Written by Ben Austin (B.A. '08, M.A. '13)
Before dawn July 12, 2021, a black SUV slipped into a Gwinnett County, Ga., neighborhood and pulled into a driveway. The men who hustled out of the vehicle were efficient. Within minutes they led a blindfolded man out of the house and into the SUV. The man’s neighbors, many still asleep, remained unaware of what had just taken place.
Only weeks before, Tylan Bailey had walked with the rest of Georgia State University’s graduating class of 2021. At 43, he was not the oldest person to graduate, but still, a forty-something custodian receiving a bachelor’s degree in education was unusual. It was enough for someone who could pull strings to take notice. In the early morning darkness, the SUV hit Interstate 85 and headed south on an empty highway, ferrying Bailey to an unknown — to him — destination.
Seated in the SUV, Bailey was laughing. His wife, Joi, and his children were whispering: “It’s like ‘Bird Box.’”
“No, more like ‘A Quiet Place.’”
And though Joi knew her husband was headed to an Atlanta studio to appear on “Good Morning America” (show producers had enlisted her help earlier that week), even she didn’t know exactly what was in store.
College graduation stories are not often featured on nationally syndicated morning shows, but that’s not what made this story unlikely. It wasn’t that when the blindfold was removed Bailey discovered Dwayne Johnson and Emily Blunt standing behind him, along with hundreds of friends, co-workers and family. Nor was it the all-expenses-paid trip to Los Angeles for his family, the all-access to Disneyland, not the literal walk on the red carpet in L.A. at the premier of Blunt and Johnson’s new feature “Jungle Cruise.”
It wasn’t even really that he was moving on from two decades of service as a custodian to become a PE teacher.
It was that Tylan Bailey should be there at all.
“I have a bigger story than just going from custodian to teacher,” he says.
The gray that runs along the edges of his beard betrays Bailey’s age, but in the way he holds his hands, in the firmness when he speaks, there is a vitality.
“My life pathway was not the easiest route,” he says. “But it was the route I needed to take.”
Rewind the tape 38 years. Bailey is in kindergarten. He lives with his mother and sisters, one older, one younger, at the Tobie Grant housing project in north Decatur, Ga. His dad is not in the picture, and in fact, Bailey “never laid eyes on him.” It’s not the safest environment, and it’s not the kind of place that school is always prioritized. But his mother, he says, doesn’t tolerate nonsense. She does prioritize school. She wants a better life for her children.
But Bailey’s mother is more complicated than that, too. She struggles with addiction. “Stable” is a word he uses to describe parts of his childhood, as in, it was stable living with Aunt Nancy in sixth grade or, in eighth grade, staying with Uncle Todd and Aunt Connie. Or “unstable,” when his mother moved the family to Montana or to South Carolina, always returning to Georgia a few months or maybe a year later.
Before he graduates, Bailey attends 14 different schools. The first time the family moved was in the middle of second grade, to Chief Joseph Elementary in Great Falls, Mont., with “snow on the ground, and snow-capped mountains.” They stay until the snow has melted.
Three times they move to Sumter, S.C., then return to Georgia. He attends school a few months here, a full semester there.
In spite of it, he says, his mother tries.
“She was still a mother. Through it all, she was still a mother. It wasn’t one of those neglect type of situations,” Bailey says. “She was the mother I needed at this point of my life.”
While living out of state, the schools Bailey attends are a mix of good and bad. Back in Atlanta they’re mostly the latter. His classmates come from Thomasville Heights, Four Seasons Apartments and East Lake Meadows. Dangerous places, and violent, the surrounding environment bleeding onto school grounds. And Bailey is perpetually the new kid, always having to prove himself.
“Kids bring guns. There’s a fight every day. And you’re waiting on your turn to fight,” he says. “There was definitely anxiety. Definitely a lot of anxiety. You’re waiting. You know something is going to happen.”
Life hardens him and teaches its lessons. Bailey learns early that he moves too much to make friends. The unfamiliar face in the classroom — his face — is the one to be singled out, the one to be tested. The older he gets the severity of the fights ratchets up. His head stays on a swivel, walking the halls, riding the bus, traveling the neighborhood. By middle school he knows what it is to be homeless, staying with his mother and his younger sister, LaToya, in a single room with friends who will put them up. His older sister, Nakia, is no longer with them. At 14 she got pregnant and moved out.
Bailey, somehow, has not been dragged down. His mother has instilled grace and respect in her son. He’s in gifted classes, and though sometimes he’s pulled into fights, he keeps out of trouble. “No one,” he says, “had to stay on me about schoolwork or keeping my grades up.”
