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AUGUST 11, 1997


custodian A night custodian at Eastridge Elementary School reads students' essays following the completion of their 17-week DARE program. The students' words so affected him that he quit smoking.

Photo by Deborah Stone

Eastridge student makes an impact

  by Deborah Stone
   To understand that writing is a powerful tool which can affect change in its audience is a goal most teachers strive towards with their students. It is not often that opportunities arise where students can see the impact their writing has on others, so when such a situation occurs, it is both noteworthy and memorable.
   For sixth graders at East Ridge Elementary, the experience began last winter with the culmination of their seventeen week D.A.R.E. program. As a requirement for graduation, students had to write about how the knowledge they'd gained affected them and how it would be used in the future.
   Some students wrote personal messages or discussed their dreams and wishes for the future. The styles and formats varied from letters to poems and the results were displayed within the classrooms and outside in the corridors.
   Making his rounds vacuuming and cleaning as he usually does, night custodian for the school, Rob Board, read the students' work in passing, initially out of curiosity. As a pack-a-day smoker for the past ten years, Board was struck by several of the messages regarding smoking and went back to reread them several times.
   "One kid wrote about how he 'felt robbed' when his grandfather died from lung cancer. My eyes teared up because it reminded me of my own grandfathers who both died pretty young, as a result of being heavy smokers. I never even knew one of them and the other passed away when I was only seven," said Board.
   "There was this poem," he adds, "about a guy who lay dying in his hospital bed, unable to accept the fact that his life was over.
   And then there was an emotional letter to someone's relative asking him to please quit smoking."
   Board began smoking at sixteen because, according to him, it was a form of rebellion and everyone did it. He tried to quit once before when he was younger, but was unsuccessful. "You always think about quitting, but it's just talk. You know it's bad for you, but it's hard to quit. You need support and motivation to completely stop," says Board. He was ready to quit and tired of making excuses, but needed a catalyst to help him.
   The students' writings were the springboard he was looking for ,and a few nights later, he smoked his last cigarette. Board hasn't had a cigarette in five months and he is proud of his accomplishment.
   He says, "I will never go back to cigarettes. It feels great not to wake up coughing or with a bad taste in my mouth. My lungs don't hurt anymore, and I feel less winded. And whenever I think about smoking or am tempted to smoke, I remember my grandfathers and what those kids wrote and it keeps me focused.
   As time went on, Board felt he wanted to let the students know how their writing had influenced him to make a positive change in his life. He wanted to thank them and finally he wrote them a letter, crediting the students' essays as the motivating force behind his decision to quit smoking and congratulated the students upon completing the D.A.R.E. program.
   "Please remember what you learned, what you saw and what you wrote. I'll remember. I believe it was Jan. 28 when your class graduated. I did too!" said Board in his letter.
   The sixth grade teachers shared the letter with their classes and remarked on the strong emotional response it evoked in the students.
   Teacher Karen Jensen said, "Students were very touched and moved. It was a powerful testimony to them that their writing had affected such a major change. They each wanted a copy of Board's letter to keep. It made them feel so good to know they had the ability to make a positive impact on a person's life."
   The connection he has created with the students has pleased him, although he is somewhat embarrassed by all the attention he has received. "All I really wanted to do was let the kids know how powerful their writing can be, how it can persuade, influence and change people's behavior. It certainly did for me," states Board.