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Teachers remember former E.M. Stanton student picked fourth in NBA draft

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    Photo: Reuters

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The following guest blog is from Holly Shaw-Hollis and Ilene Heller, both longtime teachers at E.M. Stanton elementary school in South Philadelphia, who remember new Cleveland Cavalier Dion Waiters.

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By Holly Shaw-Hollis, with contributions from Ilene Heller

Dion Waiters is one of our students who finally achieved his dream.  He was the fourth player selected in the NBA draft and will be playing for the Cleveland Cavaliers next season!

As teachers, we are tasked with the goal of helping our students achieve the best that they can, and we hope that they continue to work hard and fight for what they deserve in life. Dion is one of those students who continues to do that.

I have been at E.M. Stanton for 22 years, and Ilene Heller has been at Stanton for 16 years. We have taught many students through the years and have been lucky enough to keep in touch with a number of them. We have seen them overcome adversity, including poverty, abuse, learning disabilities, and emotional problems. Some have continued through college and are now nurses, teachers, graduate students, business owners, and athletes.

Dion is one of the lucky ones. His mother primarily raised Dion, his older brother, and his sister alone, and she taught them that education and family were to be priorities in their lives. His family has always been around him and supported him through the tough times. They have been there when he lost close friends to violence in South Philadelphia and when he had difficulties with school. They have been there when he had to make important choices in his life. Dion has had the structure and motivation to succeed.

At E.M. Stanton, we are privileged to have a wonderful community mentoring program through Bainbridge House. In Ilene Heller’s first-grade class, mentors were assigned to several students. Joe Bradley was assigned as Dion’s mentor. He helped Dion stay focused on school and gave him the chance to see other things outside of his neighborhood. Joe took Dion to places around the city, including sports events. They have kept their friendship going, and Joe is another adult who is proud of the man that Dion has become.

When Dion was at Stanton, he wanted to be the class clown. The smile you see him flash during interviews and photo sessions is the same smile he would show us when he was being mischievous, which was all the time. He has always had a hearty laugh and loves to have fun. He always had a basketball in his hands, and we told him, as we did others, that he needed to study harder so he would have a backup plan in case he wasn’t one of the very few who make it all the way to the pro ranks.

We always had about five boys in every class who, when asked what they wanted to do with their life, answered with “pro basketball player,” or “pro football player.”  We told them it was a hard road, and there were many obstacles in their way, but if that’s what they wanted to do, they should keep practicing and keep learning.

I remember one particular time when Dion was a student in my computer lab. He, along with several other students, complained that the computers were too slow. This is a common complaint among students, as schools have older computers, and we had a slow network. My answer to him was: “When you become rich and famous, don’t forget to come back and buy me a new computer lab. Until then, this is what we have.”  As he has progressed through the college basketball ranks, and now to the NBA, I jokingly remind him of that – always with the caveat that I was just joking. But it still would be nice!

Dion struggled through several high schools, transferring for different reasons, and learned that he had to work on his academics just as hard as he did on his basketball. He had an oral promise from Syracuse University when he was a high school freshman, and he worked hard so he could make it to Syracuse.   

When Dion started on the Syracuse basketball team, he didn’t know that he was going to learn a valuable lesson that would help him achieve his dreams. Dion was used to being the star of the team. He was never on the bench. He was a constant player. What Dion needed to learn from Coach Jim Boeheim was how to be a team player. That meant working hard with others, taking care of himself, and making sure his focus was on the game and not on the publicity and the stars.

In his freshman year, he struggled, and there were rumors that he would not return. Luckily, Coach Boeheim and Dion’s mom made sure he knew that he needed to work hard, not only for himself, but also for all of those who have supported him through the years. I sent him several inspirational messages on Twitter and Facebook, letting him know that we were proud of him, but that his coach and his mom knew a lot more about life then he did, and he needed to listen and learn.

Dion did listen. He went back to Syracuse as a sophomore in better physical and mental condition. He had a different attitude – a team player attitude. He also understood that academics were important. His value in the college basketball rankings went up, because he realized he had to keep working hard and keep learning.

Dion and his mom made the decision for him to leave Syracuse and enter the NBA draft. As a teacher, I had a hard time with this decision. I wanted to see him finish  college. I also understood why he made the decision to go to the NBA. He is in prime physical and mental shape. He has watched his family struggle with finances so he could achieve his dream. This was his chance to give back. He started the Dion Waiters Foundation. His first event raised about $10,000, and has been earmarked for E.M. Stanton, the school that he still comes to visit. He wants to improve the gym area. He wants to give back to those who helped him.

We are so proud of the man Dion has become. He still will have obstacles in life, as we all do. He has the attitude now that he can overcome them, he can get better, as long as he listens and he keeps learning.

We have other students we keep in touch with. Some did not finish high school. Some went on to drop out of college. Some have finished college and are nurses, teachers, medical students, and business owners. Another former student, Sharif Smith, enters college this year with the talent to possibly make it to the NFL. He also knows he needs to work hard and not give up.

As teachers, we feel we have succeeded. Teaching is not just academics. Teaching is motivating a child to want to be someone and to want to be the best that they can be. Teaching is about helping to mold someone’s character, to help a child develop empathy, and to help them fulfill their dreams. Dion has done that with the help of his family, his friends, and hopefully, with his memories of what we taught him at Stanton.

In September, we will have new students to teach. One of those students may be our next mayor, our next secretary of labor, our next successful business owner, or even win an Academy Award. They choose their dreams, and we just help them to be able to live them.

Congratulations, Dion. We are so proud of you and so happy for you and your family!

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