But the pressure is unrelenting. Spring semester of 10th grade Bailey witnesses three drive-by shootings. His junior year he enters his school foyer to a trail of blood leading down the hall. As he’s trying to figure out what it means, a girl runs by, her hands covering her head. Someone, it turns out, has slashed her face.
Twenty-five years from this moment, Bailey will be a father to four children, a husband, a provider with a full-time job as a custodian. He will be finishing his Health and Physical Education degree at Georgia State and his story will become a national interest. But here, in his middle teens, all of that is much further away than a matter of years. He has lost himself. It will take another life to find him.
Tylan Bailey leads students in an after-school program at Briar Vista Elementary School. Photo by Meg Buscema
It is 1996, the year he is supposed to graduate. He isn’t graduating — he’s skipped too much school — though it means little to him. Then his long-term girlfriend Keisha gives him some news. You are going to be a father, she says. And as the news settles, a thought plays in his mind: “I want to be a high school graduate for my child.”
Yazmine is born in March 1997.
“Yazmine Bailey,” he says. “And that was a point. To make sure she had my last name. That was a point, because I didn’t have my biological dad in my life. I want to be the best dad that I can be. I wanted to be the best dad.”
And so, for his daughter, he transforms his life. He doubles up on his semesters and graduates the next year. His uncle advises him to find a job with benefits, so he takes work as an elementary school custodian, a position he’ll hold the next 23 years.
After his marriage to Keisha ends, he’ll take a second job to pay child support, delivering newspapers at 4 a.m. seven days a week. He’ll keep that one for 11 years, until the two children he shares with Keisha turn 18.
“Some days I probably had four hours of sleep. Because my kids are 10, 12 years old, playing basketball, baseball, football, cheerleading. I wanted to be the best dad possible. I didn’t want to miss any events,” he says. “Every day I spent with them is one more day than my father spent with me.”
The story could end here. Bailey has risen above his childhood to become a steady, loving father and husband. Yazmine and Tylan Jr. are grown, and his two other children thriving. In seven years, he’ll be eligible for retirement.
But a thought persists — almost haunts him. His custodial work has never really felt like a career, he says, and it leaves him discontented.
“I want to be a teacher. I’m in an environment where there’s education all around me. This is what I want to do.”
And so a third chapter of his life opens at Georgia State.
Returning to college as a 40-year-old student brought its challenges. Writing papers, attending class and taking finals are things he has not done in years. Now he is driving to Atlanta for classes in kinesiology, health and wellness, and classroom diversity. But those unused muscles return quickly enough. Many professors are memorable, he says, listing Nicole McCluney, Rachel Gurvitch, Marcel Lima (recipient of the 2021 Outstanding Graduate Teaching Assistant Award), and the current Health and Physical Education program coordinator, Deborah Shapiro.
Classmates, at first, are a different story. It was hard for him not to notice that many of the people in the classrooms with him were as old as his children and, conversely, that he was the same age as many of their fathers.
The degree took four years, between balancing fatherhood, work and studies. As he neared graduation, a friend of Bailey’s was relating to a friend the story of the custodian who was about to become a teacher. A few days later, that friend-of-a-friend shared the story yet again, only this time with the Channel 2 journalist Berndt Petersen. The rest, as they say, is history.
In a matter of days Bailey’s story was featured on Channel 2, then in The Washington Post, on “CBS Evening News,” and then under the bright lights of “Good Morning America.” In those weeks the story received 200,000 likes and 50,000 comments on Facebook.
The interviews, the L.A. red carpet and the handshakes with Hollywood VIPs — his whole family took part in it — meant a great deal to Bailey.
But it was the day that he stood in his blue robe and mortarboard hat to receive his diploma that stands apart. On that day, his children were able to hold their heads high and tell everyone, “My father is a teacher.”
“I can’t even put it into words. Even in the video they used on ‘Good Morning America,’ I couldn’t put that day into words. I was on a different planet,” he says. “I really am graduating with my bachelor’s, something that I’ve always wanted to have.”
There’s also self-pride in what he’s accomplished. He’s a hands-on dad. He came from darkness and made it to the light. He became more than anything his environment told him he could be.
The job offer arrived a month before his graduation. He would coach and lead PE classes at Briar Vista Elementary, teaching children to throw a ball, to skip, to know how many bones are in the body. Bailey, who had spent so many difficult years in schools, was now, proudly, a teacher.
Top Photo by Meg Buscema