Lealman Intermediate principal Cheryl DiCicco stands in the school courtyard playfully bantering with students when one sneaks up behind her and begins mimicking her.
"What's going on? Is there somebody behind me?" DiCicco asks the other students with a smile.
She turns and finds a giggling Marlon Perkins. Appropriately, she gives him the red nose a professional clown brought to school for the Great American Teach-In.
The caring scene illustrates the passion of DiCicco and her staff, but it also belies the challenges they take on as one of Pinellas County's dropout prevention schools. It covers grades 5-8, and includes an "8.5" program that fast-tracks eighth-graders who were held back.
Teachers choose to be at Lealman because they want to guide kids to the right path. They teach, they parent, and they celebrate victories more than they lament losses.
The other day, fifth-grade teacher Rebecca Thomas said she walked into a CVS wearing a Lealman T-shirt and was told by a store manager that without Lealman, he would never have made it. DiCicco has been heartened by Lealman alumni returning with their children, seeking the guidance that helped them.
On the flip-side, two problem students had to be reassigned this week because they came to school under the influence. Teaching always has its highs and lows.
"It's so hard," DiCicco said. "We take it personally. You want everybody to do better."
My fear is we underestimate the influence of teachers. Statistical accountability has its place, but success can be measured in other ways.
Consider Lealman teacher Catherine Fahey. With a streak of "purple passion" hair framing her youthful 28-year-old face, she could easily pass for a high-schooler.
You might expect to find the University of Florida graduate's youthful exuberance in a conventional suburban school, but she chose Lealman because she knows first-hand how teachers can make a difference — and how they can't.
Tyrone Elementary teacher Arthur Steullet recognized Fahey's math skills when she was in fourth grade and got her on a gifted track that led to St. Petersburg High's IB program and then UF.
On the other hand, Fahey's older brother never got the help he really needed, began to act out as he was bounced from school to school and eventually dropped out. Only now has he earned his GED.
"The system did him a disservice, in a way," Fahey said.
So Fahey gives back to yesterday's teachers by helping today's students. Her genuine enthusiasm helps break down barriers and fill the void created by inattentive parents. It's also made her a finalist for Pinellas Teacher of the Year in the "inspiring students to perform category."
"When I say, 'Good morning' to the students, it's probably the nicest thing they've heard from an adult that day," Fahey said. "They're in survival mode. We have to be sensitive because if one person calls them a loser, it could stick with them for the rest of their lives.
"I didn't think 15-year-old boys ever cried, but they do. I've never seen so many cry. They cry when they realize someone cares for them and is willing to fight for them."
Here's to Fahey and all the teachers who are fighting for kids, including those who fought for me. Not a day goes by that I don't think of them.
That's all I'm saying.