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Stepping up to Eleven

Middle School Students Honored for Character and Caring

At Grandville Middle School a while back, they lifted up a beautiful bunch of Somebodys.

But these six seventh- and eighth-graders weren’t elevated for their grade-point average. Nor their athletic prowess. Nor how they might contribute to band or choir or the arts.

They were cited for their sterling character.

And the building’s administrators made sure the other kids in school were watching – all 860 of ’em.

During an assembly that was alternatingly solemn and gleeful, Grandville Middle School rolled out the red carpet for Laura Hernandez, Max Ungrey, Alyssa Light, Genny Swan, Brayden Moll and Owen Retan.

Each was presented with an award begun a decade ago that now is tied to fallen Grandville High School student-athlete Ryan Fischer, who despite excelling at sports and academics, shined best by demonstrating an uncommon concern for others.

Owen Retan’s sister, Gracie, reads a letter praising her brother while event organizer Michael Lapciuk holds a microphone
Owen Retan’s sister, Gracie, reads a letter praising her brother while event organizer Michael Lapciuk holds a microphone

Ryan died in March 2014, on the same day he was to co-captain his beloved Bulldogs hockey team into a state semifinals game. Instead, he died in his sleep, reportedly of a heart defect.

Ryan’s legacy lives on in a scholarship, and also in this event at his former middle school – and at neighboring Wyoming High School – where they embrace students who exhibit behavior that, on a scale of 1 through 10, most often surfaces as an 11. Which is why both the assembly and the award carry the title “Be An 11.”

Recognizing the Little Things

“It’s all about sending a message emphasizing all the little things,” explained Grandville Middle School Principal Ken See. “It’s not just about the ‘A’ students or your class ranking. Instead, it’s about your growth. How well do you take care of others, exhibit a well-roundedness? It’s not that grades aren’t important; they are. But kids at this age need to feel connected, and that they belong.”

The award’s architect is Michael Lapciuk, a physical education instructor atthe middle school and assistant football coach at Hope College. He said he borrowed the concept from the Nebraska University football team, which employed “Be An 11” concepts when its program began to founder.

Laura Hernandez takes joy in her family’s hugs
Laura Hernandez takes joy in her family’s hugs

Christy Buck, executive director of the Mental Health Foundation of West Michigan and a Grandville Public Schools board member, observed during the middle school ceremony that “Be An 11” has lessons for us all: “Do something good for someone,” she said. “Every day. Just be nice.”

It’s a Choice You Make’

The assembly began with remarks from Principal See, who reminded those gathered that “The truth of your character is expressed through the choice of your actions.”

He added, “It can’t be turned off; it’s a choice you make,” and emphasized that the students to be honored that morning “demonstrate character at the highest level, even if it’s not trendy.”

Coach Lapciuk then spoke, sharing with students that “This award has nothing to do with sports or with grades … but how you treat people day after day.” He read a short bio of Ryan Fischer, who in addition to starring in sports and academics, contributed to his church and community, and remains today “the bar by which we measure all kids.”

After some formalities, a hush fell over the middle school student body, none of whom knew ahead of time which of their classmates would be singled out. For each, Lapciuk read a glowing narrative that drilled down into the student’s attributes, and concluded with the reading of the student’s name.

Owen Retan draws classmates’ cheers as he steps up to accept the honor
Owen Retan draws classmates’ cheers as he steps up to accept the honor

For Laura Hernandez, it was on account of the quiet ways in which she contributes as a natural leader. Max Ungrey was cited as dependable, considerate, compassionate.” Alyssa Light was touted as “displaying the utmost level of respect.” Genny Swan was described as empathetic and nurturing. Brayden Moll got props for his “infectious positivity.” And Owen Retan was commended as someone who lived in such a way that “if someone spoke badly of him, no one would believe it.”

One by one, they emerged upon hearing their name, and in the middle of the gym joined family members who had been sequestered out of sight in a nearby room, creating even more drama in the moments each student was announced.

Afterward, coach Lapciuk told the assembly that his mother always advised him, “Show me your friends, and I’ll show you your future.”

Get 1 Percent Better

He employed that maxim to introduce the morning’s keynote speaker, Peter Stuursma, Hope College’s head football coach. He is better known as the prep skipper who in his 16 years at East Grand Rapids High led that football program to greatness with seven state championships, and a cumulative record of 162 wins against just 34 losses.

Stuursma challenged his listeners to realize they have the opportunity each new break of dawn “to make a difference, to say please and thank-you … and to get 1 percent better every day.”

Genny Swan, a “Be an 11” winner, is hugged by a school mentor
Genny Swan, a “Be an 11” winner, is hugged by a school mentor

He humbled himself with a story of his own years in middle school, how he stood by silently as a classmate named Scotty was berated by Stuursma’s friends. You could have heard a pin drop as Stuursma recounted how “Every summer, I see him, and I get such a feeling in the pit of my stomach, because I did nothing to stop the cycle of my friends being mean.

“Each and every time I see Scotty, I wish I would have stood up for him.”

Students who draw attention to themselves by not being nice, said Stuursma, “get too big of an audience,” and it’s up to all of us to put our microscopes on people in need.

“Become extraordinary,” he said. “Instead of a mission statement, be people on a mission. Saying hello to someone can go a heck of a long way. So can helping with a door …. carrying someone’s books … helping with a tray of food.

“You can change things one step at a time,” he added, “if you use that chance every day to become 1 percent better … and make our world a better place.”

Hope College Coach Peter Stuursma urges students to “get 1 percent better every day”
Hope College Coach Peter Stuursma urges students to “get 1 percent better every day”

Families Appreciate Message

His message – and the annual assembly’s aim in general – was not lost on the honored students’ family members.

“The fact that the school focused on character was the coolest part of all,” said Brayden Moll’s mother, Dianne. “Braydon does get good grades and plays hockey well, but to honor his character is even more important.”

Added Mike Light, Alyssa’s father: “What makes me most proud is that these awards focus on citizenship, on being a good person, being a leader. In this day and age, it’s great to have a school district promoting and supporting those kinds of values. It says a lot about the Grandville school district and I’m proud she’s a student there.”

Owen Retan’s sister Gracie, who was born with Down syndrome and attends school with her brother, wrote and read a letter before the assembly that testified what a joy it is to have Owen in her life.

She drew giggles in describing how Owen always lets his sisters use the bathroom ahead of himself, exhibiting patience and a sense of kindness and love that are beyond measure.

And then gazing up at him, she concluded by saying what too few siblings hear during their lifetimes, that “My life is perfect with my brother Owen.”

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Tom Rademacher
Tom Rademacher
Tom Rademacher was long-time reporter and columnist for The Grand Rapids Press, where he specialized in wringing the extraordinary from the seeming ordinary.


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