The academics, athletics, activities and assessments of education are so complex and subjective that it is understandable that we often shrug our shoulders and feel that one person's concerns and values can't make a difference. Issues such as school finance and curriculum content can be ponderous; however, a single person CAN, in fact, make a mark.
I would like to tell you about four people - a teacher, student, administrator and parent - who decided they had the passion and time to make themselves heard.
Bryan Clyne, a teacher and athletic director in Lawrence, held the same position for a number of years at a Hopi reservation near Flagstaff, Ariz. Clyne, who often dealt with the negative consequences of the "no pass, no play" athletic eligibility system, wanted to link athletics and academic success in a more positive way. He devised an incentive called "Play for A's" that recognized athletes who also had succeeded in the classroom. Small patches with the letter "A" in the center, color-coded to indicate the amount of time the grade had been maintained, were given to the athletes to sew on their football, basketball and softball jerseys. Clyne's intention was to symbolically link the commitment necessary for success in both the classroom and the playing field.
Once the program was established, Clyne recalls, "Parents would stop me to ask when their son or daughter would receive another patch for Mom to sew on a jersey. The patches were accepted and popular among the players, but they became important in the community as well." Players from opposing teams would ask about the patches, and Clyne received inquiries from other school and community program directors. He stood on the sideline as the school's male and female Scholar-Athletes of the Year were honored at halftime of a University of Northern Arizona football game.
Bryan Clyne made a difference.
Beth Moore and her family moved to a new town and new school weeks before she began her sophomore year.
When school started, she learned about the long-standing tradition of initiation and hazing that culminated with Homecoming Week activities. Some of what the freshmen had to endure seemed harmless, but when her brother, a freshman, came home shaken and crying, she learned that some of the rituals were physically abusive and morally indefensible. Freshmen were taken to the cemetery and tied to trees, had honey poured over their heads, had to wear diapers and were told to kiss the shoes of seniors.
When Beth told the school administration that she thought these activities were wrong, she was informed that the school could not do anything about activities off the school grounds. Upperclassmen and even some freshmen told her to mind her own business; she was told by some adults that she was new in town and not entitled to judge tradition.
But Beth refused to be quiet.
She attended three school board meetings and asked that her views be considered. She wrote several letters to the newspaper presenting her belief. She spoke with the chief of police and the town attorney about the legality of some of the seniors' actions. She spoke with the student council, class officers and school organizations, such as the National Honor Society.
Beth's support built slowly. Students thanked her and told her how much they hated Homecoming Week. Former students spoke to her of their negative memories, and some wrote letters to the editor. An attorney advised parents and the school board that many of the activities were sexual harassments or assaults. The hazing continued the following year, but many freshmen had adult chaperones and, when possible, refused to be humiliated. The following year, Beth's senior year, the school board adopted a zero-tolerance policy; seniors who continued to haze faced athletic and academic suspension.
In the years since Beth graduated, events such as those at Columbine High School and other schools have reinforced the vital need to consider the environment and values of schools in order to protect those entrusted to them.
Beth was 15 when she decided to make a difference. She did.
Nick McGrath's decision did not shake the earth; he was the first to admit that the process was enjoyable and rewarding for him, almost a hobby. However, his actions served to create a bond between the past and present at his children's school.
McGrath enjoyed watching both his son and daughter participate in school athletics. He was a congenial man, and bleacher discussions led him to realize that the school and community had no continuous display of athletes who had received state honors, such as being named to an all-state team or placing at state competitions such as track, wrestling or tennis.
McGrath decided he would create a permanent listing of those honored athletes, listed by year and by sport.
The quality that allowed McGrath to succeed was incredible perseverance. He went through the school's collection of yearbooks, and he contacted the state high school athletic association for assistance. He spent hour after hour in the files of local and state newspapers. He contacted active and retired coaches, players and administrators. After almost two years, McGrath presented the school with a roster of honored athletes that dated back to the 1940s.
What McGrath did was a labor of love, but it also allowed athletes and their families to receive unexpected recognition. At his funeral two years ago, a father and son told McGrath's wife that both of their names were on the list - more than two decades apart.
Nick McGrath made a difference.
Martha Sebastion made a difference not only by what she did, but by what others did to support her actions.
She was a K-8 principal in a small town with a congenital economic slump. She had noticed that few opportunities or activities existed in the town during the summer. There were a number of single-parent families, or families with both parents working; many of the pre-teens were in the care of an older sibling or neighbor. Sebastion asked the school board for funds for summer school session, but no money was available.
Sebastian decided to open the school two days a week, just so children could play in the gym, read in the library or doodle on the chalkboard in a classroom. After a period of "I'm not going to the school during the summer," children came to see if their friends were there, then stayed.
From the first summer Sebastion opened the school, the community response was remarkable. Several retired teachers volunteered to supervise and teach remedial reading and math units. The faculty began committing a day or two each week to teach mini-lessons. Parents in the community taught various arts and crafts lessons. Several pizza and hamburger franchises took turns providing free lunch on Wednesdays. A video store provided family movies free of charge. The high school OWL club members helped tutor and supervise.
Within three years, the school was open for six hours Monday through Thursday. The project had become a source of community pride; when Sebastion retired, applicants for her position were asked if they would be willing to continue the program. Her impact on the children cannot be measured in terms of test scores or objective measurements, but there is no doubt that Martha Sebastion made a difference.
I would love to share more examples of individuals who personally made a choice to enhance the lives of students. Please submit your suggestions by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
- Werner Anderson teaches English as Bishop Seabury Academy and has been an educator for more than 30 years.