Rainshadow Community Charter High School
Sam O’Brien’s life has come full circle.
The 32-year-old social studies, literature and drama teacher and basketball coach at Rainshadow Community Charter High School, a school for “at-risk” teens, has a lot in common with many of his students.
“I was an at-risk teen,” he says.
Now a talented comedian and spoken word poet who holds a master’s degree in education, O’Brien left his parents’ home—a small trailer in California—at the age of 19 and went to Reno with $300 in his pocket and two bags full of clothes. Working two jobs and living in various weekly motels, O’Brien managed to get an education and began to establish a life for himself.
He’s still broke, as he often jokes in his stand-up comedy routine. (In one bit, he reenacts his girlfriend breaking up with him. She complains that she doesn’t like his house, his broken-down car, his old clothes; “You think I like it?” he responds.) But for a student to look O’Brien in the eyes and offer an excuse as to why he or she can’t accomplish something must be a difficult task.
O’Brien doesn’t really like to talk about his accomplishments, though. He’s a modest guy and likes to laugh about stuff more than complain or brag. He reiterates that many teachers work as hard as he does—he often dedicates more than 20 hours a week of unpaid overtime to his students.
His extra efforts and his ties to Reno’s performing arts community have really paid off. As a comedian, poet and avid hip-hop fan, he has earned the respect of dozens of local performers. In two benefit shows, O’Brien has raised about $1,000 for Rainshadow’s basketball team. That’s about half of what the team needs per season.
On a recent Saturday at a benefit show organized by O’Brien, it was hard not to root for his cause. An all-star team of local comedians, spoken-word poets, improv comedy actors and rappers performed. Benefit show or not, it was about the most fun possible for $5 on a Saturday night.
The great thing about the show was that a lot of the performers were just like the students when they were young. Take Christian Reyes, a 21-year-old comedian who grew up back-and-forth between Inglewood and Reno—fighting both gangs and poverty as a teenager. Reyes is happy to perform for the benefit, recalling a charity event held for his youth soccer team when he was a student who didn’t make a dime.
The vibe at the benefit show was anything but depressing, though. It took place in Studio on Fourth, a small venue located, aptly enough, on Fourth Street. The room was packed with parents and fans who seemingly just came to catch a good show. Though everyone was laughing throughout the night, some sentimental talk did take place.
“My kid wouldn’t be in school if it wasn’t for Sam,” a student’s mother told one of the comedians performing that night.