Courage to Stand

Published in Clarknews, winter 2009. By Tammy Griffin-Kumpey M.S.P.C. '06 | Photos by Rob Carlin

High school teacher Chad Malone did for his students what they say others could not —he inspired them to believe in themselves, trust others and find the courage to reach high for their futures.

All in a quick jaunt from the main office to his classroom, Worcester high school English teacher Chad Malone M.A.T. '06 takes a call on his cell phone from a worried parent looking for her daughter, finds the "missing" student (crisis averted), pokes his head into the gymnasium to check on kids shooting hoops (he coaches the basketball team), and nods his approval to a student, who has stopped him in the hallway to listen as he eagerly recites a thoughtful excerpt from his essay. It 's suppertime and Claremont Academy is hopping.

When does the school day end? Â"When I go home," he says, smiling. Malone, however, is quick to point out that he is "just one of many Clark alums who are working their tails off in schools." But to his students: he is "the one." And the resonating message is clear: It's not about what life hands you. It's about what you do with it.

Transforming raw talent

"Mr. Malone said, 'Get your stuff together,' and I did," says Claremont senior Jairo Kuratomi. Sure, others had delivered the same message, but it went through one ear and out the other.

"He tells you in simple words, 'Do what you think is right.' And you know that you have to, not for him, but for yourself," he says. This year, the former C student is pulling A's and B's. "It feels good. Mr. Malone made me realize that I want to be somebody."

Malone, who did his student teaching at University Park Campus School (UPCS), a school created though a partnership between Clark and Worcester Public Schools, says Claremont is a tougher environment, even though the kids come from the same Main South neighborhood and share similar social and economic backgrounds.

Claremont has been under intense pressure to reform due to underperforming test scores, and the many changes that it has endured to address these shortcomings have thrown the kids into a bit of turmoil, he notes.

Although "some days at Claremont can be tough," Malone says there's no place he'd rather be. From the beginning, Malone, who has taught at the school for the last three years, recognized the raw talent embodied in Claremont students and has sought ways to enhance it. "This school has special challenges, but all the potential in the world," he says.

Roots and routes

Malone, along with Claremont art teacher Timmary Leary and Clark education professor Eric DeMeulenaere, developed a special course for Claremont seniors, which is being taught for the first time this year. The curriculum challenges students to never settle for "just good enough," and is based on a belief "that ordinary people can be extraordinary." Teaming up with Clark education professor Sarah Michaels, Clark students in her first-year seminar "Communication and Culture in Main South" join the Claremont seniors in exploring self, community and social change through literature, sociology and art. Both groups meet on Wednesday afternoons to share their experiences and stories in a variety of ways.

"We've had some powerful moments," says Malone.

While exploring self, the students read "A Place to Stand," a memoir by Jimmy Santiago Bacca, and wrote their own memoirs, illustrated with pictures that they took of the neighborhood. They also created papier-mâché masks, decorated on the outside to symbolize how they think the world perceives them and on the inside to symbolize who they really are. The photos and masks that the Clark and Claremont students created were exhibited on Clark 's campus in December.

Claremont senior Luis Hernandez says he learned important lessons from the assignments: Don 't judge others until you get to know them, and people can change for the better. The word "criminal" is scrawled on the outside of Hernandez's mask. He made mistakes, he explains, which landed him in court -- and now a lot of people see him that way. But not Malone, he says, who believes in him enough to write a letter to the court on his behalf.

"I woke up this year because of Mr. Malone. There were plenty of times when I wanted to drop out, but he kept me in school. "

Inside Hernandez's mask is a quote from rapper and social activist Tupac Shakur, "I make mistakes, but I learn from every single one of them. But when it's said and done, I bet this brother will be a better one." Hernandez happily confesses that he now enjoys reading and aspires to go to college to become a writer and sociology teacher.

Malone expects his students to work hard and submit quality work; his students know it, and embrace it. The writing needs to be publishable; the artwork good enough to exhibit. They are expected to deeply examine, through a sociological lens, their readings. How are people marginalized within our society? What is the right thing to do, and do you have the courage to do it? Are you going to give back?

Prepping the seniors for college is a main goal of the course. All have been busy composing and recomposing essays for their college applications. Many of the kids have unbelievable stories to tell, says Malone, and they 're writing about them in their essays, which they read aloud to Clark students. The idea was that the Clark students would reciprocate by reading theirs, but Malone says most of them held back after hearing the Claremont kids ' essays, as if theirs wouldn't "measure up." He says working with Clark students has given the Claremont students confidence.

"I had a student come up to me after a Clark/Claremont discussion recently and say, 'Mr. Malone, I'm just as smart as they are.' They're starting to see that they belong in college."

Building trust

"We keep testing them in these situations and they keep rising to the challenge," says Malone. The big challenge will come at the end of the year, as the students decide where they will go. Malone hopes that what they've experienced in this course will give them courage to reach for higher goals and trust themselves and those around them.

A class trip to a ropes course was all about trust, says Claremont senior Vanessa Valladares. Put into teams, each member jumped 30 feet from a tree while trusting teammates to hold tight to the safety rope. "I was scared to do it, crying, but my team encouraged me to jump. I realized that I could trust my classmates, I could trust my teachers. I closed my eyes and went for it."

"Mr. Malone is a pretty amazing person," says Valladares, who is applying to Clark. "This class has opened my eyes—this is the real deal now, with college, life, future, job, everything."

"The statistics don't look good for our kids," explains Malone. "They see the writing on the wall. In the classes before them, five or six go to a good college, and the rest go to community college. And among them, how many will actually stick? They see that as an inevitable fate, so why should they work hard here?"

"I want them to realize that they can be great."

Published in Clarknews, winter 2009. By Tammy Griffin-Kumpey M.S.P.C. '06 | Photos by Rob Carlin