At 7 p.m. on a Thursday night Cassie Thomas pulls into the parking lot of the Titusville Plaza in Poughkeepsie, New York. In the pitch black of the late-November evening, light from a storefront window illuminates the spinning figures within. Black leotards, white tights, hair pulled taught. The small-framed figures cross polished wooden floors in a series of twirls. Cassie, bundled against the cold in a blue winter coat and cozy knit scarf, opens the glass door to Queen City Dance. Inside she is met with an excited flurry of greetings that would suggest she had not been there in a month. Cassie comes to QCD for dance class every Thursday; it had only been a week.
“You are going to hate me tonight,” instructor Aaron teases Cassie. “We are going to dance our asses off.”
Cassie looks around while she de-layers, her crystal blue eyes wide as she silently tallies the women prepping for class in the aqua-walled lobby of QCD.
“Ooh, tonight’s going to be a good night,” Cassie says with a grin. “There are a lot of people here.”
After a few minutes, Aaron, Cassie and a dozen or so women—who appear to range in age from 20 to 40 years old—file into one of the dance classrooms to begin stretching.
While sitting in a front-split Cassie folds forward—her entire torso lays flat on the ground, her arms form a pillow for her head and her eyes close, somehow meditative despite her splayed limbs. She is so at ease you might think her asleep if not for the occasional head bobbing or finger tapping along to the music.
As peaceful as she is in this one moment, laying in a position that would cause most people extreme pain, just minutes later she is on her feet full of energy and excitement.
Instructor Aaron hits the class hard with a brand new routine, a fast-paced hip-hop number. He teaches the choreography in sections, each one adding on to the previous. Though each new section is met with looks of confusion or incredulity, by the end of the class everyone is keeping up with the steps and even adding their own flare. Cassie is really getting into it; gone is the look of concentration in her eyes. She completes a fast-paced footwork sequence with confidence; each arm movement cuts the air with power and certainty.
It’s the look of someone completely in her element and loving every minute of it.
At 7 p.m. on a Tuesday night Thomas waits behind a pair of thick metal doors, staring impatiently at the small green light on a silver box on the wall. After a couple seconds the light turns off and a loud click tells her the doors are unlocked.
She opens a door to let 14 young women into the Highland Residential Center cafeteria. “Hello, hello! How are my ladies doing?” Thomas asks in her usual friendly, quick-spoken manner. Every Tuesday evening Thomas greets these SUNY New Paltz students who volunteer as tutors at the juvenile detention facility.
Thomas and the young women gather in the cafeteria, surrounded by walls painted with murals of strangely anthropomorphic fruits and vegetables, where they wait for the young men to arrive for tutoring.
“They all got haircuts today,” Thomas tells the tutors. “Make sure you complement them.”
As the young men file in, Thomas greets each one by name and asks them about their day or something she knows they have been struggling with lately. While the boys sit at the tables with their tutors Thomas circles the room, weaves between tables, in case her guidance or reassurance are needed. Like a mother, she may tease them or do things to embarrass them, but it all comes from a place of love.
Cassandra “Cassie” Thomas is a 33-year-old woman from Pleasant Valley, New York. Since the eighth grade she knew she wanted be a teacher—she even taught dance from age 13 to 27—but she never could have guessed where she would end up finding her niche.
Thomas, who graduated from SUNY New Paltz in 2008 with a teaching degree and a minor in women’s studies, now works for the New York State Office of Child and Family Services at the Highland Residential Center. She began there as a summer-school teacher in 2011. Over the years her role at the facility has evolved, eventually taking her away from teaching and more in line with social work; she is currently a youth counselor. As such, she is in charge of development programs for the boys, such as the tutoring program.
But before her time at HRC, Thomas had never imagined herself teaching anywhere other than a traditional school. She student taught at Wallkill High School and Ellenville Middle School while pursuing her teaching degree at SUNY New Paltz. But neither of these felt like quite the right fit.
It was a “comfortable, stable teaching community,” Thomas said. But just not for her.
After graduating in 2008, Thomas initially turned to her love of dance as a career and taught classes for a few years. This not only fit with her passion for dance, but also with a part of her that gravitated toward unconventional teaching methods, differentiated instruction. But eventually she found her way back to teaching at a school, beginning with substitute teaching. Not long after, she found her way to Highland Residential Center and has been there the past six years.
“I felt I could be more real, raw like the experiences that shaped me,” said Thomas. “I had parents who are alcoholics and can bring that understanding to my kids. I curse, I’m loud, aggressive and not sorry about it. I’m tattooed and judged everyday for my sexuality. The jail allowed that stress of being the norm to be still and I hit the ground running.”
Thomas and her younger sister, Tori, were raised by their mother’s best friend, who stepped up when their biological mother proved she was less than fit for the job. As Thomas describes it, her biological Mom was never a mother. She was selfish. But this experience shaped Thomas into the strong, caring and understanding individual that she is today; it made her better equipped to thrive in a place like HRC.
Unexpectedly, Thomas’ background in dance also proved useful during her time at HRC. The time she spent teaching dance gave her experience in differentiated instruction which, according to the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, is a teaching approach in which educators pay attention to differences in students’ backgrounds, readiness, skill levels and interests, then modify their teaching methods to best fit each student.
Thomas’ dance background provided an avenue to engage in differentiated instruction with the young men at HRC. A few years ago, she used dance as a new way to reach and relate to the boys. Together, with the help of a couple young women from her dance studio, Thomas had the boys learn and perform a dance number. Importantly, the music and choreography were straight from the daily lives and culture of the young men. It was the kind of music they listened to, and it incorporated the urban hip-hop dance moves that they might bust out while at a party. This not only forged a deeper connection between Thomas and her boys, but it demonstrated to them that she was listening and cared about their interests. More than that, the project gave them a positive, fun goal to work towards and was a major confidence boost.
“One bit of positivity becomes infectious,” Thomas added.
Thomas portrayed this same sentiment to her tutors on the last night of the program for the Fall 2017 semester.
As the girls circled around Thomas for what they thought was the typical end-of-semester goodbye, Thomas revealed that it wasn’t just goodbye until next semester. This was her last day in the program for the foreseeable future.
“I’m being moved to the mental health unit,” Thomas said with a sniffle.
“You said you weren’t going to cry!” one of the guards teased from across the room.
“I know, I know!” Thomas said as she waved her hands in an attempt to stop the tears.
She turned back to the girls. “I just want to thank you all so much for what you do,” she said, her eyes now red from tears. “Not for me, because it’s not about me, but for my boys. Every day you have been here you’ve been helping someone reshape their life. That’s special; carry that with you.”
What Thomas does is perhaps one of the most extreme ways a person can demonstrate understanding and empathy for another person. Working with ‘criminals,’ but seeing them for the children they are, is something many people would struggle to do. There are plenty of individuals who struggle to offer understanding and empathy to non-criminals. Thomas, however, uses all of her life experiences (home life, dance, and education) to help these boys, to try to connect with them and encourage them to change the path they’re going down. She does something that seems to be increasingly radical: she treats them as humans.
For Thomas that’s what it’s all about: being the best version of yourself and helping others to do that too.
“If you were to ask me how I would classify myself, I think that would be the one word that I would use. Humanitarian. Because…that’s who I am. I am a human being. I am a human being first.”