Tag Archives: school

Ready for Rachel’s Challenge

She was the first to die that day. She will never be the first to be forgotten.

Rachel Scott was just another high school student the day her life was taken by two of her fellow classmates in the Columbine High School massacre of 1999. Using her words from diaries, letters and poems she wrote, her message of love and compassion lives on through an educational school and community program that tours the country.

The assembly we had at school today was so incredible. It was so deeply moving to me, especially because I remember that tragic day so well. A special assembly will be presented to the community in the gymnasium at Raymore-Peculiar High School at 7 p.m. tonight (Dec. 2). If you live in the area and can make it, it will be worth your time.

Called “Rachel’s Challenge,” the assembly asks us to do five things:  Treat others the way you wish to be treated; dream big; seek good influences in life; spread “positive gossip,” good words about others; and, lastly, start a chain reaction. 

I love this message. It is very similar to what I have been saying to my students for the past eight years and to readers of my newspaper opinion columns for the five years prior to that.

After asking my students if they believed they had the ability to save a life, I told them a story,  a story about a young girl. Sad and alone, she walked through crowds of people in a busy city. She came to the river. She continued walking, right into the river. Swept away by the current, her body was finally located several miles downstream.

On shore, a simple note was found, snagged on some brush near where she walked into the river. The note said, “No one said hello.”

Ever since I first heard that story, I was moved by its power. Those four amazingly simple, yet so profound, words….”No one said hello.” If someone would have just done something as simple as greet her and smile, she would not have taken her own life.

I know there are days I feel down. There are times when someone just says “hello” to me and I know I will then be able to make it through the day. Maybe that person was you —  if not for me, maybe for someone else. You might have saved a life already and not even known it. We have more power than we realize.

You may not believe this, but I do know how it feels to be alone in a crowd. I sometimes feel I have spent my entire life that way. I can make people laugh; I know I have that ability. One thing I sometimes struggle with, surprisingly, is making myself happy.

Somehow in conversations over the years, I mention that comedians are actually among the most depressed people of all. I do not know if anyone ever caught on, but I was including myself in that.

If people are laughing, they are too busy to ask you about your life, they are too distracted by the humor to see the truth, they are too misled by your comedic wit to ever think you could be withering. I suffer from serious bouts of depression, it is true. It is not something I normally discuss. It is something with which I simply deal (and most of the time just refuse to acknowledge).

I just deal with it. And all you have to do is say “hello.”

I just want to strive to be as good as Rachel Scott knew we could all be everyday of my life. I know I will not always be able to do it, but I vow to try. I accept Rachel’s Challenge! If you want to know more, check out www.rachelschallenge.org.

Normally, I would not publish my poetry on here, but this is a poem I wrote shortly after another tragic school shooting, this one at a school in California called Santana High School,  and while thinking of the tragedy of Columbine. Here is that poem:


Safe Haven

 By John VanPelt

In Memory of the Students of Santana and Columbine high schools


I crawl to natural science

To study the evolution of man

Blood on the windows, blood on the walls

This wasn’t in Darwin’s plan.


I stroll to history

To explore ancient times

Blood on the windows, blood on the walls

The blood-stained hands of crime.


I saunter to Spanish

To master a foreign tongue

Blood on the windows, blood on the walls

The last dying gasp of the young.


I skim to English

To read great authors of the past

Blood on the windows, blood on the walls

How long will this pain last?


I scurry to biology

To examine the innards of mice

Blood on the windows, blood on the walls

To violence we are desensitized.


I sprint to algebra

To solve complex formulas of math

Blood on the windows, blood on the walls

We move backwards on the wrong path.


I tear home

To escape the safe haven of school

Blood on the windows, blood on the walls

 The lesson of death has become the rule.


We live in such strange times, with such mind-boggling tragedy. Let’s get through it together. Let’s get together.


Everyone, just smile and say “hello.” We will save lives.


***Photo courtesy of Rachel’s Challenge

The Omnipresent President: T.V. Star or President?

