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September 25, 2006

The Making Of A Man

I don't even know how to categorize this story. It isn't a news story in the sense I usually think of it. Neither is it exactly an education story. It certainly doesn't qualify as entertainment, where I usually put sports stories. And it is something more than a religion or race peace. It is all of those -- and something more.

It is a story that moves the human heart, if one's soul has not been completely deadened.

It is a story to make one weep with joy, with sadness, and with hope.

It is the story of how one life can be changed, and how the acts of love and kindness that do so change all involved.

It is the story of Michael Oher.

When the file on Michael Oher from the Memphis City Schools hit his desk in the summer of 2002, Steve Simpson, the principal of Briarcrest Christian School, was frankly incredulous. The boy, now 16, had a measured I.Q. of 80, which put him in mankind’s ninth percentile. An aptitude test he took in eighth grade measured his “ability to learn� and placed him in the sixth percentile. The numbers looked like misprints: in a rich white private school like Briarcrest, you never saw single-digit numbers under the column marked “percentile.� Of course, logically, you knew such people must exist; for someone to be in the 99th percentile, someone else had to be in the first. But you didn’t expect to meet them at the Briarcrest Christian School. Academically, Briarcrest might not be the most ambitious school. It spent more time and energy directing its students to Jesus Christ than to Harvard. But the students all went on to college. And they all had at least an average I.Q.

In his first nine years of school, Michael Oher was enrolled in 11 different institutions, and that included a gap of 18 months, around age 10, when he apparently did not attend school at all. Either that or the public schools were so indifferent to his presence that they neglected to register it formally. Not that Oher actually showed up at the schools where he was enrolled. Even when he received credit for attending, he was sensationally absent: 46 days of a single term of his first-grade year, for instance. His first first-grade year, that is; Michael Oher repeated first grade. He repeated second grade, too. And yet the school system presented these early years as the most accomplished of his academic career. They claimed that right through the fourth grade he was performing at “grade level.� How could they know when, according to these transcripts, he hadn’t even attended the third grade?

Simpson, who had spent 30-plus years in area public schools, including 29 in Memphis, knew what everyone who had even a brief brush with the Memphis public schools knew: they passed kids up to the next grade because they found it too much trouble to flunk them. They functioned as an assembly line churning out products never meant to be market-tested. At several schools, Michael Oher had been given F’s in reading his first term and C’s the second term, which allowed him to finish the school year with D’s — they were giving him grades just to get rid of him. And get rid of him they did: seldom did the child return to the school that passed him. The year before Simpson got his file, Michael Oher passed ninth grade at a high school called Westwood. According to his transcripts, he missed 50 days of school that year. Fifty days! At Briarcrest, the rule was that if a student misses 15 days of any class, he has to repeat the class no matter his grade. And yet Westwood had given Michael Oher just enough D’s to move him along. Even when you threw in the B in world geography, clearly a gift from the Westwood basketball coach who taught the class, the grade-point average the student would bring with him to Briarcrest began with a zero: 0.6.

If there was a less promising academic record, Simpson hadn’t seen it. Simpson guessed, rightly, that the Briarcrest Christian School hadn’t seen anything like Michael Oher either. Simpson and others in the Briarcrest community would eventually learn that Michael’s father had been shot and killed and tossed off a bridge, that his mother was addicted to crack cocaine and that his life experience was so narrow that he might as well have spent his first 16 years inside a closet. And yet here was his application, in the summer of 2002, courtesy of the Briarcrest football coach, Hugh Freeze, who offered with it this wildly implausible story: Big Mike, as he was called, was essentially homeless and so had made an art of sleeping on whatever floor the ghetto would provide for him. He crashed for a stretch on the floor of an inner-city character named Tony Henderson, who at nearly 400 pounds himself was known simply as Big Tony. Big Tony’s mom had died and as her dying wish asked Tony to enroll his son Steven Payne at a “Christian school.� Big Tony had figured that as long as he was taking Steven, he might as well take Big Mike, too.

A school took this boy in. So did a family. And with a lot of hard work and determination, they helped this young man overcome a bad start and make it to college.

And, incidentally, become an All-American football player.

I hope that one day we get this young man on our team down here in Houston. Not just because I believe he will help the Texans out with his talent.

But because I believe he will be an asset to our community, and an inspiration to my students.





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NAME: Greg
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