. “But if you want something bad enough, you have to be determined. Tenacious should be my middle name. I never gave up.”
By age 16, the sophomore at Kempsville High had enough of growing up in an abusive household. He ran away, lived with a friend’s family for a while and took a job at Kmart. A supervisor there took an interest in him, becoming something of a surrogate mother. He eventually grew to be part of her family, and her encouragement helped him apply himself academically.
“I realized I was dyslexic, and she helped me sound out words,” he said. “At the end of my junior year, I made honor roll for the first time. I proved to myself I was capable of doing well in school.”
Attending college still seemed like a stretch, and Clayton figured he’d continue to work at a Virginia Beach dive center instead. But a Christmas present from his surrogate mother was an oceanography textbook. Tucked inside was an enrollment slip for TCC.
“I was shocked,” he said.
Touched by her generosity, he started at the college that spring. Early frustration didn’t deter him. Math professor Michael Kirby and science professor Michael Lyle, both of whom still teach at the college, were early mentors.
“The smaller classrooms and the math lab, the resources that I remind students of all the time, helped me stay in college,” Clayton said. “I realized it wasn’t so much about being smart. It was about applying yourself and being determined.”
Clayton graduated from TCC with his associate of science in 1994 and went on to earn his bachelor’s and master’s in geology from Old Dominion University. He earned a certificate in Spatial Analysis of Coastal Environments also from ODU and took a job at Langley Air Force Base, where his projects included GIS and remote sensing for Operation Iraqi Freedom. The high stress level of the position prompted him to turn to teaching.
Anecdotes and analogies help Clayton connect with his students in addition to a down-to-earth quality and a willingness to help students succeed.
“I see myself in a lot of students,” he said. “I always want to make sure I’m talking to them, not above them.”
Clayton now considers himself a lifelong learner – he is at work on a doctorate at Northcentral University – and his office overflows with a variety of books on topics that range from drinking water to dinosaurs.
“I never had a book growing up; now I’m a voracious reader,” said Clayton, who has four children of his own, ages 5-16. “My success with students is largely because of my past.”