It’s extremely rare to walk into a classroom overflowing with high school juniors glued to every word the speaker is saying, with the room so quiet, one could almost hear that proverbial pin drop.
A classroom where other students sneak in following finals to witness something so extraordinary - a place where it’s safe to tell someone how you feel, and what they mean to you, where tears freely flow and wide smiles are electric.
Victoria Bodine stood at the front of the class, signing the name of Charlee Lasick, who was born deaf, and wears a Cochlear Implant.
After reading her personalized letter aloud, telling Lasick everything she loved about her, Bodine added, “Your favorite person is Helen Keller, and you want to make a difference like Helen did ... well, girl, you already are.”
From behind a large, tall, paper-wrapped box, in walked Lasick’s aunt, surprising her niece with a big hug and wearing an even bigger smile.
Moments earlier, Bodine told the group that Lasick’s aunt had plenty to say about her, including, “Her smile is worth a million dollars, yet she gives it away so freely.”
The YHS “It’s a Wonderful Life” project was implemented by teachers Ellen Peterson and Kellie Solomon in 2002, following the death of several students, 9/11, and a YHS junior committing suicide.
“At his memorial service, students stood to say how much he will be missed, how important he was ... things they hadn’t told him before his death,” Solomon explained. “So we thought it would be great to give them the chance to say those things to each other before it’s too late.”
The project’s title is based on the 1946 classic, “It’s a Wonderful Life,” where George Bailey learns, with the help of his angel, Clarence, what a positive impact he has had on others, and what their lives would have been like without him.
Wanting the students to know they matter, Peterson and Solomon, who have been team teaching U.S. History and American Literature for 20 years, came up with an idea - to have juniors in their classes secretly select another junior, do their “homework” (researching that person), write a one-page letter to be presented to the person in front of the class, and then give a no-cost or low-cost gift with a personal meaning.
Chloe Pieper-Wasem spent the first five years of her life in Lake Tahoe, and every summer has returned there, according to Julia Gillespie.
“She’s not sure she’ll make it there this summer, but I’m going to make sure she does,” Gillespie said. “She’s the greatest friend I’ve ever had.”
Victoria Raimando dropped her head to her chest, dabbing her eyes with Kleenex, after Nancy Preciado presented her with a tiny dog tag with the name of “Max.” It turns out that her beloved Max had died, and that Raimando has tucked away his collar as a special keepsake. Now she can attach his name to the collar.
Delaney Potter is very close to her family, especially her brother, who is currently serving two years as a Mormon missionary in New Jersey.
“Well, I couldn’t bring your brother here,” Gabriela Rivas said, holding up her cell phone, “but I do have a message for you.”
Her brother’s voice boomed from a recording, telling Potter how proud he is of her, how much he loves her and misses her.
So overcome with emotion, at one point Potter had to turn her back to the group to regain composure.
“It’s just a three-ring circus of love around here,” Solomon said, fighting back tears herself.
The room was energized by an army of positive comments: “She taught me how to simplify my life, how to laugh and not take life so seriously, and how to love.” “I didn’t really know her that well last year, but now she’s one of my best friends. She’s just amazing.” “He’s an awesome guy, and I wouldn’t be who I am today without him.”
As each student stood front and center, in the rear of the classroom, Peterson received her own personal letter, along with a towering array of colorful flowers from her brother, Bill, who lives in Southern California.
She crouched low to the floor, near the corner of her desk so as not to disturb the student presenters, opened the envelope, let out a deep sigh and began reading, wiping tears from her eyes. After 40 years of teaching, this would be her final class.
While it is indeed a wonderful life at YHS, it’s a life that is changing.
The 14-year “wonderful life” tradition ended upon Peterson’s recent retirement. New teachers will take over in the fall, and Solomon will begin teaching sociology and peer communications. She hopes to add the spirit of “It’s a Wonderful Life” to her new classes, and put to practice and application the lessons she has learned from Peterson about relationships.
The goal in beginning this project those many years ago was to help eliminate stereotypes, curtail cliques, reduce all the drama high school entails, and to give new students a sense of belonging.
“These students are building, mending, or strengthening relationships, and as they enter their senior year, ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’ will help them remember just how remarkable they are,” Solomon said. “We’ve received phone calls from students 10 years later, who re-read their letters, and it still makes them feel good about themselves.”
“My appreciation for the project grows each time there is a poignant presentation, a day made brighter, an alumnus who remembers the joy of that moment, or a Facebook memory,” Peterson added. “Kellie and I have had the privilege of being the appreciative audience to these sacred moments.”