Jake Smith flung open the door to his athletic locker at Evans Middle School and turned toward the slight, brown-haired 8th grader standing beside him. “Go ahead, Michael. Pick one.” With a wide grin, the boy reached up and took down the shirt that he knew he just had to have. The one with “Evans Athletics” emblazoned across the front. The one that he would wear everyday if he could.
Michael is not a member of the school’s athletic teams. You won’t find him representing Evans Middle School on the football field or sinking jump shots from the hardwood. But, he belongs in that Evans Athletics shirt—because he belongs to a group who, over the last few months, have forged friendships built on compassion, understanding and respect.
Eighth graders Jake Smith, Rhett Gambrell, Hayden Hoag, Justin Poole, Kirubel Taddesse, Lexi Vera and JC Wigglesworth are seven members of the 55-strong Evans Middle School PALS program. And since the beginning of the school year their PALS assignment has been to assist the students of the Functional Academics Class (FAC), a group of students who face difficult academic and social challenges.
It was there that Jake met Michael and, like the rest of that PALS group, began to understand true leadership and service — and that it’s not always about “me.”
“I go to Michael’s math class to help him out in math,” said Jake, “and one day I was wearing a long-sleeve sweatshirt, and Michael said he loved the feel of it. So, I asked him, ‘Do you want me to get you one?’ And, he was like, ‘Yeah, of course!’ So, I told him that I would see what I could do.”
That conversation was quickly forgotten by Jake—but not by Michael who brought it up almost daily. A week later Jake found himself waiting in front of that athletic locker while Michael picked out a shirt. It was a simple act of kindness for Jake, but for Michael, the gift of that shirt and the time Jake has spent assisting Michael in class carry deep meaning.
“It makes me feel like I’m not alone,” Michael said.
Michael’s father, Dennis Hale, spoke to that issue. “I grew up in an era when special needs children…were segregated from the general population to protect them from ‘normal’ kids’ abuse, while protecting ‘normal’ kids from possibly having to deal with awkward situations. The result was ‘normal’ kids had a built in prejudice mechanism against those with special needs.”
Attitudes, laws and educational approaches have certainly changed since that time, but Hale has found something special in the student culture at Evans Middle School—something beyond expectations.
“My wife and I have been astonished at how well Michael has been treated at school by the student body. The Evans PALS have proven to me that kids are good and kind and understanding and not prejudiced—not because they have to be, but because they want to be—and they feel that greater reward. Michael feels acceptance regardless of his issues.”
Indeed, when Michael received a school award called the Evans Panther Pathway medal, the entire student body erupted in cheers that were led by his friends in PALS.
“When we see these PALS in the hall, I don’t care where we are, they come out of their way to come see my kids,” said FAC teacher Valarie Brooks. “And, they bring their group with them. So, wherever the group is, the PALS’ groups all know who the kids are, too. It’s really all about social interaction with my kids, the modeling. It’s just awesome. I can’t say enough.”
Irma Ornela’s daughter Lexxi is a student in the FAC. “Having PALS kids work with, hang out with and help Lexxi has had such a positive impact on her and on all of us at home,” Ornela said. “It leaves such a long-lasting impression on Lexxi every time she is with one of them. We hear about it at home with such excitement! The kids in PALS help Lexxi integrate with other kids during classes like PE, and they are like a bridge making two worlds come together. PALS kids are the model that I love seeing Lexxi trying to imitate. Her maturity level just blossoms around them.”
Each day, PALS students can be found all around Evans and at neighboring Wolford Elementary building relationships through mentoring and classroom tutoring. They help out at recess and lunch and in PE classes and perform more than 300 peer mediations a year. But, of all the areas of service in the PALS program, one-on-one mentoring in the FAC is possibly the most challenging—albeit rewarding—and not everyone is suited for it.
Initially, PALS teacher Meredith Bagwill wasn’t sure if a group made up mostly of highly energetic 8th grade football players would be effective assisting FAC students who require a great deal of focus and patience. But, the boys were ready, willing and as it turns out…able.
Eavesdropping in the FAC reveals a group of PALS kids demonstrating maturity beyond their middle school status as they guide the FAC students through learning activities while firmly but gently redirecting behaviors that veer from the task at hand. When one student with physical challenges needs help getting into his seat, four PALS are immediately there to assist. When another student struggles to introduce himself appropriately, his PAL is there providing reminders.
“The really interesting thing is these boys…they’re just kind of nutty,” Bagwill said. “They have crazy energy, but [in the FAC] it’s manifested itself into something totally different because we’ve given them a one-on-one thing. So, we’ve seen them go from more of this “inward” focus to an “outward” focus, which is amazing.”
That outward focus has been beneficial to students like Michael, but it has been transformational for Jake and his fellow PALS.
“I’ve really learned to be patient. I’ve learned to always have a good attitude,” Jake said. “Those kids, I can’t even imagine going through what they are going through, and they are the happiest kids I know. It’s amazing. It’s crazy. I always come out of there with a smile just to think about that. It’s just awesome.”
For Kirubel Teddasse, getting to know the FAC students has completely changed his outlook. “It’s amazing,” he said. “They are so fun to be with. And, sometimes, they just put a smile on your face if you’re having a hard day. You come in here and think that it’s not going to be easy, and they just amaze you. Everything that you think is going to happen—they just change everything. Everything I used to think is just changed.”
Bagwill added, “I think the biggest thing is that these PALS students are learning is to serve others in their community first—their community being foremost here at school. So, it’s really changed the attitude of ‘It’s all about me,’ to ‘It’s all about somebody else.’ They have a spirit of wanting to help somebody.”
“I would say this group are born leaders. They all go after it. They all come in saying, ‘Hey, what can I do?’ They never complain. It’s ‘What can I do?’ every time,” added Brooks.
It’s the right question. With the right response.
And that always makes the difference.
Story submitted by Shane Mauldin, MISD