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Manuel (Manny) Scott, whose story partly in- spired the 2007 film “Freedom Writers,” gave the keynote address to educators during the Worcester County Public Schools’ virtual #WeAreWorcester Opening Kick-off event on Tuesday.

(Sept. 4, 2020) “Better together” was the message delivered repeatedly by speakers Tuesday morning at the Worcester County Public Schools system’s virtual #WeAreWorcester Opening Kick-Off event.

“I am excited for the fact that we will be back in school — hopefully, sooner than later,” Superintendent Lou Taylor said.

Worcester County schools will begin distance learning on Sept. 8 for three weeks.

“This pandemic can’t define us, and today I encourage you to not let this pandemic define who you are, what you are and what you do every day,” Taylor said.

He urged teachers in the 14 local public schools to be present for their students who have been disadvantaged by a lack of face-to-face instruction.

“I ask that you embrace them on day one when you turn that computer on,” Taylor said. “They need us more than ever before. They want to be with us.”

He recounted a letter he received from a female student, who asked him to bring students back to school. She told Taylor how much she missed being with her teachers and friends, who make her feel supported and loved.

“Embrace our kids,” he said. “Find out where they’re hurting. Find out where you as an adult can help them to become a better individual. Find out where you can support them. Find out where you can show them love. Find out where you can be there for them in times of trouble.”

Taylor encouraged educators to embrace the change and the associated challenges of the coronavirus situation.

“I ask each of you to take a look in the mirror each and every day … and say, ‘How can I be a difference in the life of a young person today,’” he said.

During his opening message, Taylor also thanked the seven members of the Board of Education and elected officials, particularly the Worcester County Commissioners, for their contributions to the school system.

“Together, we will be better than we’ve ever been,” Taylor said.

Gina Russell, the Worcester County 2019 Teacher of the Year, offered her peers some inspirational thoughts during these difficult times.

“I would always say that the staff of Worcester County represented the extra degree,” Russell said. “I’d read an intriguing book by Sam Parker and Mac Anderson called ‘212 The Extra Degree.’ The book’s significance centers around the fact that at 211 degrees water is hot. At 212 degrees, it boils, and with boiling water comes steam. And steam can power a locomotive. By raising the temperature of water by just one extra degree means the difference between something that is simply very hot and something that generates enough force to power a machine. You all are the extra degree.”

Following Russell’s remarks, a video was presented with Fred Hertrich IV, president of Hertrich Family of Automobile Dealerships, giving the 2020 Teacher of the Year, Christina McQuaid from Pocomoke Middle School, a 2020 Ford Escape to use during the school year.

“We know that educators are the leaders in making our community strong for the future,” Hertrich said. “We thank you for your continuous commitment to our children. I have the privilege of being married to an educator, so I know the passion and extra work it takes to be teacher of the year.”

McQuaid then introduced the event’s keynote speaker, Manuel (Manny) Scott, whose story partly inspired the 2007 movie “Freedom Writers.”

Scott began his address by singing “If I Can Help Somebody” by Mahalia Jackson. He said the lyrics describe his narrative and the efforts of Worcester County teachers.

“I know you’re tired. I know some of you are discouraged,” he said.

The purpose of his speech was to give educators one reason to not give up in the face of unimaginable challenges.

According to Scott’s website, he missed 60 to 90 days of school annually from fourth to ninth grade and dropped out of school at age 14.

By the age of 16, Scott said he lived in 26 places, which equates to two or three different schools each year.

In every school he attended, Scott realized he was different than his peers.

“Why does everybody seem so happy, and I don’t smile anymore?” was the question he asked himself at the time. “What’s so funny? I want to laugh.”

There were times during his childhood when he was so hungry, he would forage in dumpsters, he said.

Scott spoke about growing up in a broken family with an incarcerated father and a stepfather who was addicted to drugs and physically abused his mother.

Without help from his parents, he fell behind in school. Educators identified him as an ESL (English as a second language) student, although his first and primary language was English.

In high school, Scott’s best friend, Alex, was murdered on his way over to visit.

His best friend’s death greatly affected Scott and led to him dropping out of school. If his intelligent and talented friend could not make it out of the dangerous inner-city life, how could he? Scott said he gave up.

But with the help of loving adults, Scott turned his life around and became an honor roll student.

After high school, Scott graduated from the University of California at Berkeley with degrees in political science and rhetoric. He also graduated from Trinity International University with a Master of Divinity degree.

He is an author, a motivational speaker, a husband and a father to three children. Currently, he is completing his Ph.D. dissertation.

Through his narrative, Scott reminded educators to not enforce their cultural norm as a universal norm and make sure their syllabi are diverse to represent all students.

“Become a student of your students,” Scott said. “Study them.”

He shared an anecdote about his teacher using rappers’ lyrics to educate him and other students about rhythm and meter in poetry as well as figurative language.

Although current educators are not to blame for the ingrained racism in society and academia, Scott said teachers are responsible for dismantling anything that disadvantages their students.

“You can be the exception in person or online,” Scott said.

Dr. Annette Wallace then introduced a session about managing and maintaining mental health, especially during the pandemic.

“We can’t pour from an empty cup,” she said.

Recognizing the importance of self-care, Lauren Williams, the mental health coordinator of the school system, will lead Self-care Sundays throughout the year.

Jared Rowan, a certified yoga teacher and social worker, led a presentation about recognizing warning signs of waning mental health, managing and prioritizing personal mental health and self-care and learning quick tips, techniques and resources to assist with personal mental health challenges.

He said 40 percent of adults have reported increased struggles with mental health during the pandemic.

According to Rowan, signs of mental health decline are: lack of motivation, mood swings, increased stress or worry, increased eating, drinking or sleeping, inability to sleep because of worry, increased somatic systems, increased burn-out or lack of passion in work and thoughts of injuring oneself.

He invited educators to participate in an exercise where they wrote down their responsibilities on one side of a sheet of paper and what made them smile on the other side. Then, he asked educators to examine their lists. Did anything overlap? What about work makes them happy?

Rowan advised teachers to find joy in the workplace by being present, having fun, making someone’s day and choosing a positive attitude.

In addition, he encouraged educators to partake in self-care activities like yoga and utilize “go-to” techniques, involving breathing, meditation and the five senses.

For the closing message, a video of administrators in the school system dancing to the theme song of “Friends” reminded educators that they are here for them.

After the #WeAreWorcester Opening Kick-off, teachers spent the afternoon in professional learning sessions.

For more information about Worcester County Public Schools, visit worcesterk12.org.

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