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September / October 2004

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Proof Positive

Proof Positive
Steve Coleman inspires students to aspire to their full potential

About the Photo: For many students, lunchtime fun involves pulling up a chair to eat with Mr. Coleman. While the fourth and fifth grade students who grab seats next to him are considered the luckiest, the other youngsters are content to be within earshot of the banter and good humor.

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"Have you heard my carrot joke?"

A groan rises from the small group of 10- and 11-year-olds sitting with Steve Coleman at the lunch table.

"You've told this so many times," moans one girl.

"It gets annoying," says another with an exaggerated sigh.

In dramatic, preadolescent fashion, Coleman feigns a spilt-second of ignominious hurt and then plunges ahead with his story. It goes like this: Standing in line for breakfast one day with a friend, Coleman commented that carrots are good for eyesight, so his friend naturally handed him a bowl full of them.

The youngsters roll their eyes and giggle at the inside joke they've heard one too many times, delighting in the offbeat humor so popular at this age. They respond to their friend's disarming drollness and self-effacing charm not only because he speaks their language, but because they know his story. Coleman has been blind since age 19, the result of a rare degenerative disease.

Joking about blindness is not meant to be profound or disrespectful. For Coleman and the youngsters at the Fairmount School in Bangor, Maine, it's all about having fun and enjoying their time together. He remembers what it's like being their age. "I ask what they have for lunch and if anyone has carrots, I ask if they've heard my joke. What I'm fishing for is all of them at once to say ‘YEAH,' they've heard it. Having a sense of humor is an important part of my life. I tell them when you lose the kid in you, you get old."

Coleman, 45, a state-certified teacher, is an aspirations adviser with the National Center for Student Aspirations (NCSA) at the University of Maine. For the past six years, he has led NCSA's elementary school-based mentoring program at Fairmount. In his residency, federally funded under Title IV, Coleman works one-on-one with selected fourth and fifth graders, in and out of their classes. The goal is to have students set high aspirations for themselves and be motivated to take action to achieve them.

"When they go on from here to middle school, I want them to remember how special they are and I want them to always strive to reach their full potential, whatever that might be," Coleman says. "Feeling good about school and about who they are will help as they get older and face all the insecurities that come with teen life."

Coleman is one of nine members of the National Center for Student Aspirations who help to foster high aspirations in students through goal-setting, academic support and relationship building. He also is like no other.

Being in Coleman's orbit feels like the whisper of a chill breeze out of nowhere on a hot summer day. Invigorating. Genuine. Intense. From the way he moves confidently through his day (unassisted by any aids) to his ever-present enthusiasm for life, Coleman defies expectation. His humor is dry, his laugh contagious. His outlook on life is positive without being Pollyannaish. With such strength in character, which garners respect from both children and adults, Coleman is able to change people's lives.

Steve Coleman and Kids
For many students, lunchtime fun involves pulling up a chair to eat with Mr. Coleman. While the fourth and fifth grade students who grab seats next to him are considered the luckiest, the other youngsters are content to be within earshot of the banter and good humor.

"You won't see anybody better with the kids," is the unsolicited comment you hear from his colleagues in the halls of Fairmount School.

Fairmount Principal Paul Butler describes Coleman's work with the fourth and fifth graders as the time "when he works his magic."

At Fairmount, the Aspirations Advisor Program most effectively reaches those students who possess academic strengths and just need encouragement, focus and organization to foster those strengths. They are students who can benefit from having another positive adult in their lives, Butler says, to help them better define their own leadership and academic abilities, and help them to grow interpersonally.

"In Bangor schools, our bottom line is student achievement," says Butler. "If students do well in school and have a positive connection, they will meet the goals of what we want all students to be. There's also a great benefit any time you can get a child thinking about his or her future. While some kids are more ready than others, this program helps them reflect on how they want to achieve success in their lives."

It's difficult to measure confidence, leadership and a positive connection to school. Surveys look at such factors as grades and absenteeism to quantify the success of programs like Aspirations Advisor. At Fairmount, the informal measure is anecdotal and behavioral — what teachers, parents and administrators see in the children.

Coleman has been at Fairmount long enough that his reputation precedes him with new fourth graders who are selected for the aspirations program. For some, their eyes light up because they're loving the attention and support. Another student may have his guard up at the beginning.

"I have no magic dust to sprinkle on them, but in time, I hope the process of working together, being happy to see them and willing to help in any way will show that I care and want them to be happy in school and in life," Coleman says.

