Wednesday, August 22, 2007

A Real Lesson Learned

Back in September of 2005, on the first day of school, Martha Cothren, a social studies school teacher at Robinson High School in Little Rock, did something not to be forgotten. On the first day of school, with permission of the school superintendent, the principal and the building supervisor, she took all of the desks out of the classroom.

The kids came into first period, they walked in, there were no desks. They obviously looked around and said, "Ms. Cothren, where's our desk?"

And she said, "You can't have a desk until you tell me how you earn them."

They thought, "Well, maybe it's our grades."

"No," she said.

"Maybe it's our behavior."

And she told them, "No, it's not even your behavior."

And so they came and went in the first period, still no desks in the classroom. Second period, same thing. Third period, the same. By early afternoon television news crews had gathered in Ms. Cothren's class to find out about this crazy teacher who had taken all the desks out of the classroom.

The last period of the day, Martha Cothren gathered her class. They were at this time sitting on the floor around the sides of the room. And she says, "Throughout the day no one has really understood how you earn the desks that ordinarily sit in this classroom." She said, "Now I'm going to tell you."

Martha Cothren went over to the door of her classroom and opened it, and as she did 27 U.S. veterans, wearing their uniforms, walked into that classroom, each one carrying a school desk. They placed those school desks in rows, and then they stood along the wall. By the time they had finished placing those desks, those students for the first time I think perhaps in their lives understood how they earned those desks.

Martha said, "You don't have to earn those desks. These guys did it for you. They put them out there for you, but it's up to you to sit here responsibly to learn, to be good students and good citizens, because they paid a price for you to have that desk, and don't ever forget it."

She also did a Vietnam memorial service with her classes.

The whole story is located here, complete with sources on

My comment:

Our men and women continue to pay the price, that's why when you see the Bush Administration continue to cut benefits to veterans, and the conditions at Walter Reed Hospital, among countless other things they've done to our veterans, it should make every American, at the very least, upset enough to write to your representative and senators in Washington and absolutely make a statement in the voting booth!

Actually, a quick Google search showed a couple of hundred pages and all of the pages I looked at confirmed the story’s validity. Now, forward something around the 'net that’s true about a very cool teacher, and a lesson well learned.

Saturday, August 11, 2007

Elpis Enterprises

I met Paul Ramsour in about 1996. At the time, Paul was a member of the Minneapolis Jaycees, and was working with kids making birdfeeders in small workshops with groups all over the city. Meanwhile, I was running a small business I call Prairie Woods in an old lumberyard in White, SD, commuting between Minneapolis and White. Prairie Woods was trying to make a for-profit business profitable by building products made out of old barn wood, a manufacturing company's waste redwood pieces, old fence boards, pallets and any other waste and recycled wood we could get our hands on. I saw raw materials everywhere I went.

Paul was buying pine boards to make the birdfeeders, and I asked him why he would buy new wood when there were so many raw materials out there, free for the taking? Now, he uses cedar cutoffs from fence companies, and old cedar fences people give us when they tear down an old fence and build a new one. Elpis Enterprises is the result of countless hours of work on Paul's part, along with several other people who have made a commitment to helping young people in Minneapolis.

We now have a shop in an old building in St. Paul. I say, "We" because I'm now a board member trying to do my part in helping with the mission of building hope for youth. Besides the woodshop, we also run a screen-printing business. If you ever need any T-shirts silk screened, give us a call, or send us an email and we'll give you an estimate. We can work with your design, or help you design a shirt you can be proud to use.

I have been helping to run a few workshops lately and have been working mostly with Jessyca, a young woman who is actually coming to work as a staff member for Elpis. We conducted one workshop last week that stands out for me. We had about ten young people involved in a summer recreation program at a Minneapolis park and recreation center. The two young women who were their leaders were excellent and helped Jessyca and me assist these children each build their own small birdfeeder.

It was a fun experience for everyone but one young boy. He was giving up because it was too hard. He just couldn't get the nails pounded in and was very frustrated. I tried to get him to keep trying to no avail. One of the leaders told him he couldn’t take part in their next activity if he didn’t build a birdfeeder. He made a birdfeeder.

Afterwards, I talked to the group and asked them a few questions. My first question was, “Did you learn anything from this experience?”

After a couple of answers like, “I learned how to make a birdfeeder,” and “I learned nails bend pretty easily,” and “I learned how to hold a hammer.” My little friend then replied, “I learned never to do this again.”

I said, “Wait a minute. I hope you didn’t learn that. I hope you learned if you give up, you wouldn’t accomplish your goal. I hope you learned just because a problem is hard, doesn’t mean we should give up. I hope you learned you can accomplish things you never thought possible if you put your mind to it.”

Then I quoted Henry Ford and said, “No job is too great if you break it down into a number of small tasks.”

I told them they started with five pieces of wood, and made them into two pieces, the base and the roof. Then they had Jessyca add a small brace, help them drill some holes, put the pieces together, inserted two pieces of plexiglas, added a bag of birdseed, and before you knew it, your project was complete.

I hope my little friend learned he is capable of doing all kinds of things, and he’ll never accomplish anything if he doesn’t try.

Michael Jordon, the great basketball player once said, “I missed every shot I didn’t take.”

Monday, August 6, 2007

When Bridges Fall

I live in Minneapolis, and have crossed the 35W Bridge more times than I can count since moving here in 1975. In fact, my mother and I crossed it on Tuesday night, about 22 hours before it fell. My sister, Vicki, and her two children, Gavan and Sinead, had also crossed it on Tuesday. I found out later, my second cousin, Jeremy and his girlfriend, Kelli, had crossed it about 5 PM, just an hour before it collapsed. They are going to school on the edge of downtown and live about a mile from the bridge. Then, I got an email from a friend who told me he and his wife crossed it on their way home from work at about 5:30. One of their coworkers crossed it at 5:45! That was too close!

I know there are stories like those all over the Twin Cities because it is such a major artery and carries about 140,000 vehicles each day.

I was working a youth program that night with Paul Ramsour, the executive director of a small non-profit group called Elpis Enterprises. We were at a Minneapolis City Park doing one of our birdfeeder workshops when people started walking up to our booth and telling us the 35W bridge had just collapsed over the Minnesota River in Burnsville, a southern suburb.

When we were done with our workshop, Paul had to drive 35W to get to his home, also south of the Minnesota River. As often happens in events like this, initial information is wrong. After several minutes, people started telling us the bridge that fell was the bridge between downtown and the University of Minnesota spanning the Mississippi River.

It came as a bit of good news he would be able to get home. Little did we know the magnitude of the story until we got home and started watching the coverage on television. It's going to be a major story in these parts for years to come.

It's another one of those life-defining events where you remember where you were when you heard some incredible news. It's like for those of us who are old enough to remember where we were when we heard President Kennedy had been shot. Or, most recently, where we were when we first heard about the attacks on 9-11.

Hopefully, this will be a wake-up call to start fixing our infrastructure. I've been reading about the state of the bridges and roads in America today, and it's a sobering fact: we need to speed up the fixing and building of our aging, and crumbling infrastructure.

My prayers go out to the people who were killed and injured, the people still buried in the river, and to their families and friends whose lives will never be the same.