It seems I cannot turn my television on nowadays without the President interrupting my delightful escapist programming with his mind-boggling version of reality and what is best for the country. I cannot even escape him when I go to school.

This guy is everywhere, talking about every thing and yet nothing is getting done. He came on like the second coming itself (and does actually believe he is our “savior,” albeit not a “Christian” one, God forbid), yet he has nothing to show for it.

Maybe, if he would get off my television for a bit, he could get some things accomplished. On second thought, maybe television is right where he should be to keep us all safe from his plans. I can change the channel much easier than I can find $900 billion.

Tonight he was on television again telling us what a great health-care reform plan he has. His plan will not only drive our country further down the path to bankruptcy, but it will allow employers an easy out of paying for their workers’ insurance.

All the stress from our country being in debt, higher taxes, trying to figure out how to participate in the “public” option because our employer dropped our nice, “private” one, is going to kill us all. It will not matter if we have health insurance or not.

We will be dead just from thinking about it. Dead or broke. We will be starving to death, but finally we will all have health insurance, dang it! Ridiculous. This is a crazy joke.

If I am an employer, and suddenly this “public” option is available, why would I continue to pay for my workers’ insurance? I would not. In his effort to insure those who are not currently insured, Obama is going to take away the insurance millions of people have now. The old switcheroo…hope you are paying attention.

Earlier this week, I had to watch him yet again, but this time it was right in the middle of my school day. He did not say any thing new. He did not say any thing controversial. He actually just said what we, as teachers, already say every day. Yet, he somehow believes he just thought of it.

I have to give him credit, though. I have to say he is one shrewd politician. What better way to ensure your reelection in four years?

His main strength was among younger voters. Who better to appeal to then current 14- to 18-year-olds, the very demographic that will be voting for the first time in the next election? This is a brilliant strategy to ensure the young will vote for him. He is indoctrinating them into the cult of Obama.

Good job, Obama. Way to continue to sell yourself; way to continue jamming up the air waves with your omnipresent smirk; way to continue making me find the darn remote. But, I have to say I am sorry, because a long time ago I swore I would not join a cult.

Whole New Meaning to ‘Mile High’ Nickname

For many years and for obvious reasons, Denver has been known as “Mile High City.” Recent news emanating from there about enforcement of marijuana possession laws is giving a whole new meaning to that nickname.

Last week, a committee voted to send a letter to the Denver County Court urging the fine for possession of less than one ounce of marijuana to be one dollar. The total penalty for marijuana possession would be $111 once state fines and other fees are levied. (1)

While these other fines do increase the severity of the punishment, Denver will still be sending out a strong message about its lenient view regarding marijuana possession if the court accepts this recommendation. The Mile High city truly will be a place to get high.

As a former high-school teacher (I teach middle school now), I heard students talk about the safety, pleasure and healthful nature of smoking “weed.” Despite all their praise of the habit, I continued to advise them against such behavior and pointed out all the reasons they should stop, including the fact that I do not agree that marijuana is safe or healthy (as far as pleasure goes, I cannot attest to that since I have never myself indulged).

I am no expert, far from it, but I saw what marijuana did to my students. I could tell which ones were “potheads.” They were the ones with the glazed eyes, staring off into space during my class. They were the ones who never got their work in on time, if at all. They were the ones who did not have even an inkling of concern or plans for their future.

That was the effect I found most devastating about the drug — its power at creating apathy. The students who abused marijuana were the most apathetic young people I have ever met. Nothing mattered to them — not their education, not their futures, not their lives.

The only thing they cared about was getting home that afternoon so they could take some “hits.” They would joke about it, but I knew that most likely that is what they were going to do after school. While “jonesing” for another hit, they would stand there and argue how marijuana is non-addictive. I could never make them see the irony of that.

And now a committee — who knew a city had such a thing as a “marijuana policy review panel” — is recommending that Denver make a mockery of its drug laws by lowering the fine for marijuana possession to $1. This is a shame.

