* * *
Dumas, Arkansas, was the last chance for Kareem Moody. His parents were divorced and, after moving from Houston to Killeen, Texas, and spending summers with his dad in Chicago, the growing 14-year-old was starting to get into trouble. Kareem's mom decided to pack him up with his two sisters and move them to the small southern town of Dumas, population about 10,000, to help care for her dying grandfather and to get Kareem into a different environment.
Even before he started hanging around basketball courts (and never getting picked for the team), Kareem dreamed of going to college and playing ball. Recalling Dumas High School's basketball team, Kareem laughs. "If you were 6'2" in 1988, you were automatically a center." He wasn't very good at the sport, but he got involved and started getting playing time. He also started to be friends with the other players, and they pushed each other to compete not only in basketball, but also in the classroom. "There was already a lot of tradition in this high school community when I arrived, and I seemed to fit into the puzzle," Kareem remembers.
It wasn't until his 10th-grade year that Kareem started to notice the man sitting in the stands for every game, watching him. It wasn't just that he was an older white man in a sea of black faces — it was the way he watched Kareem play. He was always emotional, alternately cheering or grimacing depending on how play went. No one on the team knew anything about him. He never showed up in the usual places that other team fans did, such as the locker room. He always just sat in the same spot, in the black section of the gym, and focused on Kareem's game. He had some reason for being there. The players took to calling him Preacher.
Preacher was always there — at every home game, at state tournaments, even traveling as far as 200 miles to watch the team play on competitors' courts. "I could feel his eyes on me, and the way it felt to me, my games didn't just all run together. It mattered to somebody what I did that day." Kareem didn't look for the old man, but he'd notice if he wasn't there. "We'd have conversations about him," says Kareem. "Nothing really formal, but wondering who he was. Who is that old man? Is the old man there? Somebody would say, 'He's Moody's fan.'"
Near the end of his 10th-grade year, Kareem found himself in Preacher's vicinity at the end of a game. As they passed each other, the old man said, "You know, you could play college ball." Preacher had touched upon Kareem's deepest unspoken desire. "It was almost mystical. I was still struggling at that point, but I felt he was critiquing me, almost like he was a scout. He kind of tricked me in a way. I started to think that maybe I could play at the next level."
Kareem started playing more and more, and while he made more mistakes, he also got better and better. By his senior year, Kareem was a star of the team, receiving lots of local press and recognition for his play. He finally knew he was good enough to be recruited to play college ball, and after getting several offers, he accepted a scholarship at Henderson State University in Arkansas.
College ball was fun but exhausting enough to make Kareem realize that he didn't want to try and crack the NBA. While college had originally been about playing basketball, during his sophomore year, Kareem began to focus more on academics and felt increasingly confident about pursuing a degree. "I started to feel like I belonged, and I rode it out."
Graduating with a degree in communications, Kareem began working as a gang coordinator in Little Rock, Arkansas, using his gift of gab to coax gang members off the street and back into school. Kareem is now the program director at Positive Atmosphere Reaches Kids (P.A.R.K.), a comprehensive after-school program in Little Rock for at-risk youth in grades 8 through 12. His experience with his one elderly fan still inspires him.
"Even now, Preacher kind of fuels the fire in me," says Kareem. "With that one comment, he got me to step up and work hard. Now I try to be creative with some of the young people I work with and give them the same sort of pat on the back that that old man gave me."
Kareem describes his work at P.A.R.K. as "stopping 'em at the gate and turning 'em around." "First I try to connect with each young person. I've got one young man who likes to dance, and even though I'm more into sports myself, I try to pump up what he wants to do. I try to find something about every one of the kids that come through here and start with that connection. I let them know it matters to me that they're there that day, then I pat them on the back and try to 'trick' them, the way Preacher tricked me, into doing whatever they think they want to do. That's what he did for me."CHAPTER 2
Pamela Widman explains how one teacher's unwavering support changed her perspective.
An Accidental Compliment
* * *
"You're very perceptive," my teacher, Carol Gianfrancisco, commented during a private detention — which, by the way, I didn't deserve.
"Yeah, well, so are you!" I continued to stare out the window while I spoke my retort with as much hatred as I could muster. I was 12 years old, and it was 1974, my first year at the Holy Ghost School in Illinois after attending public school for several years. If she was allowed to call me names, I could use the same word against her, even if I didn't know what it meant.
