Pt. 2

Six days ago, 29 students and seven staff members took a field trip to INOVA hospital in Fairfax to visit Ryan Kwak. It was one of the most emotional things that I think any of us have done, but if anyone was nervous by the prospect of seeing a student in the ICU, no one showed it.

We had heard on Tuesday that after three weeks in the hospital, Ryan was (understandably) depressed, exhausted, and in pain. He wanted his regular life back, didn’t see the point in trying to even roll over on his side, and was frustrated because he couldn’t talk or eat. He was supposed to have been transported to Johns Hopkin, but that was delayed due to a variety of complications further compounding his depression. Initially, the doctors did not approve a visit, but Friday afternoon, something changed. I am not sure what or why, but the doctors were going to allow everyone to visit. We scrambled to make it happen and thankfully we were able to pull it off—and it was the best possible medicine for Ryan.

As I wrote the other week, Ryan needed to know that we support him and are thinking of him. Having his room decorated with Champe colors, cheerleaders performing cheers for him, lacrosse and football players standing bedside, and friends and staff talking with him was exactly—and literally—what the doctor ordered. If you saw any of the pictures on Facebook, you will see a young man genuinely smiling and happy. A young man who was brought joy in a time of terrible darkness. A young man yearning for normalcy but thankful for his reality.

And I am thankful too. As I have said before, I appreciate how much everyone wants to help, how supportive they have been, how the community has rallied together for Ryan. The most recent example of the outpouring of goodwill was the Moe’s fundraiser on Wednesday. Through the generosity of the Maresca family (the owners), they offered to donate100% of the profits to the Kwaks. As a result, the community came out in full force: the line stretched to the back of the restaurant and out the door! People stood on line for 45 minutes to be able to do their part in Ryan’s recovery. And the event was an overwhelming success: the Kwak family will be receiving a check for $6,739!

I mention it because all of this has had such a positive impact on Ryan. I don’t know if you saw it on Facebook, but three days ago he was filmed listening to music on his headphones and dancing with his hands—in rhythm to the music no less! This is from a young man who was told he would be fully paralyzed.


And so it should come as no surprise that this morning Ryan was set to be transferred to Hopkins for the next stage of his recovery. There will certainly be triumphs and obstacles while he is there, and so I post this today to remind people (again) about the power of positivity and how important it is to support Ryan: it has gotten him this far, but Ryan will be depending on us to help him through the next phase of his challenging recovery.


Last year I had an entry about Champestrong, how it embodies some of our core values such as perseverance and our sense of family and how it is woven into the very fabric of our school community. And so when Ryan Kwak was seriously injured in a car accident over a week ago, Champestrong was an immediate rallying point for his support. As the extent of his injuries became more apparent, the word “Ryanstrong” spread quickly throughout the school, community, and social media. In fact, you might have seen one of the Ryanstrong shirts that the lacrosse team is selling. As of today, those shirts have raised $3,350 to help the Kwak family with the staggering cost of a rehab center. But this post is not about the fundraising that has been done—which is still important—but rather about Ryan’s spirit and the outpouring of support from the school and community.

I had the opportunity to visit Ryan yesterday, and if you have been keeping up with the updates on his GoFundMe page, you are aware of how significant his injuries are. To briefly summarize, he suffered a serious spinal injury and was told he would be paralyzed from the neck down and would never be able to walk again. He is fully coherent but is unable to talk because of the tracheotomy. Even having seen those pictures, it isn’t until you are in person that the gravity and enormity of the situation strike you. As a parent, it is a terrifying thought, and so I am amazed by his family’s strength and faith. I am proud of how well his friends are coping with not seeing him on daily basis in their senior year and how optimistic they are. But most importantly, I cannot fathom how Ryan must feel, the daily struggle and challenges he faces and will continue to face.

