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Mrs. Black's words to live by

Published April 28, 2007

[Photo courtesy of Leslie Black]
Eric Hammerschmidt, above, was a kindergartener in Leslie Black's class in 1994-95. Eric is at center in the photo.

Last week, Leslie Black reunited the children who shared her classroom at Bay Point Elementary 12 years ago so she could see how they turned out.

She had another motive.

She wanted to teach the 22 high school seniors one final lesson before the adult world gobbled them up.

* * *

Eight of them showed up at Lake Vista Park two Fridays ago. At first they were tentative with one another. After all, some of them hadn't seen each other since fifth-grade graduation.

But with only a little prompting from Mrs. Black, they soon were remembering all the things that connected them when they were little: carving pumpkins at Halloween, eating green eggs and ham for Dr. Seuss' birthday in March, watching baby chicks hatch in the spring.

Then, Mrs. Black went around the table and asked each of them a series of questions.

What are your favorite subjects in school? What are you really good at now? What are your plans after graduation?

She saved the most important question for last.

How do you visualize yourself in the adult world, making a positive difference in your community?

That question is emblematic of Mrs. Black, who in her 35 years as a teacher championed character education. For her, encouraging ethical behavior in even the youngest children and watching carefully day in and day out for the "teachable moment" was every bit as important as teaching reading, writing and arithmetic.

* * *

Mrs. Black, who lives part of the year in St. Petersburg and part of the year in Utah with her husband, ethics professor emeritus Jay Black of the University of South Florida St. Petersburg, selected "Mrs. Black's Last Lesson" weeks before the shootings at Virginia Tech.

She wondered after the April 16 tragedy if there was a need to adjust the lesson. She decided it was fine just the way it was.

But before she actually got to the lesson on that Friday, Mrs. Black picked up the slightly battered ukulele many of the students remembered from kindergarten.

"What you do really matters all the time, every day, " she sang.

Then she read them a story from I Knew You Could, a children's book by Craig Dorfman.

"On your new trip, you'll make plenty of stops, in deep river valleys and on high mountain tops, " she read. "Some will surprise you and some will be planned, and you'll roll through each one saying, 'I think I can!' "

The eight high school seniors gave her their full attention as she turned the pages and held the book up to show them the pictures. Their faces bore the same expression found on much younger children when a beloved teacher reads a story.

And then it was time for Mrs. Black's Last Lesson.

* * *

It was quite simple.

"Notice how you can help others, " Mrs. Black read from a half-sheet of paper imprinted around the edges in a rainbow of colors. "Help yourself to be your best self. Help the space/community, wherever you are."

What she said next was just as simple, and every bit as profound.

"Maybe one day, you will look back and remember you are important and part of something bigger than yourself. You'll always be connected because you spent this time together. I'm honored to have been your teacher."

The students sat around the picnic table a while longer, reminiscing and looking through an old photo album.

Then it was time to say goodbye.

Mrs. Black hugged each of them and offered words of encouragement.

She wished the girl who had loved the guinea pig success in her career as a veterinarian. She told the boy who had been good at sports that she hoped he'd continue to find time for athletics. She told the girl who had many friends that she'd do well in public relations.

And then the young adults Mrs. Black had known as 5- and 6-year-olds were getting in their cars and driving away. She waved goodbye and promised to keep in touch.

"Once they're under my wing, " Mrs. Black said later, "they're always under my wing."

The classmates

Where are they now?

Daphne Galperin, Gibbs High

J.T. Thee, Boca Ciega High

Breanna Milillo, Boca Ciega High

Carlyn Topkin, Lakewood High

Monica Vandora, Lakewood High

Hayley Germack, St. Petersburg High

Eric Hammerschmidt, Canterbury School

Matthew Gardiner, Lakewood High

[Last modified April 27, 2007, 22:55:49]

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