"Thank you." She smiled and went back to her work. Her smile seemed so fake.
Of course, I went home and looked up the word — and it meant something nice! She was complimenting me, and I had complimented her back! I hadn't meant to be nice to her. That night, I pledged to be severely disruptive in class the next day to make up for the accidental compliment.
However, no matter what I did the next day, that teacher ignored me until she found some stupid little thing to praise me for. It was dumb, and it only made me hate her more. She was trying to manipulate me, I could tell. "No teacher ever really likes me," I thought to myself. "They just want me to be quiet and do their stupid worksheets."
Yes, I had an attitude problem. Sixth grade was a tough year. There was nothing really wrong at home, but I craved more attention. My brother had been my best friend for as long as I could remember, and we used to play sports together — until he discovered girls, and then I wasn't much fun for him anymore.
I didn't have much self-esteem. I was extremely creative, but I felt "odd." I had a smart mouth. I read books while my siblings watched Creature Features. During my previous school year, another teacher stood me in front of the class to put me down. "She thinks she's so smart, but really she will be the biggest loser when she's all grown up" were his exact words. I tried to tell myself that he was the loser, but another part of me was afraid that he was right. I was already smoking, swearing, and kissing boys under the library tables.
This new teacher was different. I just couldn't rile her, but she could rile me, all right. Sometimes she made me do my work three times until it was just so. She could tell I was coasting through the work, but she couldn't prove it, and I hated her for making me do it again.
By the end of the first year, I decided my life would be over if I ever had to have her again. Actually, I ended up having her for math, science, and religion over the next three years. Her expectations were high, her patience was unlimited, her smiles were constant, and I just couldn't fight it that long. Getting her attention for positive behavior became almost addictive. I wanted to shine, to be someone, and finally to participate and make a difference at the school and in my church.
By the middle of my second year with her, I was teaching her to play the guitar, and she was teaching me to love Shakespeare and the digestive system. Her prodding pushed me into the highest classes in all subjects by my freshman year in high school, and I eventually evolved into a true community leader.
I didn't start out to be a teacher when I began my career path, but when my youngest son started school, I took a part-time job as a program assistant for gifted education in the school district so I could have some days off. Eventually I found myself writing grants and guest teaching in creative dramatics, geography, and writing. I started to feel that maybe I could make a bigger difference to children and give back to some of the troubled ones if I went into the classroom full-time.
I'm now in my second year of teaching 6th grade (of course!) at Liberty Middle School in Aurora, Colorado. Last year, Carol was a guest teacher in my classroom. She still has that "magic," and I still feel special every time I'm with her.
I teach more than 150 students a day, and I can tell when one walks into my classroom with a headache or a heartache. From Carol, I learned to look for the slightest positive things to praise in children who are struggling, to figure out what lights them up, and to help them build on that. I try to have high expectations without pity. Every day, I want my students to know that I care about them and love being with them.CHAPTER 3
* * *
Nancy Stevens grew up in Roanoke, Virginia, as the youngest of three children with two very annoyingly talented older brothers, Scott and Neil Brown. In 1979, 8-year-old Nancy was reluctant to take piano lessons, but because her brothers were doing well at it, she was required to take piano lessons, too.
Piano lessons were taught by Nan, a friend of Nancy's mom and, in fact, Nancy's godmother. Nan was a very tall, stern German woman who had escaped from the Nazis. Her house was very neat and tidy and full of photos of her four children, who would all grow up to be doctors and lawyers. "She was very nice," recalls Nancy, "but also demanding as a teacher. She was driven to make sure that others around her were successful in whatever they did. She scared me a little bit."
Nancy liked playing the piano, and the lessons were fun when Nan was pleased, but the little girl was impatient. She wanted to play "Moonlight Sonata" while her teacher was still trying to help her learn the basics of "Mary Had a Little Lamb." So Nancy found it difficult to make herself practice the simple songs.
One fall day Nancy arrived ill prepared to demonstrate her lesson, but she didn't want to admit that she had not practiced, so she struck upon what seemed like a brilliant idea: she would lie. "I was a kid with a creative mind," remembers Nancy. "I wasn't really a liar, but I thought by telling a little one, it would keep me out of trouble." When Nan asked her if she had practiced, she would just say she had hurt her thumb, and that would be that.
