Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Middlesex Vo-Tech School Awards

Gloria Cook & Maryann Woods-Murphy

Tonight took me to Piscataway, New Jersey. Down the NJ Turnpike I went, against the traffic going North.

I pulled into the parking lot and saw a large, flat, brown-brick structure: Middlesex County Vocational Technical School. I was happy to be meeting Gloria Cook, the history teacher, who had invited me down.

In seconds, I was in the door and could see that the building was much nicer from the inside than its rather simple exterior showed. What the eye couldn't see, curbside, was the unique entry of shafts of light from long windows, interesting public spaces and classrooms clustered around gathering areas. There were shops and students and little brothers and sisters all here to celebrate the achievements of their big brothers and sisters.

Gloria Cook and I had met at the NJEA convention last November. She's an optimist in every way. She came running up to me, when I was first named NJ Teacher of the Year, to tell me about her creation, "A Night of Elegance."

Her dream project is a formal dinner for students with china, flowers and fancy clothes to celebrate those students who had maintained a good grade point average, a nice attendance record and an exemplary attitude. She'd positively beamed when she had told me all about it. "Teachers would even wash the students' china dinner plates," she gushed. Gloria and her colleagues had refused to use paper plates to make it easier. The point of the night, you see, was to make one beautiful evening - a night to remember, when each student would don a collared shirt or a pretty dress and strut out into the room, showing off their pride and accomplishments.

This would have been the 4th year for the "Evening of Elegance."

Gloria had asked me to speak at the event and I was looking forward to it.

A couple of weeks ago, Gloria called to say that there had been some changes. Hit with the budget crisis, there was no money to create this evening for the kids. The school Principal, Dr. Linda Russo, didn't want to let the time pass without celebrating the students so they moved ahead with an awards ceremony for such things as "Best in shop" and "Perfect Attendance." The Awards Ceremony would be an evening to give out certificates, recognition and giant cookies, but would not include a formal dinner or dress. Gloria was, of course, sad but she remained ever cheerful. "The kids appreciate the recognition. I'm just so pleased that you could come tonight!"

I was happy to come and share my thoughts about excellence and dreams with the crowd. I told them the story of how this granddaughter of Irish immigrants became a Spanish speaker and I encouraged them to follow their dreams. I added: "When you look at people, remember that they too have dreams in their heart. Maybe you can help them achieve their dreams while you’re on the way to finding your own. Walk with gratitude, strive for excellence, and forgive yourself when you stumble."

It's a true honor to talk to these hard-working kids and their proud parents. I'm happy that Middlesex County Vocational Technical School found a way to honor their students.

I hope that next year, or the year after, Gloria's dream for "A Night of Elegance" can spring to life again. Hopefully, funds will surface for this sort of thing. Until then, I know that the teachers and administrators at the Piscataway Campus of the Middlesex County Vocational Technical School will do everything they can to honor and celebrate their students.

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