Sunday, February 1, 2015

I Am Garry Gilliam: Teaching The POWER of Possibility in the Classroom.

For the record, I have never met Seattle Seahawks Lineman, Garry Gilliam. I was not his teacher when he walked the halls of the Milton Hershey School, because for most of his school career, I was still in school myself. In 2009 when he graduated though, I was sitting in the audience as a staff member, having landed my dream teaching job in the elementary school a few years earlier. I would love to tell you that I remember the Garry Gilliam moment, or that when his name was called I got chills of some kind, but that would be misleading. The truth is that I have sat through every high school graduation since 2005 with bated breath, watching kids who I don't know personally, walk across a stage into a life of possibility. I'm required by my contract to attend this event, but I'd go even if I wasn't, because a Milton Hershey School graduation is a powerful experience even when you don't know the students personally. I am sure that in 2009, I watched the way I always do with hope and optimism and a bit of a daydream that one day, each student that has walked through MY classroom door would be walking that stage too, bursting with hope, jumbling fear and excitement, some with tears, some with swagger, most with trepidation and all glowing with POSSIBILITY to do what they will with their one wild and precious life.
I believe in the mission of my school. I believe in what we are doing here. We offer hope and opportunity to kids who need and deserve it. Then we teach them to pursue their dreams with tenacity, grit, and HOPE. We empower them with knowledge and work habits, and a healthy respect for hard work and some swagger in the face of adversity. We tell them that many, many others have paved the way before them. We believe in them, we love them. We open all the doors that we can and then step back and hope and pray and encourage as they decide how they'll walk on through. It is both fulfilling and draining, it is exciting and nerve-wracking, and it matters, everyday it matters.
Garry Gilliam is not the first successful MHS Alumni. He won't be the last. When you're part of our community you get to see our success stories every day. They are the beacon that keep us working hard and pouring out love when we feel spent or depleted by the failures that are also inevitable. Our current president, Pete Gurt is one such beacon. He was a Milt and for as long as I've been a part of the MHS community (10 years, woot woot), he has been an agent of change and empowerment on multiple levels and serves as a constant reminder to our students that they can be just like him if they work like he did, if they care like he does. He dreamed as an elementary schooler of being the president, and he is.

In our Elementary School building we have several Alumni heroes who came back to give back. They once walked these halls as hopeful youngsters and now serve as living inspiration to generations of kids. We have house parents who grew up in student homes and came back to pour their lives into the lives of our students. We have alumni who are successful business men and women, doctors, philanthropists, entrepreneurs, politicians, performing artists, and on and on. Whenever I can connect with alumni who are living their dream, I bring this to the attention of my students. I want them to have as many examples as possible of kids who stood in their shoes and grew up to make a footprint of influence. I want them to see that the hard work, the sacrifice of being away from family, the dreaming big, pays off.
A famous football player, on his way to the SuperBowl stirs up ALOT of excitement with the elementary school crowd. He's famous, he's a hero, he's just SO cool! What's more, he's a Milt who comes back! He visits his family here and remembers us even now that he's made it big. When I realized that our reading story this week about jellyfish wasn't drumming up near as much excitement as the Seattle SeaHawks, I knew that I should just go with the football flow. It was easy, we talked about Garry, about the hardships he had to overcome and the grit he had to apply to make his dreams a reality. The enthusiasm was contagious. Here we had another living example of one of our own, overcoming obstacles and achieving his dreams. I decided to put my camera on (as I often do) one day to capture some of the conversations about him, and it turned into a tribute video to send him so he would know that we are rooting for him, and for us to look back on and remember that we too, can be whatever we want to be as long as we never quit! I had no idea it would become so widespread, and the 2nd graders are giddy over it!
Today I'll be actually paying attention to the Super Bowl for the first time in...well...ever. I'll be cheering for Garry Gilliam and the SeaHawks because he's family. I'll be rooting for them to win, but even if they don't they already have, by inspiring a group of the most capable and lovable 7 year olds that anything is possible and that dreams can come true. Next Saturday I'll be having brunch with my first 4th grade class who will graduate next year teeming with the same hope and opportunity as Garry, Denise, Chris, Pete, Anna, Sterling, Doug, Terry, Jason and so many others who have taken the "much" they have been given, and exceeded our expectations!

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