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From the Land of Honalee to P.S. 77:
An Outpouring of Love
by Joanne Kontopirakis

Ivy Sterling, principal of P.S. 77 in Brooklyn, was wearing a bright red jacket and shiny Christmas pin. A warm woman with a voice like honey, she took time to spread caring to students and uplift all that she met. "Hello. Did you have fun today?" she asked students leaving the gymnasium. Approaching a long hallway of posters, decorated boxes, and other vibrant displays, she said, "Nobody would believe all this was done by autistic kids."

"This is our Hall of Fame," Principal Sterling announced. "I have several sites in the school." Gesturing towards a poster displaying motivational and inspirational thoughts, she added, "This year, I am using the book Full Steam Ahead for teachers and students."

"Earlier this year, we had a character education assembly. Part of the assembly included the program "Don't Laugh At Me: Operation Respect." We asked the teachers to work with us on the theme of respect."

On view was a Respect Quilt, and posters, which bore themes such as: "I Can Set Goals," "Learn To Say I'm Sorry," and "Respect For Other Cultures."

At the annual Holiday Concert, Sterling sang "Love Changes Everything," and you know that she firmly believes it.

On the auditorium's stage stood a large display created jointly by the library teacher and students.

"These teachers and students need support. If you believe all children can learn more—then THIS school is it," stated Dr. Charlotte K. Frank, Senior Vice President of McGraw-Hill, the motivational speaker who was responsible for bringing Peter Yarrow, of the famed group Peter, Paul and Mary to perform for the students.

Peter Yarrow has committed his time to many issues close to his heart over the years, culminating in his present leadership role as the founder and co-chair of "Operation Respect." Yarrow feels that this project generates the idea that if a person articulates and joins with others, they can become a powerful voice for transformation of society.

With the aim of eliminating discrimination, and endeavoring to create safer, more harmonious schools, as well as fostering self-esteem and self- acceptance, more than 20 thousand individuals have been trained in the "Don't Laugh At Me" program. Nationwide attention from important organizations such as National Association of Elementary School Principals, Council of Great City Schools, and National Association of School Administrators, have focused on this program.

McGraw Hill has offered its support in the form of producing and paying for all materials, including printed Reading Rainbow textbooks. Materials are available to educators free of charge at www.operationrespect.org.

It has been a most meaningful and successful project, based on the belief that music, along with the power to organize people, can be a source of inspiration to children.   In a survey of over 550 students and teachers across the country, the majority of teachers report the level of hostility in their classrooms on the decline.

On the auditorium's stage, Yarrow knew how to reach the students, and was the epitome of what the program was celebrating: an outpouring of love. Classes XO1 and XO2 watched and listened from their seats attentively.

The theme song, "Don't Laugh At Me" was the poignant centerpiece of the program, with music written by Yarrow. Students, faculty, Sterling, and all assembled on stage, giving a poignant and moving rendition of the following lyrics:

"I'm a little boy with glasses / The one they call the geek

A little girl who never smiles / Cause I've got braces on my teeth

And I know how it feels / To cry myself to sleep

Don't laugh at me / Don't call me names

Don't get your pleasure from my pain / In God's eyes we're all the same

Someday we'll all have perfect wings / Don't laugh at me"

Afterwards, film footage of last year's Special Olympics was shown, with "Don't Laugh At Me" as the background music.

Taking this time to dialogue with the kids, Yarrow sensitively asked the enraptured students how watching this film made them feel. "What came up in your heart?" he asked Michael Needa, whom he had invited to join him on stage.

"It made me feel good," was the boy's reply.

Devon Brown, raising his hand, said, "My friend calls me ugly."

"They do that because they don't know what a fine and wonderful person you are," said Yarrow, tenderly adding, "like I do."

Standing beside Yarrow onstage, Yarrow hugged the boy. Together, with the Library Singers and school staff, "If I had A Hammer" and "Puff The Magic Dragon" were sung at the happy conclusion.

Peter Yarrow later remarked, "I never have more fun than when I play with kids as I did here today. In this case, it was even more special, and because this environment is so nurturing, they were so open and accepting of me, which is a tribute to a great principal: Ivy Sterling."

Presenting Ivy Sterling with the gift of the book which was authored by Steve Sesken and Allen Shamblin, and for which he penned the Afterward, Peter announced, "From the Land of Honalee, it is my great pleasure to present to you this inscribed version of the book, "Don't Laugh At Me." 

"This has reached three to five thousand people," Yarrow commented. "We have made almost 400 workshop appearances in the past five years to leaders of education. We have five state offices, mostly advocacy organizations, whose purpose is to create environments in schools whose environments are caring and safe.

"This school (P.S. 77) approaches the needs of the whole child.   You have to reach the hearts of kids. Kids need the arts to connect to issues of dialogue—to learn the tools of compassionate exchange."#




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