Pete Klaus pulls little pieces of triumph out of the world's dusty corners. All year long he goes to flea markets and warehouses and thrift shops, picking up discards and turning them into glad moments for kids whose lives are a little short on victory.
He'll be doing it again tomorrow, down at School No. 27, tTC Commodore John Rodgers Elementary in East Baltimore, where he's a physical education teacher. The kids will hear their names called, and they'll march to a podium where Klaus will hand them what most have never had in their lives:
Or a certificate.
Or a medal.
A signal that they should feel proud of themselves.
Klaus is a gym teacher by profession but a soft touch by nature. He knows that a lot of the kids at his school come from troubled backgrounds. Some of the families are shaky. There's not much money. He encourages these children to work hard, and then he rewards those who show the most effort.
"They need to know that people care," Klaus says simply. "Some of these kids are starved for attention."
All year long, he's out there scavenging for whatever trophies he can find, whether they're brand-new or somebody's throwaway. The flea market people and places like the Johns Hopkins Hospital Thrift Shop know him by name. So does the Baltimore Trophy House, on Highland Avenue.
He spends a few dollars here, a few dollars there, earning extra money by making Christmas music boxes, which merchants in the Canton area sell for him. He brings the old trophies home and then spruces them up over months and months. He's the sultan of scratch removing. He's the guru of gold glitter to cover scratches that won't go away. He's the Emir of Amateur Engravers.
By the time he's finished with these things, "they look classy," Klaus says, with a rare pat on his own back. (He's not too modest to boast about his family, though: three kids, and a wife, Debbie, who works at Middle River Middle School and was recently named one of the top assistant principals in the country.)
The kids at Commodore Rodgers have no notion of the effort that goes into these awards. They're too busy, all year long, working for the trophies. Klaus has a point system, which he explains to the kids. He stresses basics. The awards go for attendance, for spelling, for improving math skills, for learning street names, for memorizing a poem every month, which they get to read over the school intercom.
The trophies don't necessarily go to the flashiest kids, but to those who try the hardest.
"I do it on attendance and effort, primarily," says Klaus, 49, who still remembers his own school days. He was a varsity basketball player back at Patterson High, then wrestled and ran cross country at Towson State.
After 16 years with the city's Department of Recreation, Klaus started teaching.
"It became clear," he says, "that some of these kids need a little push to learn. I figured, if they came to school, I'd give 'em a little push." During the week, and weekends, too. On Saturdays, he has the kids playing organized softball and basketball, "slightly safer environments than they might be used to."
Among his success stories: Sam Cassell, who went on to play for Dunbar High and now stars for the Houston Rockets, currently bidding for a pro basketball championship.
"Sam," Klaus remembers, "was a little rough around the edges. But you couldn't get mad at him. He had such a nice smile, you just wanted to hug him. I had a basketball program he came to. He needed a channel for all his energies. Last year, he came back to talk to the kids. They were in awe, they just wanted to touch him, to ask him questions about his life. He wanted them to know they can make it if they work hard."
Now, Klaus turns on the TV, and there's Cassell in the NBA finals. He'll holler upstairs to his mother, Josephine, 90, who lives with him, "Hey, Mom. Come watch. This is my kid, Mom."
"Pete Klaus," says Principal Willie Grier, "is an outstanding teacher, and he's also one of the finest persons I've ever known. You know, every child can't be academically inclined, but they can try hard. He boosts their self-esteem.
"They've never had an experience like this. Many of their parents have never had an experience like this, either, so the parents get certificates, too. Four years ago, our attendance was 86 percent. Last year, 95 percent. Then, when they get this reward, and they've worked for it all year long, why, it just lifts the hearts of the kids, and the parents, and the teachers, too."
Klaus still plays ball with East Baltimore guys he's known for years. Some of these fellows have helped his efforts, donating clothes to needy kids at the school. He's also gotten some area businesses -- Richardson's Produce, Canton Square Video, Pizza and Wings To Go, Needful Things Coffee Shop, Baltimore Trophy House, Conkling Salvage, Shockets, Town and Country Builders, John's Bakery on Fairmount Avenue, and the tellers at the Provident Savings Bank on O'Donnell Street -- to help out.
It's a community trying to pull together a little. Klaus is the heart of it. He'll be handing out scores of trophies and certificates tomorrow, to kids who will remember the moment for years to come. And that's thanks enough for Pete Klaus.