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Fifth-graders offer a lesson in kindness.

Byline: Bob Welch / The Register-Guard

SPRINGFIELD - I pulled my pickup into the parking lot at Thurston Elementary School, the world of adults blaring from the newspaper lying on the passenger seat.

Man kills ex-wife, then himself. Police officer on trial for allegedly forcing women to have sex. Civil war flares in Haiti. Priests prey on children.

Everywhere you look: The so-called "strong," the so-called "leaders," the so-called "role models" remind us that the world of adults can be so pathetically selfish. So immature. So very, very small.

And then, once inside the school, you find a glimmer of hope from kids who, just like adults, find themselves in situations where they must make choices: Do I bully my way to get what I want? Or do I place someone else's needs above my own?

Of course, children sometimes fail - as do we all. But the kids in Carol Martin's fifth-grade class seem to be doing what you'd hope adults would do more often: embrace the weak instead of abuse them.

When the three special-education kids first joined Martin's class last September for lunch and story time, nobody greeted them with open arms. Some kids were fearful. Especially when one of the special-needs students growled and another tried to punch others.

"It was real scary," says Miles Massey.

"There was a lot of unsureness, uneasiness on both sides," says Becky Willis, a special-ed assistant.

Nicky Feller tried to eat lunch with one of the special-ed students. The boy promptly dumped his lunch tray on Nicky's.

As a precaution, a special-ed helper all but cordoned off the end of the lunch table so the special-needs student wouldn't lash out at anyone.

Then it happened: One day Nicky Feller asked permission to eat with the boy who had dumped his tray, Griffin Mann. "He just looked lonely," Nicky says.

The two have eaten together every day since, except two.

In the classroom and lunch room, similar gestures started taking place. Once, after Nikah Fisher got punched, he reached out to the boy, Ian Moloney, and offered him a high-five.

Slowly, unsurely, Ian reached out and gave him "change." Next time he saw Nikah, instead of hitting him, Ian gave Nikah a thumbs-up.

A girl in the class, Breanna Appling, began pushing the kids on the swingset. Nikah made dot-to-dot papers for a special-needs girl named Cori De La Cerda. When connected, the dots spelled her name. "You're a star," he wrote her. "Will you be my friend?"

Other kids joined in - not out of pity, Willis says, but because they cared. When Cori had a seizure, Frank Adams helped her stay calm. Students put together a proposal allowing them to be "mentors" in the special-ed classroom.

"Ian's just like a brother to me," Kody Suchanek says. "Ian's just a straight-up cool guy."

Such thinking has inspired teachers. "These aren't the leaders of tomorrow," says Willis. "These are the leaders of today. They've taught us."

Once, Stormy Moloney, Ian's mother, picked her son up from school. This is a mother who has seen her child teased, pushed around and blamed for things he didn't do - because, being nonverbal, he can't defend himself with words.

"These kids were saying, `Bye, Ian, bye, Ian!' and there wasn't anything phony about it," she says. "They weren't being friendly because he was the `school mascot.' He was just another 11-year-old kid with a crush on his teacher."

Now, new challenges await. Friday is Ian's last day at Thurston; he's moving to San Jose. "It's a mixed bag," says Moloney about the move. "He'll be closer to his father, and yet he's never had such a supportive school. I've seen huge differences in how he responds. And I think he'll handle the move better because of that."

"It's a bummer he's moving," says classmate Frank Adams. "It sucks."

"I'll remember that guy the rest of my life," says Nikah Fisher. "He's my friend."

Ah, if only childhood didn't wear off so easily.
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Title Annotation:Columns
Publication:The Register-Guard (Eugene, OR)
Article Type:Column
Date:Feb 26, 2004
Words:663
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