Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Change Agent #9: Keep learning about teaching to change lives.

Recommended books:

Educating for Character: How Our Schools Can Teach Respect and Responsibility, by Thomas Lickona (Bantam Books, New York: 1991).

Character Matters: How to Help Our Children Develop Good Judgment, Integrity, and Other Essential Virtues, by Thomas Lickona (Simon & Schuster, New York: 2004).

Building Character in Schools: Practical Ways to Bring Instruction to Life, by Kevin Ryan & Karen E. Bohlin ( Jossey-Bass, San Francisco: 1999).

Also see our collection of articles at and share your ideas and ask questions on our new forum.

The Character Education Partnership has a blog that many people contribute to. Join the discussion at and click on “Join the Discussion on Performance Values” on the left column.


Everyone can be a life-changer. Here’s an example that I wrote for an inner city group:

Who Could Tame George Foreman?
(Or, Security Guards, Hippies, Lunch Room Ladies and Other Life-Changers)

Younger people may know his name from advertisements for the George FOREMAN Grill. Older folks remember him as one of the greatest boxers of all time. In his remarkable lifetime record, he fought 81 times, winning 76 times, 68 of them by a knock out. (1)

At age 19, he fought his way to an Olympic gold medal. In his early 20's, he defeated the seemingly invincible Joe Frazier, knocking him down six times in four rounds to become the heavyweight champion of the world. In his first fight to defend his title, he knocked out his opponent in under a minute, the fastest-ever knockout for a heavyweight championship bout.

Later in life, he needed to raise money for his youth center and decided to show everyone that middle-aged men weren't over the hill. Few believed that he could fight seriously against younger fighters, but he stunned the world by winning fight after fight and finally knocking out the reigning champ at age 45.

Yet, his incredible career may have never gotten off the ground had a few people not believed in him. You see, it wasn't easy to believe in George as a youth. He grew up in a poor home in a poor neighborhood and lived by the law of the jungle, constantly getting into fights to try to prove himself. To get money, he'd mug people on the streets. His friends were so bad that he thought of himself as one of the good boys. After all, he never knifed any of his victims. But anyone who looked at him wrong had better run away fast, or they'd get a taste of the FOREMAN fist. He was was a big bully with a terrible temper. (2)

Fortunately, George ran across people who cared. As a teenager, he moved from Texas to Oregon with the Job Corps, a government program to give young people a chance to work and learn a trade. While he was there, Doc Broadus, who worked with security, saw potential in him as a boxer and helped him to begin training. A fellow Job Corp worker, a hippie from Washington state, shared his Bob Dylan music with George, encouraging him to think about the lyrics, exercise his mind with reading, and to learn to engage people with his words rather than his fists. His teacher reinforced his new zest for learning. For the first time, George fell in love with reading, opening his mind to new worlds. (3)

Then there was Mrs. Moon, the lunchroom lady. You might think, "What kind of influence could a lunch-room lady have on a mean, tough bully? Surely only a tough coach could get through to a person like him." But you see, George had grown up hungry. His mother was so poor that she couldn't afford to give her children enough food. He was too embarrassed to tell anyone and ask for a handout. So back during his school days, he would often blow air into his brown paper sack so that other students would think he had something to eat. If the sack held anything, it might be a mayonnaise sandwich.

So you can see why food was important to George. And the lunch lady controlled the food. So when she told him to straighten up, he listened. She noticed what foods George liked and scooped out a bit extra into his plate. She smiled at him and talked to him. She even invited George home to eat with her family, once a month, every month for six months.

How did this make him feel? According to George,

"Mrs. Moon just made me feel that I was special. She liked me for me. ... Her words echoed in my ears: 'You watch that temper.' The way she said it, smiling and cheerful, I believed she knew something I didn't. And I wanted to do as she said. Most of all, I wanted to please her." (4)

In the final paragraphs of his autobiography, after his huge early success in boxing, establishing a youth center to help young people, and regaining his title late in life, he looked back to remember Mrs. Moon:

"As vividly as if it happened the day before, I remembered the look on Mrs. Moon's face that first time I passed through the lunch line at the Oregon Job Corps center. She smiled at me. That was the moment I decided I was special." (5)

So never say, "I’m just a lunch lady,” or “I’m just a literature teacher,” or “Nobody cares what I think around here.” You never know who's waiting for someone, anyone, to show that they care. A few caring students or staff are today smiling at someone who needs a smile, and in the process are inspiring the next George Foreman or Albert Einstein or Martin Luther King. Never underestimate the power of kindness.


1) Wikipedia on George Foreman.
2) George Foreman and Joel Engel, By George: The Autobiography of George Foreman (Villard Books, New York: 1995) pp. 3-24.
3) Ibid., pp. 25-41.
4) Ibid., pp. 27-29.
5) Ibid., p. 262.

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