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Altruistic sixth-graders? You bet!


IF YOU WANT TO FEEL optimistic about the future, spend some time with Linda Sorter's sixth-graders at South Bay Elementary School in Eureka. They are a bunch of truly remarkable kids, actively supporting everything from endangered rhinos to peace in foreign lands. Though their compassion and caring spans the globe, it all begins in Room Five.

One of those sixth-graders is Amanda Phanh. Bright, articulate and responsible, this soft-spoken girl is highly thought of by her classmates, teacher and school staff. At the ripe old age of 11, she is respected for her academics, work ethic and kind heart. On the day we met, her glossy black hair was pulled neatly back in a ponytail, accentuating her lovely face.

But last December, that beautiful little face looked very, very different. Amanda woke up one morning with a headache and what she described as a "crooked mouth." At first, her mother, Mey Phanh, thought she "was just joking around." But when she looked more closely at her daughter, she could see that something was wrong. Over the next day or two, Amanda's left eye began to droop and water, her vision blurred, and she experienced bouts of dizziness. Her pediatrician diagnosed Amanda as having Bell's palsy.

Bell's palsy is a non-contagious condition that causes facial muscles, usually on one side only, to weaken or become paralyzed. Viral and bacterial infections, autoimmune disorders, and in some cases, direct trauma to the nerves, appear to be the most frequent causes of this condition. Though older people are more likely to be affected by Bell's palsy, it does strike children. It is generally not permanent and typically resolves in about a month. Though the pain from the symptoms is rarely severe, the impact of this condition can be devastating to self-esteem.

Mrs. Phanh, a medical assistant, understood the physical effects of the Bell's palsy but she was also quite concerned about the emotional consequences it could have on her child. Like most parents, Mrs. Phanh wanted to protect Amanda from any possible physical or emotional risks. Her first instinct was to keep her daughter home until she had recovered. Amanda agreed. "I was afraid people would laugh at me."

Fortunately, Amanda had the good fortune to be a student in Linda Sorter's class. Sorter has been teaching for 21 years, spending the last 17 with sixth-graders, an age many teachers avoid at all costs. But not this woman. She "adores this age" and her passion is to teach her students "how to be whole and healthy human beings." Three simple, but wise, rules guide the children of Room Five: Care for yourself, Care for others, Care for this place.

While Sorter understood Mrs. Phanh's hesitation about returning her daughter to school, she also knew what kind of kids she had in her class. With Mrs. Phanh's permission, she asked the school psychologist and her counseling intern from Humboldt State University to meet with Amanda's classmates. They explained to the children exactly what Bell's palsy was and what they could expect Amanda to look like. During the meeting, they talked with the children, as Sorter put it, "about everything, practicing what to say, even going over questions not to ask."

Sorter's belief in her students was well founded. When Amanda returned to school a few days later, her classmates greeted her with "warmth and support." Contrary to what some people might expect of this age, Sorter never heard one unkind word, saw any funny looks or had to field inappropriate questions. "It was all TLC from her peers."

But the regard these children have for one another didn't end at the classroom door. No, it followed them right out onto the basketball court, thanks to Jeff Elwell, a man who is more good news all by himself.

As the school's bus driver and maintenance man, the kids affectionately call him "Skippy." But as a credentialed teacher caught in a terrible job market, the students often have "Mr. Elwell" as a substitute teacher.

Last fall, this kind, energetic man took on yet another name when he volunteered to coach the first ever South Bay Union Elementary School District girls' basketball team. Seventeen girls from both South Bay and Pine Hill schools signed up, only four of whom had ever touched a basketball before. Though they had only three victories, Coach Elwell believes it was "a very successful season!"

Amanda was one of the girls who signed up. Who would have guessed that this quiet and thoughtful girl would be the "life blood" of this fledgling team? She played hard and inspired the other players to do the same. When the Bell's palsy sidelined her -- the symptoms lasted for about a month -- Coach Elwell spoke to her teammates. "There was great understanding from them, no pity. They just wanted her with them." In the end, Amanda's mere presence on the bench was the spark that ignited the team's final victory. As one girl put it, "Amanda couldn't play with us but she was still a part of our team."

That's what impressed me the most about the kids of Room Five. They function as a cohesive, caring, generous unit. Altruism in 11- and 12-year-olds? Yes, it can be done. There are real lessons to be learned from these children and what they are doing in Room Five, on the basketball court and around the globe.


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