On the court, Tyler Thornton loves to dish out assists. Dr. Makeba Wilbourn’s research and community partnership with CC Spaulding Elementary School provided him with a slightly different venue to hone his craft. During this four-month partnership, Tyler assisted in the social, emotional, and intellectual development of three local elementary school kids. What started as an exercise in mentoring quickly evolved into a narrative on teamwork. Here’s a quick recap from Dr. Wilbourn’s perspective:
In the fall of 2012, Tyler Thornton and I began working with Principal Kecia Rogers and Mr. Tate’s SONS (Students Of New Success) program at CC Spaulding Elementary School. This unique program, which was created to both educate and mentor at-risk males, is integrated into the educational curricula for 3rd through 5th grade where these young boys learn valuable life skills. This program also provides students with historical cultural lessons, tutoring, and test preparation as well as a safe place for them to share and receive guidance for their struggles at home and in the community. This program works to provide these young men with positive male role models, who they can look up to, rely on, and confide in.
Given Tyler’s quiet nature and personality, I knew that a smaller, more targeted approach would be most effective. I asked Mr. Tate to select a small group of very special boys who had been working really hard to reach their potential and exceed expectations to work with Tyler. Tyler met with three fourth-grade boys several times over a four-month period, establishing an incredible bond and special relationship with each one. The first somewhat awkward meeting consisted of discussions of favorite books, best pro basketball teams, and of course the Duke-Carolina rivalry. Initially, one of the boys was visibly guarded and reserved during the first few minutes of the meeting. He made very little eye contact with Tyler and sat sideways in his chair. As the discussion went on, this boy slowly began to warm up and engage in the conversation. Tyler was patient and unassuming, allowing this boy to take his time to feel out the situation. By the end of the visit, this boy was facing Tyler, leaning in, smiling, and laughing out loud. At the end of this first meeting, Tyler gave the boys an important assignment. For two weeks, the boys had to turn in all of their homework and display exceptional behavior in the classroom, cafeteria, and on the bus. If they were able to meet those expectations, they would get to have a special lunch with him and play a little two-on-two! Needless to say, this was a great motivator! Frequent updates from Mr. Tate throughout those two weeks confirmed that this was something the boys eagerly wanted to earn and were far exceeding the requirements!
The lunch was well worth the effort with in-depth discussions of superheroes, music, and hobbies. Tyler and one of the boys discovered that they share a love for drawing. During the lunch, Tyler drew the first half of a car and asked this young boy to finish it so they could create the picture together. Tyler also asked the boy if he would draw more pictures for him. The look of disbelief on this child’s face was priceless! Tyler Thornton wanted to see his drawings! What also was different about this visit from the first was that the boys had more real-life discussions with Tyler. Mr. Tate asked everyone to go around the room and talk about something they had struggled with over the last two weeks and a behavior they were most proud of. The stories the young boys told conveyed just how difficult their day-to-day lives are, showcasing their incredible resilience, heart-warming innocence, and inspiring hope for the future. Tyler shared a story with the boys about when he was in middle school and how he had to overcome issues with older children, getting into trouble, and learning the hard way that academics had to come before basketball. The boys hung on Tyler’s every word. The discussion ended with Tyler emphasizing to the boys that the best way to “get back” at people who tell you that you can’t do something…is to work hard and focus on your dreams.
On the court, soft-spoken and gentle-natured Tyler’s alter ego took over. Although they were much younger (and much smaller), Tyler didn’t cut those boys any breaks. He bounced the ball over their heads, bumped them out of the lane, and drove to the hole. He loudly barked commands at his teammates, waved off overdramatic “foul” calls, and reminded everyone repeatedly of the score. In true Tyler fashion, he wanted his team to win (and they did). The boys loved every minute and only stopped smiling and laughing long enough to catch their breath…Tyler included. As we finished the visit and packed up to leave, the young boy who wouldn’t look Tyler in the eyes when he first met him looked him squarely in the face and asked him “if he was dreaming”. The sincerity of this question stopped Tyler for a second. It was here I think that Tyler really understood just how meaningful and special this day was for these boys. He was building their trust. Tyler looked very seriously at this boy and said, “You aren’t dreamin’, this happened because you earned it. Here, let’s take a picture so both of us can put it in our rooms to remember that this really happened.” This was a powerful moment for Tyler (and me).
So, before the Christmas break, we surprised the boys with a special visit. During this visit, we gave each of them a photo memento of their time with Tyler, a bookmark, and a puzzle of the US. Because the boys had never been out of Durham, we wanted them to know that their futures weren’t limited and that they needed to dream big, but first they needed to know where California was! One of the boys said that he was going to put his picture with Tyler in his “dorm room when he went to college.” As their gift, the boys gave Tyler a picture (signed by them) for his dorm room and a book about Frederick Douglass. I could tell by Tyler’s ear-to-ear grin that these gifts were special to him. This short visit was filled with heated debates about West Coast vs. East Coast dance moves, in-depth sneaker discussions, goals for the New Year, and excitement for the next visit. As we left this time, handshakes and fist bumps were replaced with endearing head pats and bear hugs. Tyler was no longer just a famous Duke Basketball player and a role model…he was now one of the “fellas” — their mentor and friend.