The 20 or so students gathered at Miller Wall Elementary School in Marrero on Wednesday seemed amazed when New Orleans Pelicans center Jason Smith stood before them.
Likely, none had seen a 7-footer in person before. However, Smith appeared to make a bigger impression as he and ACME Truck Line president Mike Coatney took turns reading pages from the book, “Swamp Song.”
With Smith’s voice inflections giving life to the characters, the children, who were in the third through fifth grades, reacted with “oohs”. At the end of the five-minute session, they applauded loudly.
“You want it to be fun for the kids,” Smith said. “You don’t want it to be like home work.
“We come in and try to make the kids’ day a little bit brighter, let them know the importance of reading and education, and if you read, you can achieve anything you want.”
Smith was there with Pelicans guard Austin Rivers, TV announcer Joel Meyers, two Pelicans dance team members and team mascot Pierre to encourage the children to read as part of Reading Timeout. Smith said it took him back to his elementary school years in his native Kersey, Colo. Being from a small town, no professional athletes visited, but it was memorable, nonetheless.
“I remember the local weatherman, Mike Morrison, came to our school,” Smith said. “That was the shining moment of my childhood days.”
Meyers pointed out that there are several kind of books.
“I like non-fiction,” Meyhe said, mentioning history books. “But read everything. You’ll expand your vocabulary, your mind.”
Later, he talked about the Pelican being Louisiana’s official bird and the relevance of protecting the state’s wetlands.
“They are important so we won’t have catastrophic, really, really bad storms,” he said.
Miller Wall principal Janet McLoughlin reminded them that it was important to read so they can be smart.
She led the chant by the students: “Smart isn’t something you are. Smart is something you get, and you get there with hard work and effort.”
After the children lined up and high-five Smith, who was seated, they were returned to class and another group was brought out, but for a different reason. They were being honored for their behavior, and Rivers, an NBA All-Star Jam ambassador, was the special guest.
He hid, then came out from behind a curtain, and that group of children cheered. The children were asked why do they think they were there. One said, “Good behavior.” Another, “Respectful,” and still another, “Responsible.”
Rivers told them he was there because he heard great things about them.
“You’ve been great people, treat people nice, you do your homework,” he said, and told them he had tickets to NBA Jam Sessions for them.
However, a question-and-answer session got their attention most, as it became increasingly more poignant as the session went on. He was asked the first time he dunked. “Sixth grade,” he said. How did he become great. “You have to work hard and believe in yourself,” he said. Does he get nervous? He explained “To be nervous is human, and you feel that way because you don’t want to fail. But just go out there and do your best. You don’t have to have your head down because you make mistakes.”
Then came a question that struck a nerve: Have you ever been bullied?
“When you see bullying, it’s a great time to be a leader,” Rivers urged the students concerning a serious issue among young children, adolescents, college-aged students and even NFL players. “Don’t let anybody pick on anybody, because you’re all in this together. So encourage each other and work with each other.”
Rivers explained that it’s an issue about which he is passionate.
“Kids shouldn’t have their dreams crushed because somebody tells them mean things,” he said, adding he’d like to do work in that area.
When he finished, he received an ovation, the children obviously enjoying his message. Led by teachers, they shouted “One, two, three, Pel-i-cans!”
Gavin Leal, a fifth-grader, said he enjoyed the visit by the Pelicans.
“I liked how (Rivers) told us to follow our dreams and to stand up for ourselves,” he said. “I’m glad to get the tickets because I get to see the players and be with them.”
Said McGloughlin: “I think it means a tremendous amount for them. Our kids do great things, and they’re not often recognized. And, I think it’s great they’re recognized and honored for their efforts.”