Improbable journey to an unlikely career


Jocelyn Sweeney

Devoted fans and spirited students pack the stands of Sprague High School stadium on a Friday night in 1990. A man in a toga runs up and down the track cheering on the black-and orange-clad players. The Olympians are on their way to another victory in Salem, Oregon.

   But 17-year-old Brian Taylor is not in the stands. He is 650 miles away working at the Lipton tea and soup factory. Box after box come chugging down the assembly line. He picks up the boxes and places them in  bigger boxes and back down the assembly they go. Over and over again, Taylor works all through the night.

   While Sprague High School students are still enjoying their time as teenagers, Taylor has already moved on, starting a life away from the Friday night lights, under fluorescent factory bulbs and the glow of flickering rest area signs.

   Taylor dropped out of high school his junior year and drove as far as his old Mazda GLC would take him before he ran out of gas: Santa Cruz, California. He was homeless and jobless, but in his mind “free.”

   His car, stuffed full of belongings, wasn’t a comfortable sleeping option. He grabbed a sleeping bag and took to the beach. His neck didn’t cramp up sleeping on the beach, but he forgot about the changing tides. A cold wave of sea water woke him up that first morning. The first few weeks were difficult, but Taylor solved his problems creatively, finding various places to sleep at night.

   He parked in front of nice houses, so offended citizens on their way to work would wake him up, giving him time to shave and style his ponytail at a local rest stop before job interviews.

   He eventually used his factory pay to rent a small bedroom of an old house. The bedroom was tiny, but he could at least hang up his Pink Floyd posters. The Earthquake of 1989, however, condemned the entire house, forcing Taylor to leave Santa Cruz the same way he went in: homeless and lost.

   Taylor drove back to Salem, grabbed his motorcycle, and moved to Santa Barbara armed with  two of his inspirational books: On the Road and Easy Rider.

   Taylor gave school one more try. Enrolled at Santa Barbara City College, Taylor thrived, earning an almost perfect GPA, becoming part of the honors program, and taking part in student government. Angela Plummer, Taylor’s high school friend, is one of many who knew Taylor could have been the perfect student in high school. “It was obvious that he was off the charts intellectually, had great manners, and was extraordinarily giving and thoughtful.” Plummer said. Free from constant supervision, Taylor showed off the intelligence often hidden underneath his rebel attitude.

   Enjoying school once again, Taylor transferred to Binghamton University in New York  with the girl he met in Santa Barbara, who would become his wife. Taylor was well known around Binghamton for his political activism and for starting the first libertarian newspaper, The Guillotine. He graduated with honors and two majors focused on political science and philosophy. 

   Taylor’s love of politics led him to a career in journalism. He moved to Queens in New York City and worked at ABC News in Manhattan. He also wrote for the libertarian magazine Reason, where he adorned the cover, published numerous articles, and created their initial website.

   Bang bang bang. “This is the police open up.” A groggy Taylor woke up to yelling and pounding at his apartment door. His hot-wired and then abandoned car blocked traffic in the intersection below. The police were unconcerned with the culprit, only in getting the car moved.

   Despite his successful cover model and journalism career, the pandemonium of New York didn’t suit Taylor.

   Luckily, a few years later Taylor’s wife accepted a job in Michigan, and they moved away from car thieves to a quieter life in Spring Lake. Taylor established his own web design company. After months and months of staring at a computer and the slow reality setting in that he hadn’t left the house in days, Taylor needed another hobby or vocation.

   A newspaper ad in the Grand Haven Tribune piqued his interest. Fruitport Alternative High School was seeking a local businessman to talk to students in the Junior Achievement program. With some guidance from his wife, Taylor volunteered, unaware he was approaching a pivotal moment in his life.

   As they were alternative students, Taylor was warned about their behavior, but they broke any preconceived judgements he heard. He loved teaching the atypical students and connected with them easily.

   All the twists and struggles of Taylor’s life indirectly led him to this moment; he finally found his calling. He received a teaching certificate from GVSU and a Master’s degree as well.

   Seventeen-year-old high school dropout Brian Taylor would have never guessed where his path would lead, but the ability to be an incredible teacher was ever-present—despite his rebellious behaviors as a teen. 

   Taylor’s high school friend, Melissa Pollman, remembers after one of Taylor’s empowering, yet harmless, rebellions the vice principal asking, “Why can’t you use those leadership skills for good instead of evil?” Taylor, through trial and error, found a positive way to focus his energy—even if it took 20 years.

   From fighting against a ban on bandanas as a student to encouraging healthy debate as a teacher; from questioning his own teachers to becoming the teacher he always desired, Taylor’s formerly troublesome behaviors now drive his teaching.

   Jerry Lougee has been best friends with Taylor since high school. “He has questioned the very value of a high school education and returned with the answers he was never provided,” Lougee said. Taylor didn’t receive all the support and knowledge he needed in high school, and he doesn’t want his students to experience the same.

   West Ottawa alumnus and former student of Taylor Melissa Scholtens shares a strong bond with Taylor; they’ve kept in close touch and now work together. Scholtens knew she would be a teacher, but often faced discouragement. “Mr. Taylor was always there to reassure me that he knew I was making the right choice,” Scholtens said. Scholtens teaches second grade at North Holland Elementary and has found the same sense of fulfillment as Taylor in teaching.  

   At the 2018 Homecoming game vs. Grand Haven, Taylor watched as West Ottawa claimed another victory. Even in the cold rain, there is no other place Taylor would rather be than underneath the Friday night lights with his students, who can’t award him a high school diploma, but did give him the “most spirited teacher” award, which means a lot more. “I never want to do anything else.”