I remember the very first time you called my name. Olamide Orebamjo, announcing that I was an Olympian and now I am getting ready to hear my name called during my graduation ceremony. As I look back over the years, I can honestly say that you were not only my favorite teacher, but the best teacher I ever had.
Orebamjo was a shy, little sixth grader at Mayfield Woods Middle School in Elkridge, Maryland when she first met her social studies teacher, Richard Stebbins. But after completing his class, she was transformed, and sent a thank you note to him upon her high school graduation in 2010. She also wrote that she aspired “one day to become an attorney for the United Nations and later on become an ambassador for the United States.” Today, she is a 25-year-old judicial law clerk in Baltimore City, supporting a judge by researching, drafting opinions and memoranda, and preparing the judge for civil litigation matters.
Orebamjo is just one of many students at Mayfield Woods who had been deeply impacted by the ideas and the methods of their social studies teacher, who also happened to be an Olympic gold medalist from the 1964 Tokyo Summer Games. Now a retired teacher, Stebbins is also a member of the Southwest Athletic Conference (SWAC) Hall of Fame for his world-class sprinting at Grambling College, and is most famously known as the third leg of the US 4×100 relay team anchored by the legendary Bob Hayes that took gold in Tokyo.
Stebbins would frame his social studies class year as a long-term competition of sorts, placing eight of the student desks at the front of the room, facing the other students. Those eight desks were for the students who achieved the highest quiz scores at different points in the year. And this had a motivating effect on students, including one named Maria, who wrote about her excitement in a year-end essay:
When you told us about your Olympian method, boy was I excited! I listened to you attentively as you told us about those great kids who had sat at your left and at your right. They had earned A’s on most of their tests and their quizzes. I remember looking at that first desk at your left and thinking, “I will be there one day.” I wanted to so badly to show you that I could really work hard and that I love learning. Now that I look back at all the hard work that I put towards being on that Olympian sit, I am thankful I did because it is such a rewarding feeling to know that my hard work pays off. Since you showed us your Olympic method I started to dislike B’s. I set my goal at the beginning of the year that if I wanted to be an Olympian my grades on everything had to be mostly A’s.
Stebbins wanted his students to work hard, but he also wanted them to relax and have fun. He played jazz music during quizzes, showed videos, played games. But most importantly, he drilled certain messages over and over into the heads of his eager students.
Education is a Privilege: Recalled a student named Andrew, “You made me understand that hard work and an education are a privilege, not a burden. We may think we don’t have enough, but in reality we have way too much. You made us aware of the situation of people on every continent, and of their struggle to survive daily.”
Excellence: Stebbins, his Olympian system and the fact that he had a gold medal made him a symbol of excellence to his students. But he also showed many examples of people who demonstrated excellence in their lives, including his sharing of videos of people recognized by the President of the United States for their excellence. Wrote a student named Jadah, “My favorite thing about your class was the Kennedy Center Honors (videos). I might have not looked interested but it was only because it was early in the morning but I was excited to learn about different people and what they have added to the world. I want to be something that the world admires and what to honor.”
The World is Big and Diverse: Wrote a student named Brendan in his year-end essay, “Before I came to sixth grade, I always saw the world as just a place where I live. Now, with Mr. Stebbins help, I see the world as one big history book filled with knowledge and connections. He has influenced me to travel around the world, and see many of the world’s greatest wonders. I think that knowledge is the best gift you can give to anybody and when I moved into Mr. Stebbins class that is the first thing he gave to me. I am honored that I was able to meet this wonderful man.”
A big focus of Stebbins’ teaching was the history of African Americans. In addition to dressing up in traditional African wear, and talking about people like Miles Davis and Malcolm X, he awarded Olympians with a 365 Days of Black History calendar that featured Stebbins. “This was and is a prized possession that I still have – his photo from the 1964 Olympics is featured on one of its pages,” said a student, Sandra Hwang. “Signed by Mr. Stebbins, it says, ‘you are a seeker of truth.'”
Never Give Up: Jeremy wrote to Stebbins 11 years after taking his social studies class, describing his teacher’s penchant to quote from a popular cartoon at the time, Pinky and the Brain, secondarily to inject fun into the class, but primarily to send a message. “You incorporated your love of Pinky and the Brain into the class lesson, and into the values, you wanted to instill in your students. You used to say all the time “Brain never took over the world, but he never gave up.” You wanted us to do the same. You wanted us to have a dream and no matter how long it took not to give up. Your words ring in my ears until this day.”
You are Special: Stebbins always had something specific to say about each of his students. Amber wrote that Stebbins said something to her that stuck with her since. “I was really one of a kind, and he could tell that I was going to do great things. I will never forget that day.” Hwang was in Stebbin’s class in 2003, and she remembers ordinary days that instantly became most memorable ones thanks to Stebbins.
While I was in other classes, say math class, if Mr. Stebbins came in the room to pick up something from the teacher and saw me in the room, he would point his finger at me and, in total interruption, announce loudly to the room, “this one, she is destined to be great.”
Today, Sandra is a 26-year-old healthcare design strategist for a consultancy in Boston, with a personal goal of helping people “have a better chance at the health and happiness they deserve…and to do this work for those among us that truly need it most. Children, minorities, women, refugees, people living in homelessness, without support, without equal access, without the right to health.” She wrote to me emphasizing what a huge influence Stebbins was for her.
I cannot articulate how many young students out there need someone like Mr. Stebbins to walk into the room and declare their worth with such absolute certainty. Mr. Stebbins did not set me up to do a good job in school, have a good job, and to live a good, stable life. He set me up to dream and to elevate myself in accordance to my dreams – to aspire for excellence, for greatness, and with the kind of boldness and audacity carried by the heroes we learned about in class.
Stebbins explained in a Baltimore Sun article that he only did what his best teachers did for him when he was growing up in Los Angeles in a single-parent household. “Two teachers in junior high school saved my life — an old black man, and an old white woman,” he said. “They told me I could be somebody, that I could do something with my life.”
Those teachers did what Stebbins did for countless kids at Mayfield Woods Middle School. Orebamjo noted that to Stebbins in her letter, quoting William A. Ward.
The mediocre teacher tells.
The good teacher explains.
The superior teacher demonstrates.
The great teacher inspires.