HUNTINGTON - Turning pain into power was the message John Buckland, a local man who has taken on the role of Batman with Heroes 4 Higher, conveyed to students at St. Joseph Central Catholic High School during a school assembly Thursday.
When the assembly began, students were visibly excited and even erupted in cheers upon first seeing Buckland walk into the gym wearing his mask and 40-pound suit, but the mood sobered as Buckland began telling students why he was there.
"Honestly, I am here because honestly I am getting tired of hearing about drugs, bullies and suicides among kids your age," Buckland said to students.
From there, Buckland began telling students about the events that led him to be a full-time Batman. As he began to tell his story, Buckland removed his mask and spoke to the students not as Batman, but as John Buckland.
"I want to be totally transparent as I share my story," he said.
The gym filled with more than 100 high schoolers was silent as Buckland talked about his upbringing. He spoke about the abuse he faced at home, at school and even at the hands of a scoutmaster.
He told students how that pain shaped his life, causing him to attempt suicide twice and eventually leading him into a downward spiral that landed him in the Georgia State Prison where he served 7 1/2 years for two armed robberies.
However, several years after he was released from prison, the same judge who oversaw his conviction and sentencing for the robberies successfully filed a petition to have Buckland's record expunged.
While Buckland said he wouldn't wish his experience on anyone, he said they have shaped who he is today.
"It's the tough things in life that make us strong," he said.
In his parting words, Buckland stressed to students the importance of looking out for one another and always sharing with adults or counselors when they are going through tough times or need help.
Phoenix Heron, a senior at St. Joe, said he felt inspired by Buckland's story.
"It's cool to see somebody who has gone through the lowest of lows in their life but is still able to make a difference in someone else's life and show that it's never too late to turn your life around," he said.
Eleventh-grader Jordan Leonard said it was unlike any assembly she had been to, but she was glad Buckland treated the students like adults and not just high school kids.
"Usually our speakers are not someone we can connect with, and it was really nice to have someone that told us like it is," she said. "He didn't seem to just be talking at us. He was actually having a conversation with us."
Regardless of how Buckland's story affected them, Buckland said he hopes he has made some small impact in their lives.
"The main goal for today is I want to be able to impact them with a real story that will hopefully inspire them and open their eyes to the consequences of bullying and drugs," he said.