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Young Men of Distinction lend a hand


By Alex Welch
Assistant Editor 

  In honor of National Teacher Appreciation Week, a small group of students at Locust Grove Elementary pitched in to wash teacher and staff cars during school hours earlier this month, showing gratitude for the work they do. At first glance, this appears to be a sincere gesture to commemorate the special week, but activities like these are common for the Young Men of Distinction, a select group started by the school’s assistant principal, Walter Shields.

Assistant Principal Walter Shields (right) and coach Joseph Gorman (left) help wash a car with several members of the “Young Men of Distinction.”                      Photo by Alex Welch

  Four years ago, Shields came to Locust Grove after previously serving as an administrator at Luella Middle School. With a passion for helping young men succeed, he started this group with the intent of molding students into respectful, well-rounded individuals in preparation for moving up to the middle school level. Today, his program features 15 to 20 of the best and brightest fourth and fifth-grade boys at Locust Grove. There’s even a waiting list to join the group. That’s how coveted becoming a member of the Young Men of Distinction is to the students of the school.

  Shields said teachers make recommendations for students they feel meet the criteria of the club. However, once they join, they must maintain a certain level of standards, or else they will be removed from the group. “It’s three strikes and you’re out,” Shields said. “If you’re not performing well in class as far as academics, not behaving properly, then the teachers will let me know.”

  What are the standards for these young men? There are “four pillars” to help guide everyone in the program. “We have academics, behavior, physical fitness and community service. So those are the four things we strive for,” Shields said.  The group meets once a week to focus on one of the areas. They rotate through the pillars to ensure each aspect is taught and discussed with the kids.

  Now in its fourth year, the Young Men of Distinction has built a reputation around the school. With fourth grade being the first year students can join, the younger children are putting on their best behavior in the hopes of making the club. “A lot of kids say, ‘Man I want to get in there next year.’ I tell the up and coming third graders, ‘You got to have your academics together, you got to have your behavior together.’ So now they have motivation to get in,” said Shields.

  Upon watching the Shields’ group interact with each other, respect is always apparent. If he tells one of the boys to do something, they promptly respond with, “Yes sir.”

  But showing respect for their teachers isn’t the only goal Shields’ wants to achieve. He wants his boys to show respect to everyone. “I try to keep them community-minded,” Shields said. Washing cars for their teachers is just one of the ways they help out in Locust Grove. The boys took part in Hands on Henry. They help out with feed the hungry programs.   

  They marched in the Martin Luther King Parade in January. Shields keeps them actively involved around the city.

There are plenty of adventures, too. The boys recently took a trip to The Rock Ranch, an area in Upson County owned by Chick-fil-A founder S. Truett Cathy. The boys spent the night learning what “roughing it” is really like. “Most of them had never been camping,” Shields said. They showed the boys how to cook over a fire and afterwards slept in covered wagons. “We try to give them new experiences that they may not have.” Last week the group went to a Braves game as the culminating activity. Each member was given a certificate, and the older boys moving up to middle school received a few final words before their tenure was complete.

  Tyler Raines, a fifth-grade student at Locust Grove, loves Shields’ program. “He lets us have fun. He’s like a brother to me,” said Raines, who also called his mentor “the best assistant principal ever.”

  The coming school year will require a transition for the Young Men of Distinction. Shields is the new principal at Oakland Elementary. His program at Locust Grove isn’t going anywhere, though. Joseph Gorman, Mollie Hall, Susie Carmichael and Alvin “Jerome” McMichael, the current assistants for Shields, are going to oversee the group going forward. Shields is confident leaving his work in the hands of these four staff members. “I have a dedicated team. I know they’ll do a great job continuing it,” he said. “I couldn’t have done it without them. They work tirelessly.” Coach Hall sees the kids involved constantly growing from the program. “We hope to keep it going because it benefits the boys. They need this,” she said. While the young men continue to learn at Locust Grove, Shields plans on designing the same  concept with the students at Oakland. “Hopefully those young men will get the same experience. There’s always a need to have some type of mentoring group,” said Shields.

  Fifteen teachers were randomly drawn to have their cars washed, along with 15 other staff members. The boys do this every year for National Teacher Appreciation Week. Principal Christi Peterman always praises their efforts. “They’re wonderful,” she said. “They’ll miss Mr. Shields. We all will.”

  Whether it’s aiding teachers, learning about tying a tie or being taught how to change the oil in a car, the Young Men of Distinction are always gaining valuable life lessons. Shields wants to get them on track for middle school while preparing them for long-term success in high school and college. He still plans to check in on his Locust Grove group after he moves to Oakland.

  One of Shield’s former students is now a football player at the University of Georgia. He came to speak to the group this year and talked about how much he appreciated his mentoring when he was younger. Leaving Locust Grove won’t be easy, but no matter where he’s teaching, Shields’ students, present or past, will always remember him and the important values he instilled in them.



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