Name: Joseph McCaffrey
School: Walter B. Saul HS
Nominated By: Kelsey Romano – Teacher
Stephen Hawking once said, “Quiet people have the loudest minds.” This quote is profound, and immediately forces a recollection of the quietest people you know. They often evoke the question — “what is on your mind?” — the answer is usually, “a lot.” That is certainly the case for Joseph McCaffrey.
Joe is an example of someone who has mastered turning obstacles into assets. A young man who admittedly always felt a little out of place, like he didn’t quite fit into his skin, is now an outspoken academic and social leader at Saul. He is near the top of his class, an advocate for climate change and social justice, and universally beloved by teachers and peers. An impressive resume, but the journey was not easy.
Freshman year was transformative for Joe, who had come out to his family as transgender the previous year and had begun attending a different school from his twin for the first time. The dual crises and accompanying anxiety, compounded by anger at dispassionate and unkind peers, led to a stay in the hospital battling severe depression. The burdens were enough to break even the strongest of us, but Joe refused to be broken. “With the help of my family, and people like Ms. Romano, it’s been a season of learning for me,” Joe explained. “I’ve learned how to cope and interact with kindness and compassion, even if it’s not shown back to me.”
After the hospital stay, things started to change. The first changes were internal — Joe found the things that bring him joy: animals, art, and advocacy. The therapy and mental reprieve Joe finds in those things empower him to fight for change externally. He is an ambassador for the Trap-Neuter-Return method for managing stray and feral cats. As such, he has helped to humanely reduce the number of strays in Philadelphia while collaborating with local shelters to help them find good homes. Joe is also a fierce and outspoken advocate for climate change, attending marches, rallies and protests while inspiring others to do the same. “Seeing Joe at these marches, fighting for change and making a difference is inspiring!” says nominator and teacher Kelsey Romano. “He smiles, laughs, and comes completely out of his shell when he’s fighting for what’s right.” Loudest minds, indeed.
We had the privilege of chatting with Joe after he was selected as Student of the Month. Here’s more of what he had to say:
- What does being named Student of the Month mean to you? It is truly a great honor. It helps put into perspective how far I’ve come since starting high school at Saul. It’s crazy to think about where I was as an 8th grader versus where I am now as a senior. “Freshman year, Joe lost his voice,” says his stepmother Dierdre. “It’s been a long road, and an incredible season of growth, but he’s found it again!”
- Explain your relationship to Ms. Romano, your nominator? As a freshman, I was so depressed and anxious that I couldn’t eat lunch with the other kids. I ate alone in the library or wherever else people weren’t. Ms. Romano invited me to eat lunch with her in her classroom. That was all I needed — someone to care about me at school. We bonded during those lunches, and talked about everything from cats to TV to life in general. Ms. Romano helped me find my passions because she showed interest in the things I was passionate about. We’ll be friends 10, 20, 30 years from now.
- What is one thing you’d like to share about yourself that most people don’t know about you? It seems crazy that I’ve come this far, but I don’t think people know that I’m actually an introvert. I seem talkative and outgoing at times, but it wears me out!
- What do you enjoy most when you are not at school? There are things that are really important for my mental health that I truly enjoy. I love drawing and music, both help me focus and relax. I also go to the gym 6 days a week and work with a personal trainer. It helps me stay healthy and helps build my confidence. I started going to the gym to try to find something that could supplement medication, and it really has.
- What is the best thing about attending school at Saul? The adults at Saul, especially Ms. Romano, have played a huge role in me becoming who I am today. I also love all the experiences Saul offers that other high schools don’t. Here you can learn all the sciences — animal, food, environmental. I plan to pursue a career in veterinary medicine because of all I’ve learned here.
- What is one thing that the School District could do to improve our service to students? I’d love to see better collaboration between schools and the administration, which I think would lead to fuller understanding at all levels.