AN A IN THE FOURTH R Series: CHARACTER MATTERS

Article excerpt

'R-E-S-P-E-C-T. Find out what it means to me . . ."

In the '60s, it was the trademark of Motown superstar Aretha Franklin. In the '90s, it's the hallmark of a new trend in the nation's schools - character education.

When it comes to teaching kids right from wrong, respect and responsibility are considered by many to be the fourth and fifth R's of elementary and secondary education. Without stressing those two traits, the experts say, you can forget trying to inculcate things such as caring, cooperation or courage.

Chris Hummel, a sophomore at St. Charles West High School, never had much trouble with the first three R's - reading, 'riting and 'rithmetic. Despite the fact that he almost flunked sixth grade, his teachers all describe him as a very capable kid when it comes to academics.

But Chris had a hard time with the fourth R, in terms of both self-respect and respect toward others. And his difficulty surfaced in a big way in his first year at Jefferson Middle School in St. Charles.

Here's how Chris remembers it: "I was in trouble just about every day. I didn't think much of education then . . . I wanted people to notice me as a funny guy, not a smart guy. I got suspensions, seventh hours (60 minutes of silence after school), Saturday campus corps (4 hours of school detention, spent on chores and academics). And I almost didn't get out - my grades were C's, D's, a couple F's."

"Chris had a very difficult adjustment to middle school - just following basic rules on classroom behavior, respect for authority, completing work. He was very angry and frustrated. He'd do anything to get attention - throwing books, yelling, name-calling, making inappropriate gestures," recalls his teacher, Vicky Riley. "And his negative behavior interfered greatly with his ability to learn."

So why are we telling you about Chris Hummel in an article that points up the importance of respect in building character in kids?

Fast-forward to Chris Hummel, almost 17, and ask a few of his teachers to describe him now.

Steve Stahl, St. Charles West physical education teacher and football coach: "I have nothing other than glowing comments to make about Chris. He's a hard worker, willing to cooperate with others. He's very conscientious, very self-disciplined. He exercises a great deal of restraint when it comes to displays of temper . . . he takes setbacks well. He's a real asset to the team."

Pattie Raines, algebra I teacher: "Chris was eager to please. He was very concerned about his studies and really wanted to do well. He always tried to have his homework done on time . . . if it wasn't, he'd do it late, without credit, just to get it done."

This is a story, really, about two Chris Hummels. The first is a troubled kid who spent most of his middle school years in a self-contained, behavior-disordered classroom, diagnosed as ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disordered) and oppositionally defiant. The second is a high school football player and honor roll student, taking a heavy load of honors chemistry, algrebra II, geometry, German and English, and hoping for an athletic scholarship to help pave the way to college.

What happened to Chris Hummel between sixth and 10th grades to cause such a turnaround? Though no one knows for sure, Jefferson Middle School principal Donna Towers has a pretty good hunch. Chris, she says, learned to respect himself.

"Middle school can be difficult for many kids - there's lots of frustration, lots of testing limits. Chris' outbursts were the result of internal anger. I don't think he felt he was a worthwhile person. And that made it hard for him to treat other people with respect," she says.

In Chris' case, however, there was more to contend with than just hormones running rampant, as they are apt to do in early adolescence. His home life was a lot less than ideal. …