RONCEVERTE, W.V. (LOOTPRESS) – Monday morning, Batman unmasked himself to tell his life story to the sixth-grade class of Eastern Greenbrier Middle School. Although he has been working as a full-time superhero with Heroes 4 Higher since 2012, Batman is actually John Buckland, a man who has worked to bring change to the way youth treat one another in more than 800 schools across the country.
“Kids were already going through a tough time before Covid hit. Before Covid hit, we had 3,000 ninth to twelfth-graders every day attempting suicide. Now, we have easily over 4,000 a day. That is 1.4 million a year, which means that it is the largest epidemic on the planet. It’s the number two killer of youth today,” Buckland said.
Despite these severe statistics, Buckland is shocked that there isn’t more advocacy for teen suicide.
“I am here to speak up for them and to teach these kids to find their voice,” he explained. “A lot of what kids need is honesty. No one talks anymore; everyone is keeping secrets. We gotta get these kids talking again and challenge them to open up. Talking is what saves lives.”
When asked why he chose to present himself as Batman, Buckland says it’s because of the story behind the hero.
“Batman, in the story, was a young boy who went through the trauma of losing both of his parents, was angry about it, and rightfully so, but he made a decision to do something positive with that anger and change the world with it.”
Aside from rising above life’s challenges and successfully channeling pain into something positive, Buckland says he was drawn to Batman because he’s just a regular guy.
“He doesn’t have any superpowers. Batman doesn’t need superpowers as a crutch to change the world. Batman used the pain in his life as fuel to change the world around him, and that’s what I’m trying to inspire to do these kids to do. That is what I do as Batman…He is just an average guy that went through extra ordinary things but made a choice to do something good with that.”
When teaching elementary students, Buckland stays in his full suit and changes the narrative to still teach about the dangers of bullying while not going in-depth with his personal story, which is too sensitive for younger listeners. Middle and high school, however, are different.
During Monday’s Repurpose the Pain Reset assembly, Buckland gave a very straightforward and intense synopsis of his life from being raised in an abusive home and becoming the victim of sexual and physical assault at the age of 12 to dropping out of school as a senior and being kicked out of his home at 18. It was then that Buckland turned to violence, drugs and theft; attempted suicide twice; lost custody of his son; and committed several robberies that landed him in a maximum-security prison for nearly eight years.
“I went through the worst things you could go through,” he said to the students.
But he kept going.
While in prison, Buckland started talking to counselors and learned to forgive the people who had done him wrong. He earned his GED and graduated from college while sustaining a 4.0 average and working to prove everyone, including himself, wrong about who he had been in the past.
After being released from prison, he worked his way up through the restaurant business- from busboy to manager- and continued to prove that he was a changed man.
He worked hard to accomplish his dream of being a firefighter, which came true after his criminal record was first pardoned and then erased completely.
While working as a paid firefighter, Buckland was asked to go overseas to Iraq to work as a firefighter and assist the troops already stationed there.
“I was giving back for my mistakes and making amends,” he told the students. “But there is no amount of good, no amount of school assemblies, no amount of time in this suit, no amount of lives I can touch to take back the hurt I caused. I live with it every day.”
When Buckland returned from Iraq, he said he was disgusted by the bullying, discrimination and hate that he saw in schools and knew he needed to share his story. He has worked as Batman full-time ever since.
As the assembly drew to a close, Buckland reminded the students of the four steps to greatness that he taught them in elementary school:
- Never give up
- Always do the right thing
- Help other people
- Never be a bully
“You are the generation of change,” he said. “Inside of you is a message that the world needs. Inside of you is someone that can change the world, and every day that you are alive is a day that you can change.”
Buckland will return to Eastern Greenbrier Middle School on Tuesday, May 18, and Wednesday, May 19, to present the assembly to the seventh and eighth-grade students.
Sue Lee, principal of Eastern Greenbrier Middle School, says she is excited to see the impact Buckland’s story has on the students, especially after they’ve had to face such a unique year.
“Last year, it left a big impression on our students, so I was looking forward to it this year,” she said. “There are times when students make bad choices, and they’re not really conscious of what they are doing, and I hope this will promote an awareness for our students and have a big impact on the culture here at Eastern Greenbrier.
Following Eastern Greenbrier Middle School, Buckland will travel to the Alderson and White Sulphur Springs libraries with his Batmobile to take part in the summer reading program visits. He will be at the libraries on June 9.
In addition to his school assemblies, Buckland wrote and published a children’s book titled “Broken Toy Hero,” which tells the story of Phoenix the toy’s struggle with being mistreated and teaches the four steps to greatness. Buckland, who is constantly traveling to different schools, says the book is designed to be there for kids when he can’t be.