People actually do believe marijuana is “safe.” It is this misguided belief that makes marijuana one of the most frightening drugs of all. When something appears “safe,” we are more free to partake in it. It is like the wolf in sheep’s clothing — once we realize the danger, it is far too late. And, here is Denver potentially providing the wolf with the innocuous costume.

Not only do I not agree with the contents of this letter, I also do not understand how this committee was appointed or how its members were chosen. How does an activist who heads an organization dedicated to the legalization of marijuana — Mason Tvert, the executive director of Safer Alternative for Enjoyable Recreation (SAFER, more irony) — end up on an official marijuana policy committee in the first place? He does not seem like the most impartial choice to me for such a group.

No wonder this committee agreed to send such a ludicrous letter to the presiding county judge. With members such as Tvert, this group is busy blowing smoke, obscuring the facts as they take one more step in their quest for legal marijuana.

(1) http://www.denverpost.com/search/ci_13212872

Death of American Education Greatly Exaggerated

welcomeback sign

It was so wonderful to see all of my new and returning students today. Like many other schools throughout the country, the one where I teach started back this week. Despite all the dismal talk about the state of American education, it is going to be another splendid year.

I hear so much negativity in the media about the educational system in our country. The media feeds off the politicians, who spout inanities based on statistics they just made up to pass a new piece of useless legislation. Everyone makes up a bunch of junk to seem relevant and keep their jobs. What they forget, or simply choose to ignore, is what matters — the children.

The children are what it is all about. They are the ones that matter. They are not just cogs in the machine; they are not just a bunch of statistics in a ledger. They are real, tangible, creative human beings with much to contribute — most of which can never be measured by a test.

This is my eighth year of teaching. I absolutely love it. I see these students and I know the future of America is bright, no matter the bleak prognostications of the doomsayers.  I know that if we just can forget all this nonsense dubbed “reform” and get back to what we do well, we will be all right.

There are many aspects to American education with which no other country can compete. We are losing sight of that and, ultimately, that will lead us into trouble. Last I checked there were quite a few countries in Asia. I don’t know why we want to be just like those countries.

I do not want our educational system to be like those of Asia or Europe. I want more than that. I want our educational system to be the best. I believe it is.

American education teaches students to use their critical-thinking and problem-solving skills to come up with new approaches and solutions. We teach students to be creative, which leads to innovation and progress. Our students might not perform as well on standardized tests as students from other countries, but if I am trapped in a well and need a special machine rapidly designed to get me out, I will count on my students to do it, and they will do so in the most creative and effective way.

As Fareed Zakaria, the author and international editor for Newsweek who attended elementary and secondary school in India, states in his book, The Post-American World:

“I recall memorizing vast quantities of material, regurgitating it for exams, and then promptly forgetting it. When I went to college in the United States, I encountered a different world. While the American system is too lax on rigor and memorization — whether in math or poetry — it is much better at developing the critical faculties of the mind, which is what you need to succeed in life.”

This is what I have been saying for a long time, even back in my days as a reporter prior to becoming a teacher. The American system of education is not tragically flawed; it is not diseased and dying. It is different than the systems of other countries, but in those differences resides our strength.

We might not manufacture the latest gizmos and gadgets, but we are the ones who invent them. We might not churn out factory workers who can ace bubble tests, but we inspire students to create the inventions those factory workers assemble.

This is what makes America great. This is what makes us strong. If we continue to listen to those who say otherwise, we will head down the wrong path.

In his book, Zakaria says, “Other educational systems teach you to take tests; the American system teaches you to think.” I could not agree more, and that is why the American system is the one in which I am so proud to play a part.

Self-esteem Movement Hurts, Not Helps

Here, take one.

Here, take one. Everyone gets a "self-esteem star."

You are so cute. The picture is so creative. Even though you didn’t answer the question, your essay was so well written. That dress makes you look pretty. You have a great deal of potential. You are a winner. You are the best in your class. Here’s your trophy. Don’t forget your ribbon.