Every school day before the opening bell, Coleman is moving through the halls at breakneck speed. First stop: the cafeteria to say good morning to a handful of students who mob him the minute he steps through the door. A volley of voices greets "Mr. Coleman." He sits among them and picks up the threads of six simultaneous conversations.

"Is that Shawn?" he says, responding to a greeting. "Hi Shawn. Hi Heather," he says, recognizing a nearby voice.

"See you at lunch," Coleman says to Kori as she drifts out the door toward class.

"Isaac, great job in karate last night."

Coleman checks his "talking" wristwatch — something he does a hundred times a day — and dashes to the stairs. He moves from one classroom to the next, stopping by the desks of students to hear their latest news and to inquire about homework. He does the same at day's end. Many of the other students in the class eagerly vie for Coleman's attention, burning to tell him one thing or another. They all have come to count on him being there. And caring.

Once Coleman jump-starts the students' day, he then settles into different classrooms, helping youngsters to stay on track with particular assignments. His job is motivational more than remedial, helping the students to understand the importance of hard work and confidence in themselves. Knowing his high expectations, the students combine a work ethic and their respect for Coleman. And along the way, they better understand who they are.

"Mostly there are a lot of things I can talk to him about," says 11-year-old Kori. "He can be both a teacher and a friend. I've learned a lot from him."

Coleman, a quarterback for Bangor High School, graduated in 1977. Soon after, he noticed he was having increasing difficulty reading. Ultimately, he was diagnosed with a rare genetic disease that causes degeneration of the optic nerve, Leber's Optic Neuropathy. Within six months, he lost all of his central vision. Today, he describes what he sees as a "bright, sparkly blotch," with only blurs and shadows on the periphery.

"As someone who's blind and facing the challenges of life in general, it's been important to not let negativity totally dominate my mind," he says. "It's not a matter of always being positive. It's a matter of acknowledging the challenges and then getting back on the positive path."

Coleman says college was one of the biggest challenges to achieving his dreams of getting a job and having a life with his new wife, Ellen. It took six years to graduate from UMaine. And there were naysayers.

Coleman was once told that no school superintendent in the state would hire a blind physical education teacher because of the potential liability. He was strongly advised to consider another major.

In December 1997, Coleman received his degree in kinesiology and physical education, with a concentration in developmental disabilities. Two months later, his first job was as a physical education instructor at a local elementary school.

" I got the job because they thought of the things I could do, not what I couldn't," he says.

Coleman was already doing public speaking when he was tapped by the National Center for Student Aspirations in UMaine's College of Education and Human Development. In public talks for NCSA that take him throughout Maine and the nation, Coleman relates his life "in the hope that some part of it can be positive for someone in some way, at some time." He also stresses that everyone needs a little help every now and then to get back on track.

In 1998, Coleman was asked if he would step into the aspirations program under way at Fairmount. Ironically, it's the elementary school he attended in the '60s.

Mid-day at Fairmount, Coleman borrows the music room across from the cafeteria for his "lunch group." All students are welcome so long as they adhere to his strict rule: have fun. In this case, fun is pulling up a chair to eat lunch with Coleman. While those who grab seats next to him are considered the luckiest, the other youngsters are content to be within earshot of the banter, this day touching on favorite ice cream flavors and the school concert.

"We tell him that he got hit on the head too many times with a football, that's why he's bald," says one youngster.

"He's a bad singer, but don't tell him," whispers another child.
Three days a week, Coleman is involved in after-school programs. On Thursdays, he offers study hall. Mondays and Tuesdays, he leads a karate class.

Coleman, a black belt who has been teaching the sport for 23 years, uses a technique he calls "tactile positioning," standing beside the athlete to ensure proper stance and movement. Last October, 50 students signed up. Laura was one of them. "I heard from my older friends that they had lots of fun in his karate class and that he's funny," said the 9-year-old, soon to be a white belt.

As in his mentoring, Coleman mixes learning and laughter. "They know my boundaries," he says. "They also don't take advantage of my blindness."

Seeing the Fairmount students interact with Coleman, it's clear that they have self-imposed limits, too. If needed, peer pressure keeps most in check. The children know when they can joke with Coleman and when it's time to "buckle down." They instinctively watch out for him, spelling out the mispronounced word he questions in their reading, telling him when a teacher has momentarily stepped out of the room. They show no frustration, sympathy or intolerance, only a maturity not usually seen so pervasively at this age.

"They don't think of me as Mr. Coleman who's blind," he says. "I'm Mr. Coleman first, their friend and teacher whom they care about and who cares about them. They give my life a great deal of joy."

by Margaret Nagle
September-October, 2004

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