But when Nancy tried out her plan, she faced an unexpected response. "This will be challenging for you, then," said Nan, "because now you'll have to learn to play this piece without your thumb." "That hour was living hell," says Nancy, laughing. "Playing the piano without your thumb is like driving a stick-shift vehicle with only one hand. I spent the whole hour confused and frustrated. I could also feel that Nan relished the fact that she'd caught me in a lie. I had to work much harder than I would have originally."
Despite the arduous hour, Nancy still had not quite learned her lesson. The next week she decided to try to preserve her 8-year-old dignity by keeping the story going a little longer, maintaining that her thumb was better but still sore. Nancy suffered through yet another hour of thumbless practice.
"It was a very tricky and very smart thing she did," says Nancy, "because I finally learned that making excuses to get out of something means doing a lot more work in the long run."
Nancy now works as a psychologist and often uses the small lesson she learned about truth to help her provide more effective support for her clients in her practice. "I realize now that sometimes people will try to tell you a little lie to cover up the larger, more important issues. The little lies are like warning signals. I've learned to look past the little lies that people tell and help them focus on the heart of the bigger issues."CHAPTER 4
GABRIELE BENDISTIS AND MARTHA GRIECO
Let Me Introduce Myself
* * *
It's Martha Grieco's job as Community Outreach Liaison for Riddle Memorial Hospital in Media, Pennsylvania, to help teens connect with new people and experiences, but it's also her passion. "I don't see reaching out to young people as taking a 'risk,' but just natural behavior and very humbling," says Martha. "I always learn from youth, and I truly enjoy spending time and sharing ideas with them." Martha's "natural behavior" includes careful observation of the young people she meets as part of her work facilitating the region's Healthy Communities Initiative (HCI), a network of organizations and individuals supporting young people in Media, Upper Providence, Middletown, and Edgmont, Pennsylvania.
At a community fundraiser several years ago, Martha Grieco recognized a young woman going around the room selling raffle tickets as a student from Penncrest High School. Always looking for youth to get involved with HCI, Martha introduced herself to 16-year-old Gabriele Bendistis and, learning of her interest in sports, invited her to an upcoming meeting about how to develop and publicize sports clinics for younger children in the community.
Gabriele didn't know what to expect, but she accepted the invitation. "There weren't too many other kids at the first meeting," she recalls, "and it was kind of intimidating at first. The adults were all jumping right into the discussion, and I had no idea what the focus was. I was there to volunteer to run sports clinics for children, but everyone seemed to be talking about public relations. I didn't know what they were trying to promote, and I was afraid to ask. When Martha asked me later why I was so quiet, I said I didn't know what was going on. She cleared everything up and made it sound like it would be a lot of fun."
While it would be some time before the sports clinics actually got off the ground, it turned out that there was plenty to do to help publicize HCI. The meeting Gabriele attended was one of a series aimed at coming up with ideas for getting the word out about the initiative's efforts. Once Martha answered Gabriele's questions, Gabriele felt much more comfortable attending additional public relations meetings, especially when other young people started coming, too. "Martha would always ask me questions to get me to talk," says Gabriele. "Once I did talk, all the adults in the group were encouraging. Everyone's ideas were written on the board and no one ever said, 'That won't work.' I'd never had an experience working with adults like that before."
Martha was drawn to Gabriele from the beginning. "I've learned that many times the young people who initially seem shy or tentative are the ones with something significant to share. When we talked, she had some really great ideas for connecting with the media about our initiative's efforts, and it seemed as if she was trying to find her place in the group without being pushy. I asked her if she liked to write."
Martha had hit upon the perfect job for Gabriele — writing about an upcoming inter-government seminar at which political and community leaders from four townships were invited to learn about HCI. The seminar was designed and delivered by local youth. Gabriele was the initiative's "reporter," assigned to interview community leaders and write several articles for local newspapers. Gabriele had always liked writing in school, but she had never done anything like this.
Martha suggested to Gabriele that she introduce herself to people in the room during the event, asking them if she could interview them for her story after the seminar. "I started by introducing her to some people to get her comfortable with the protocol and then watched as she smoothly moved around the 75 invited guests doing exactly what she had to do."