Pennsylvania teenager’s can-do attitude is driving his IT ambitions
According to federal government statistics, 20 percent of Americans have some degree of hearing loss. The strongest predictor of hearing loss is age — 91 percent of people 50 and older suffer from a significant to severe reduction in their ability to hear.
As a member of that “mature” demographic, I can verify that not hearing well can be frustrating. My wife doesn’t like going to the movies with me because when we do attend, I’m constantly asking her, “What did they say?”
As bothersome as imperfect hearing can be for adults, for children it can be tragic. Early intervention for a hearing-impaired child is crucial. Without assistance and understanding at a young age, hearing problems can and often do negatively affect children’s development of language and social skills, as well as hinder them from living full and productive lives.
Even with assistance from cochlear implant technology — one of the great scientific marvels of the 20th century — life for a deaf person is filled with challenges, including societal stereotypes and misconceptions that often impede their educational and career choices.
Being deaf in a hearing world means getting over a lot of hurdles, something that not every deaf person does successfully. One individual beating the odds is Lucas Geary, 18, of McKeesport, Pa.
Up until the 1980s, McKeesport was an important steel manufacturing center. It is also the site of an consequential debate in 1947 concerning labor issues related to the Taft-Hartley Act. Squaring off that day in April were two little-known members of the U.S. House of Representatives who would both go on to occupy the Oval Office: Richard M. Nixon and John F. Kennedy.
The town also has the geographic good fortune of being situated at the confluence of (in my opinion) two of the coolest-named rivers in the world, the Monongahela, and the Youghiogheny—referred to locally as the “Mon” and “Yough” respectively.
Lucas is like his city. Maybe a little unprepossessing at first glance, yet impressive and engaging and interesting when you get to know him.
An interest in computers
Born with Pendred Syndrome, a genetic disorder that causes early hearing loss in children, Lucas at age three underwent cochlear implant surgery to help him hear better. Unfortunately, surgery destroyed the remainder of his hearing and he is now completely unable to hear without his implant.
He graduated last year from Western Pennsylvania School for the Deaf (“WPSD”) in Edgewood, Pa. Established in 1869, WPSD is a nonprofit, tuition-free school that provides academic and extracurricular programs to deaf and hard-of-hearing children from birth through 12th grade.
Although finished with high school, Lucas chose to remain at WSPD to participate in the school’s Prep for Success Program, a 10-month, five-days-a-week program that help students transition into college and employment. “I like being in the program, because it’s very comfortable,” he said. “The school has a mixture of deaf and hearing staff and we’re all like a family, so it’s easy to talk to others and ask questions when I need help.”
The “family-like” environment also helps Lucas deal with his anxiety. “I do have social anxiety and I’m working on it,” he explained. “Because I’m very comfortable with the school and my classmates, if I begin to feel anxious and uneasy, being around them helps me handle it.”
Another anti-anxiety technique for Lucas is tinkering with computers, and he is rather good at it. At present, Lucas works part-time as an IT tech for WPSD, setting up computers for staff, repairing Chromebooks, and securing networks as needed.
Like many teenagers, computer games were his doorway into the world of information technology (IT). It also helped that his father, Joe Geary, worked in IT and was available to answer frequent questions. “My dad would let me play games on his laptop, and before long I began asking how the games worked,” said Lucas.
While explaining the concepts of game design and programming, Lucas’ father also touted the benefits of IT certifications, explaining which ones would be needed for various jobs. As Lucas’ interest in IT grew, his father encouraged him during high school to take a few classes at the nearby Forbes Road Career and Technology Center — something Lucas wasn’t entirely comfortable doing.
“At first I was nervous because Forbes was way out of my comfort zone,” he explained, “but my dad encouraged me and I’m glad I went.”
Success in school
Lucas has always done well academically (he was class valedictorian at WPSD) by applying himself and giving extra effort as needed. It was at Forbes, however, that he really hit his stride. Taking classes from the school’s computer networking and security instructor, George Karnbauer, Lucas quickly realized he had found his career path.
“The people at Forbes have been great and I’ve learned so much. Being there is the best feeling I’ve ever had,” he said. “I felt like my brain was growing and I finally knew what I wanted to do with my future.”
Karnbauer has taught Lucas for three years and appreciates the level of maturity and personal responsibility he takes for learning. “Lucas is an engaging, personable, and extremely hardworking student. His levels of responsibility and persistence are beyond compare,” said Karnbauer.
Janet Chafin, an instructional assistant at Forbes describes Lucas as the sort of student every teacher wants in their class. “He shows up and the classroom atmosphere is immediately improved. He is an eager and capable learner, always enthusiastic about participating in activities and competitions.”
Lucas’ enthusiasm and desire to master IT are reflected in his accomplishments. A member of the National Honor Society, he has also completed certifications for Windows Operating System Fundamentals and Security Fundamentals.
During his 10th and 11th grade years he placed second in Pennsylvania’s Future Business Leaders of America (FLBA) competition — once for networking concepts and the other time for computer problem solving. This year he earned first place in FBLA’s regional cybersecurity competition and will represent Forbes at the state-level event.
IT skills and an eagerness to pitch in enabled him to shoulder a share of Karnbauer’s load by setting up a new firewall for the classroom. “Mr. K is amazing,” said Lucas. “I really enjoyed doing the firewall and it meant a lot to me that he knew he could trust me, that I would ask questions when I needed to. He has taught me so much about IT that I’ve even been able to teach my dad a thing or two.