The value of the phrases above continues to erode as they are overused and misappropriated. What started at as a well-intentioned effort to instill the young with self-confidence is turning into mass coddling all the way through high school and beyond.

We are no longer teaching people to overcome adversity and strive for excellence. We are teaching them to avoid the obstructions in their path and to accept mediocrity. We used to instruct the young in how to climb the wall; now we just tell them to go around it or, better yet, we build them stairs!

A case in point is the recent June graduation of students at Niagara Falls High School in Niagara Falls,  NY. The high school class of 2009 featured not one, but 18, valedictorians. According to The Buffalo News, school officials decided to do away with class rankings and valedictorians out of a sense of “fairness.” (1)

One student, Kelly O’Brien, had set her sights on earning the top spot. She was rightly disappointed when she found out there was not going to be one. O’Brien wanted to climb the wall, but misguided adults had turned the wall into a platform for 18, mounted by steps.

How “fair” was that? Do O’Brien and the others striving for the top agree it was “fair” to them? Are we now satisfied with a tie?

I know I am not satisfied with that. I do not care if you crush me; I still want you to play me. I want you to give it all you’ve got. I do not want mercy. I want a battle. If I lose, so be it, but I will hold my head up, knowing I fought the fight. I was there. I dripped sweat. I lost blood. I gave it my all. No one can take that away from me, unless they suddenly say that everything will end in a tie as it now does in Niagara Falls.

We are getting rid of honors in the pursuit of “equality.” We are eliminating victory in the name of “self-esteem.” In so doing, we are perpetrating an injustice against the young. We are sending them into a hard, cold world after ripping out their spines.

I have two young boys. The oldest will be three in September and the youngest two at the end of November. Of course, I coddle them. Of course, I tell them their artwork is wonderful. Of course, I tell them how smart, strong, creative and awesome they are. I tell them all the time. For their place in life right now, I am telling them the truth.

When it is no longer the truth, I will no longer tell them. If they are sculpting the figure of a woman for a high school art class and it looks like the return of The Blob, I am going to tell them to do it again. If they write a paper and I believe they could do better, I will say so.

I will not tell them lies. I will not bolster their “self-esteem” at the expense of their ability. I will expect them to climb the wall and, because I expect it, they will climb it.

The “self-esteem movement” started out at the elementary level and that is where it should stay. Pass out trophies to everyone. Give everyone a blue ribbon. Put a star next to all their names on the wall. Up to the fifth or sixth grade, that is fine.

After that, it is time to start telling them the truth. It is time to start allowing them to lose. It is time to start letting them fail. It is in losing, we learn to fight harder to win. It is in failing, we learn to try again and again until we get it right. Losing and failing teach us a valuable lesson. They teach us to climb the wall.

Losers should not get trophies. Failures should not get accolades. Stages should not be crowded with valedictorians.

The greatest teacher I ever had in my life was Avis Meyer in the Communications Department at Saint Louis University. He told the greatest stories. He also never gave out A’s. It was so bad that all the students began to call him Avis “B” Meyer, because that was the highest grade you could receive from him.

He assigned a big paper in one of his classes. I worked so hard for him. I gave it my all. I spent weeks on that paper. I knew it was good. I thought I had it. The day Avis handed the paper back to me was one of the greatest days of my life. In blood red ink, Avis had scrolled a giant A- at the top of my paper. Yes, there was a minus, but still, Avis “B” Meyer had given me an A! I had climbed the wall and it felt good!

We need to push the young to do better. We need to make them dig down deep inside themselves and find the strength to carry on. We need to make them work for it. We need to make them earn it.

We need to build a wall and make them climb it. It is in the climbing that they will find the strength within themselves. It is in the climbing that they will grow. It is in the climbing that they will become the best that they can be. We need to get our trophies, ribbons, stars and false honors out of their way.

(1) http://www.buffalonews.com/home/story/716376.html

Thanks to Steve Auckly for his suggestion about the Niagara Falls graduation, which led to the writing of this column.