Getting students to go for the gold Teaching: Richard Stebbins won a gold medal in the 1964 Summer Olympics, and he uses it in the classroom today to produce academic winners.


Years from now, seventh-graders Cristan Woodley and Bejan Modarressi will still be talking about their brush with Olympic gold and the teacher who made it happen. Bet on it.

Because for one moment in Richard Stebbins' third-period social-studies class yesterday, each got the chance to try on an Olympic gold medal -- the real thing -- and have a picture taken wearing it.

The medal belongs to Stebbins, who won it 32 years ago at the 1964 Summer Games in Tokyo. It is the most tangible symbol of what makes Stebbins so distinctive as a teacher -- his drive, his ambition, his view of life. And he uses the medal to instill those qualities in his students, holding it out as a reward for a year's worth of outstanding work in his classes at Mayfield Woods Middle School in Elkridge.

Yesterday, two dozen students in Stebbins' five classes earned the right to wear the gold. One at a time, he called each to the

front of the class and placed the distinctive medal with its fraying ribbon over the head of each academic Olympian.

"I'm extremely honored to have taught you," he told one.

"I'm going to miss you dearly," he said to another.

But he also spiced the praise a couple of times with some gentle criticism.

"You're going to do great things," he told one boy, "but you have to learn how to listen first." He praised a couple of other students for high grades, but added: "You need to work hard on being more consistent."

Stebbins, 51, never stops praising and pushing his students. That's what his best teachers did for him as he was growing up fatherless in South-Central Los Angeles.

"Two teachers in junior high school saved my life -- an old black man, and an old white woman," he said. "They told me I could be somebody, that I could do something with my life. They encouraged me."

It was in junior high. at age 11, that he sought out track to fill the hours when he wasn't in school. Back then, his neighborhood was a hotbed of track competition that produced some big-name runners.

Stebbins became one of the fastest, doing a 9.4-second 100-yard dash as a senior -- still a world-class time. His speed won him a full scholarship to Grambling College in Louisiana. There, as a sprinter and relay runner, he was part of a relay team that tied world records three times. And that, along with his speed at the 200 meters, allowed him to qualify in two events for the 1964 Olympics.

In Tokyo, he finished seventh in the 200-meter dash. But he became the youngest medalist of those games in the 400-meter relay, a blur of a race in which four of the world's fastest men each run a 100-meter sprint, passing a baton from one to another at full speed.

Two shaky baton passes put the American team in last place as Stebbins took off for the third leg of the relay. He moved to third, however, and handed the baton perfectly to Bob Hayes, then the world's fastest man and a future National Football League star. Hayes ran what some believe to be the fast 100-meter leg in history, and the American team finished first, setting both Olympic and world records.

Richard Stebbins was 19 as he stood on the podium to receive his medal. He remembers thinking that he'd reached the pinnacle of his track life. Then he went back to Grambling to finish his bachelor's degree in history.

After college, he played briefly in pre-season with the Houston Oilers. But then he was cut, and making a living loomed.

He went back to Los Angeles and taught a bit. But his first wife was from Baltimore, so he came east with her. He coached football and track at Howard University, worked for Xerox Corp. and then sold advertising for awhile at the Washington Post.

But he liked teaching, and six years ago, he committed to it


"Kids ask me a lot," Stebbins says,'You were in the Olympics. Why aren't you wealthy?'"

He's not because the Olympics were different then, he says. But the Games also changed Stebbins' life, turning him into the kind of teacher who laces his history and geography lessons with jazz CDs, videotapes of sports events and tales of his travels and experiences.

He's imposing in the classroom, 6 feet tall and heavier than when he was running, with a closely trimmed, graying beard, a voice that can soothe or boom, and clothes that reflect his African-American heritage. He wanted to teach seventh grade, with all its adolescent hormones and noise, for a specific reason:

"It's when you really begin to define yourself," explained Stebbins, who lives in Columbia and has a grown daughter. "Your goals are beginning to crystallize at that point. So were my dreams."

His Olympic medal helps him teach his students the importance of setting goals -- and of achieving them.

"I use it to get kids of this generation to turn to achievement," he said. "They're used to getting everything handed to them. Children, black and white, born in this country since the mid-'70s, really don't know anything about the kinds of struggles that every preceding generation has faced -- wars, the Depression, having to share in providing for the household, in caring for grandmom and granddad. Some do, of course. But we're losing the respect for craft, the work ethic, and we see an absence of dreams."

"In the Olympics, you have to put forth a lot of effort to get a gold, silver or bronze medal. Finish fourth, and nobody knows your name. I want children to know what it's like to reach for a standard that means something, that they can set a goal and reach it."

Children who get good grades in his class become class leaders. They sit in the front of the room, and their names are listed on the chalkboard. But one test can alter the list, and everyone knows when one name falls off, replaced by another.

"What happens is the kids begin to take an interest in their own work," he said. "They're focused, and that's important. Once they get up front, that develops competition. It cuts across a lot of the politically correct terms I have trouble with, like we've compromised our standards.

"One of the things the Olympics showed me was that you had to perform. I tell them: 'This is about performance. That's what the world respects.'"

In his five years at Mayfield Woods, Stebbins' performance has earned him the respect of many students and parents in the Columbia, Waterloo and Elkridge neighborhoods that feed the school.

"My son never opened a book to study for a test, certainly never on his own, until he got into that class," says one mother, Amy Modarressi of Columbia's Long Reach village. "But he's had to work there, and he's liked it."

Yesterday, her son, Bejan, was one of those who wore an Olympic gold around his neck during third period. He blushed as Stebbins recounted his accomplishments.

"I gave him more h-e-double hockey sticks than any other student because he thinks he's smarter than I am -- and sometimes he is," Stebbins said to laughter.

Cristan Woodley, another third-period Olympian, buried her face her hands when her name was called, beyond embarrassed. But as the gold medal slid over her head, she turned serious, clearly pleased, clearly moved.

She had earned her moment with the medal. And it was something she wouldn't forget.

Pub Date: 6/18/96

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