Learning from mistakes
No one improves without making mistakes along the way. Lucas has made his fair share, but they haven’t deterred him from pushing ahead in school and life. “If I could tell other students anything, it would be that mistakes aren’t the end of the road,” he explained. “I’ve made a lot of mistakes, but I don’t let them stop me.”
Not letting mistakes derail him from his goals is a lesson Lucas learned from his father. “My dad told me many times when I was growing up that the important thing about making a mistake is learning from it, and that you do something with what you learned,” said Lucas. “For example, I failed the networking fundamentals exam. It was difficult, but I’ll tackle it again in the future.”
That sage paternal advice really hit home after Lucas was involved in a fender bender. “I had a car accident at school one day,” he explained. “It wasn’t a bad one, but I was feeling awful and very anxious that it had happened.”
Lucas’ concerns were alleviated when a security guard noticed his agitation and offered similar advice to his dad’s. “Don’t beat yourself up over making a mistake or you will never improve.”
Lucas describes his relationship with his father as being “super close.” They’ve been through a lot together and their relationship has helped Lucas navigate the ups and downs of teenage life. Dad is also to credit for occasionally nudging his son to step out of his comfort zone.
“He taught me that it’s OK to try new things,” explained Lucas. “If not for his encouragement, I would not have gone to Forbes and would not have experienced the world of IT.”
One of the greatest experiences a parent can have is watching their child overcome the inherent unfairness of a physical handicap. Joe Geary has watched and cheered Lucas on and is thrilled with his success. “He is my pride and joy,” he said. “I’ve always told him he can accomplish anything he wants to, and he proves it every day.
“Lucas isn’t just great at what he does, but anyone who has had the good fortune of meeting him will tell you what a great person he is.”
COVID has been a challenge for the entire country, and especially so for Lucas. While his cochlear implant enables him to hear, he frequently relies on seeing people’s mouths to understand them. “I actually rely quite heavily on lip-reading,” he explained. “I do it with everybody, and since COVID occurred, as you can imagine with all the masks, it’s made it quite difficult for me.”
Online instruction is also difficult during COVID. “Taking virtual classes from home is very hard for me because of all the distractions,” he explained. “I’m so much more of a hands-on learner, and it’s easier to learn when I’m in the classroom and can see exactly what is going on.”
As any COVID-era student could tell you, studying from home isn’t always easy. They are with the people they love, and distractions abound. “I live with my dad, my stepmom, three siblings, four cats, and two dogs. Sometimes it’s like living in a zoo with all the animals,” said Lucas.
TestOut courseware played a significant part in Lucas’ certification preparation, but due to his hearing impairment, his experience was somewhat mixed. “I really like the TestOut materials, but I struggled watching the videos. I can’t do them well and there were too many for me,” he said.
His favorite portion of the courseware is LabSim, where detailed simulations let students walk through actual IT scenarios. “I love LabSim because I’m a hands-on learner. I learned so much more doing the labs where I set up routers and secured switches.”
Studying with Weird Al and looking ahead
Like most students, Lucas likes a little background music while studying. Unlike many other students, however, who use music to help them relax and focus, for Lucas, music is all about recalling information. Songs become deeply associated with the topics and concepts he studies while listening to them.
His playlist includes rock and roll, hip-hop, rap, and other age-typical genres. What makes it unusual is a heavy inclusion of his favorite artist, “Weird Al” Yankovic. “I play his songs during study sessions and when I go back to review for an exam, the songs help me remember the stuff I learned,” explained Lucas.
“Trapped in the Drive-Thru” is a favorite due to its 11-minute length. A parody of R. Kelly’s “Trapped in the Closet,” “Drive-Thru,” from the album Straight Outta Lynwood, is the second-longest song Yankovic has ever recorded. According to Lucas, “The song is so long I just kind of sing it in my head and it brings back memories of what I studied.”
As a fan of history, Lucas often watches the popular YouTube web series, “Epic Rap Battles of History” (“ERB”). “I enjoy ERB because it teaches history in such an awesome way. My dad and I talk about the different episodes all the time; he even has ERB as my ringtone on his phone.”
Lucas has an interest in cybersecurity and is currently utilizing TestOut’s Security Pro course materials to prepare for the CompTIA Security+ exam. “I want to focus more on security certifications,” he said. “I eventually want to work as an IT tech, preferably at a deaf school, but if that doesn’t happen, I’ll find another place.”
Although Lucas’ IT career is just beginning, his success is assured because of a rapidly developing skill set, a strong work ethic, and an ability to leave people feeling better than they felt before speaking with him— a soft skill much needed in the tech field.
A wise man once said that people don’t always remember what you told them, but they’ll always remember how you made them feel. Lucas is one of those people who makes others feel good about their interaction with him.
It’s to my benefit that I’ve gotten to know Lucas. We’ve communicated frequently online and over the phone and every time we finish speaking, he says, “Have a good one.” So sincere and genuine is his sign-off that I always find myself thinking, “Yeah, I will have a good one.”
Against long odds, Lucas has overcome much and put a lot of living into a brief 18 years. Regardless of the direction life takes him in, I’m confident that his attitude and abilities will enable both him and those he meets to have a good one.