Ryan Wilson is a performer. He is used to the stage, used to the audiences.  He is comfortable in that space. Craves it even. When he was 15 years old, dreams of playing rock music to sold-out venues moshed in his mind.

Today, Ryan the grown-up has achieved his dream.  He is performing in front of adoring fans and has built a successful following in Rochester, NH.  Sure, his songs happen to be about pirates and chicken nuggets and his audience is about two years removed from potty training, but for Ryan, he wouldn’t trade this experience for all the tinted-window Bentleys in the world.

Ryan Wilson is a preschool teacher. A male preschool teacher.  The only male preschool teacher at Rochester Child Care Center.

“I just love it,” he says. “I’d rather feel great about what I’m doing than what I’m bringing home for a check.”

At first glance, Ryan may not appear to be your prototypical teacher. Clad in sandals, shorts and a Superman t-shirt and sporting a beard that would make the<i> Duck Dynasty </i>guys recoil with envy, Ryan evokes more of a comic-book-artist-crossed-with-a-Pacific-Northwest-survivalist look than an early childhood educator. But don’t be fooled; the man has skills.

“Yeah, I’m just sort of a big kid anyway,” he says, “but I think that’s what has made me successful as a teacher.”

Ryan’s journey to the classroom was a long and strange one.  As a teenager his life was turbulent, as he endured three years of homelessness during high school. His love of music kept him sane, but making ends meet proved to be a harsh, joyless endeavor.

He entered the work force as a clerk at gas station convenience stores and remained there, miserable and unfulfilled, for years. Behind the counter he bore witness to the worst personality traits available in his fellow man. He was berated, ignored, threatened and sworn at from both sides of the register. It was then, slinging change and dodging colorful pejoratives, when Ryan had an epiphany: as a teacher, maybe he could do his part to quell the manufacturing of jerks.

“Hey, if I could be a positive influence to kids at an early age, maybe they wouldn’t grow up to become some of the people I had to deal with,” he says.

This realization combined with the life-changing experience of having his first child led to a musing one day to his wife: why not look into a career in early childhood education? The next day, Ryan’s wife, intent on freeing her husband from the shackles of brutal monotony, set him up with an interview at a local college. Soon after that, he was out of the convenience store game for good and sitting in a classroom, the only guy in the program, learning the ins and outs of molding young minds. He earned his Associate’s Degree in Early Childhood Education and took his first job at RochesterChildCareCenter, a United Way partner agency.

“I was nervous,” he said. “I had gone from making change to being responsible for a human life. It was a little more stressful.”

It wasn’t long into his new professional life that Ryan found his gender isolation to be a net positive for the center. Immediately, the kids glommed onto him as a human jungle gym. But, deeper than that, was the role he played as a positive, stable male presence to many children attending the center.

“Some of these kids have no idea what it’s like to be around a man,” Ryan says. “Or, worse, they’re terrified of men. I can be that male role model. I embrace that.”

These early years are so critical for the developing child. Learning skills and social mores develop at light-speed, imprinting on the radical, dynamic growth of a toddler’s brain. It’s what propels United Way’s investments in healthy child development and why teachers for this age range have such an impact. For Ryan, music became a powerful tool to spark this growth.

“A lot of my kids here aren’t exposed to music,” he said. “I’ve found it to be a great attention-draw, which makes it easier for them to focus.”

If the guitar isn’t enough to draw attention, Ryan’s outfit will certainly do the trick. When the time calls for it, he’ll don a homemade mask and cape, transforming into a thick-bearded superhero, likely to break out into a song about Goldilocks or the Three Little Pigs or even dinosaurs (as sung by Jeff Goldblum).

And though he still plays grown-up gigs from time to time on the weekends, they just can’t compare to his daytime venue: “Little kids respond better to my music than any other crowd I’ve ever played to,” he says.

That’s just one big surprise in his life as a preschool teacher, an experience that has been populated with so many big surprises, not the least of which is that a guy who had once been homeless and adrift found a mooring in the unlikeliest of places: a classroom filled with wooden blocks, crayon-stained fingers and a world of promise.