And so when I visited him, it was so heart-warming and inspiring to see him smile, to see a slight smile and a glimmer of optimism on his face. When I pointed out that we had matching purple wristbands (which SCA had been selling and as of this post 953 people had purchased with only 47 remaining) and that everyone wanted one at school, it was apparent that this meant something to him. I also shared with him how tonight’s football game at Broad Run was a purple-out (in honor of Ryan and his love for the Ravens) and that BRHS students would also wear some purple to show their unity, I could tell how much it meant to him. Between the meals being organized for him and all of the fundraising efforts, what is inspiring also is how much people want to help and how much they care. None of us know what he is going through but what we all know is that to feel that people are supportive can make a difference.

And apparently that has.

Ryan certainly faces an enormous battle, but a week ago he was told he would be paralyzed from the neck down. Perhaps you saw the video then three days ago of him waving his hand. He was told he would never walk again; two days ago, a video was shared of him in a wheel chair. These are miraculous feats, and Ryan is a person with a strong sense of faith, which has certainly comforted him and has helped him in his journey towards recovery. But it is also knowing that he is not alone, that his entire school and community is thinking of him and supports him that gives him the strength to continue, to persevere.

After I said goodbye to his mother, I returned to Ryan’s bed and told him I would see him soon. He raised his left hand and made a slight fist to give me a fist bump on my way out.

That is Ryanstrong.

First Day Firestarters

Now that the first week of school is in the books, it’s a great time to return to my blog. I started this blog last year with the hope of developing and maintaining a new way to communicate with the John Champe community. Admittedly, near spring, it became difficult to maintain, but I am back again this year and look forward to keeping the community informed about a range of topics (previous entries can be accessed from the archives).

That being said, I would like to kick-start this year’s blog with an early entry from last year. It’s still appropriate and timely, and I hope again that you did not hear the word “nothing” last week.

Do you know what one of the worst replies you could hear over the dinner table on the first day of school is? “Nothing.”
Yet time and again at dinner across the country, that is the response that students give their parents when asked what they did in school. The problem with this response isn’t that it’s a sullen student who is disengaged; the problem is that they are probably telling the truth which is unfortunate to say the least.

Every student looks forward to the first day of school. While students have varying reasons for their excitement (seeing friends, wearing new back to school clothing, finally being able to drive to school, or looking forward to a certain class or seeing a favorite teacher), they come in excited for the first day. And then that excitement is squashed. In fact, too many teachers excel at deflating that first day enthusiasm. What that generally looks like is the following: students go through all of their classes and are repeatedly told what they can and can’t do; they learn about classroom policies and procedures; and they read syllabi and sign out textbooks. That bubbly enthusiasm is quickly replaced by exhaustion and boredom well before the end of the day. And so when they are asked at night what they did, they’re likely telling the truth. However, it’s my hope that in the John Champe High School community, your experience on August 24 was different.

Each year I ask teachers new John Champe High School (and new to the Champe way) if they are firestarters or fire extinguishers? I walk them through the above scenario and explain that those teachers are fire extinguishers—and I ask them if that is the kind of class they would want to be in on the first day of school? And so I challenge them to be firestarters because as Sophocles wrote, “Education is not the filling of a vessel, but the kindling of a flame.” The first day of school is a great (best?) opportunity to kindle that flame—to show students why we are passionate about what we do, why we love our subject areas, and why we have made this our life’s work. I encourage them to showcase their best lesson that day or have an activity that will get students excited about their subject matter and want to come back for the second day of class. There is plenty of time to go over rules and procedural stuff (even at some point on the first day—it just doesn’t have to be the focus for the entire period), but there is very little time to get students enthusiastic and engaged, so it is imperative that we lead with something interesting!

This philosophy is a core value at John Champe High School and we honor it by visiting classrooms on the first day of school to see the great things that are happening (and sometimes even get to participate). Moreover, we even have a monthly recognition at faculty meetings for a teacher who best embodies this notion. And that is why on Twitter you might have seen photos of classes where students were highly engaged on the first day of school—such as in Mr. Hansen’s earth science class where students constructed towers, Mrs. Zappia’s class where students completed an escape-the-room activity, or Ms. Webb’s class where students participated in an Algebra QR code scavenger hunt. And so I hope that when you spoke with your student about their first day of school that s/he had much more to say than “nothing,” because at John Champe High School, it is Not Business As Usual (NBAU).