Wooden leaves a legacy

“Make every day a masterpiece.”

It’s one of the many sayings by the late coach John Wooden of UCLA.

Pat McLaughlin, a teacher at Mariners Elementary in Newport Beach, tries to follow the philosophy every day.

She also tries to encourage her third-grade class to embrace the 15 building blocks of Wooden’s famous Pyramid of Success, something that’s long caught fire within the corridors of the 750-student school on Irvine Avenue.

If you haven’t heard about them, the blocks, which ultimately form a pyramid, contain character traits that run the gamut from “action” to “friendship” to “determination” to “alertness” to “self-control.”

The cornerstones — the end blocks that give the pyramid its true strength and foundation — are “hard work” and “enthusiasm.”

While Catholic schools incorporate the teachings of Jesus Christ into the curriculum and borrow from the Bible, sometimes to no avail or great success, there are a few public schools in the Newport-Mesa Unified School District that have embraced the philosophy of Wooden, who died last week at the age of 99.

It all started seven years ago one late May evening on a Friday. McLaughlin had just finished Wooden’s 28-page children’s masterpiece, “Inch and Miles: The Journey to Success,” and thought how wonderful it would be to get his permission to introduce it at Mariners.

Wooden, of course, gave the go-ahead and since that day, the pyramid’s philosophy is in the back of just about every child’s head.

It’s hard to avoid, after all. If the blocks aren’t painted on the blacktop in bright colors, they’re put up on the walls inside classrooms or handed out in the form of congratulatory carbon-copy slips to students who are “caught” doing something wonderfully in accordance with the pyramid.

But they’re not doled out too often, for that would be an overkill and lessen the impact of having received what essentially amounts to a great big gold star of years past. Or a smiley face. Or a huge A+ on the report card.

“I think there is a need for children to have values in their lives and our school has embraced that,” says McLaughlin, who’s been teaching at the elementary school for nearly two decades and knows, as much as anybody, what it takes to inspire a student.

Basically, she added, the school, in adopting Wooden’s pyramid, is giving students “the tools for life” while teaching them how to handle their own problems without guidance from an adult — although every now and then the teacher or assistant or aide will be on hand, too.

“If a student complains and says something like, ‘Hey, he’s not being nice to me,’ then I’ll say, ‘Well, what does the pyramid say?’” recounts McLaughlin, citing a typical example on the school grounds.

“And then, they’ll figure it out and say, ‘Ah, ‘Friendship!’”

And so the concept of “Friendship” is prevalent around the small K-6 campus. That’s Kayleigh Ronnow’s favorite block on the pyramid, she said, flashing her new terrific colored braces while pointing out that she turns 9 on Saturday.

As for Kili Skibby, 8, her favorite block is “fitness” she says as she takes a breather from a game that involved bouncing a big rubber red ball off the wall.

Arianna Schilling, 10, says she likes “determination.”

All three students say there’s not a day that goes by where they’re not reminded of Wooden’s philosophy.

“It’s helpful,” says Kili. “If kids don’t know what activity is coming up in the classroom, we help them out so they know. We’re their friends.”

And since the day that McLaughlin took on the Wooden’s pyramid, she says just about everybody is friendly around campus.

“Student disciplines have decreased and test scores have increased,” she says. “And I really believe it’s due to coach Wooden.”

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