By TOM LEA
There are five pods of desks inside Katy Salzwedel’s first grade classroom at St. Dennis Elementary on Madison’s east side.
Each grouping features five or six desks with a blue or yellow chair perfectly suited for a first-grade body. The desks are traditional school-house style, facing a 21st century “smart” board and classic blackboard. The chairs sit roughly two feet off the ground.
The rug is colored red, blue, yellow and green — bordered with each letter of the alphabet and centered with a number chain counting to 18, with each digit representing a different color and shape.
Adorning the four walls, there are various number charts, letter boards, daily schedules, calendars and books.
Lots of books.
“Reading is incorporated into everything we do throughout the day,” Salzwedel, more frequently called “Miss. S.”, said. “Right now we read a lot of Junie B. Jones books. We probably read about four to five chapters a day.”
That’s a normal day inside her classroom. This day, a Wednesday in the middle of January, was anything but normal.
“I told the kids that a few Badger players were coming the day before (they came),” Salzwedel said. “As soon as I told them, they were extremely excited. The beginning of that day was awesome because I could tell what a big deal this was to every single one of them.”
It was approximately 10:30 a.m. on Jan. 18 — just a number of hours before the Wisconsin Badgers were set to square off with Northwestern inside the Kohl Center —when UW basketball players Jordan Taylor, Jared Berggren, Dan Fahey and Zach Bohannon walked into Salzwedel’s classroom.
There to greet them were 27 kids, somewhere between the ages of six and seven, fully clad in Badgers apparel ranging from jerseys and t-shirts to hooded sweatshirts and hats. Each of them seemed ready to release the excitement that had been building for the first 2 1/2 hours of the school day.
The chatter and buzz throughout the classroom suggested as much.
“To see their eyes wide open when we walked into that classroom -- it’s just a great experience for us,” Bohannon, a sophomore forward, explained. “To know there are people who cheer for us that are always out there that always want us to do well, even when we feel like we’re at some of our worst times is awesome.”
Not only in the sense that some of the first graders were grappling with the fact the UW players were three or four times as tall as them or that they were the same people they see on television, but also just the sheer fact that for some of the 27 kids, four of their idols just wandered into their classroom.
How else would you expect a first grader to react?
The same room that is graciously decorated with Dr. Seuss books and stuffed animal characters along one of its walls, and Dr. Seuss book covers on a bulletin board across the way, became the setting for a memory bound to last a lifetime.
“That’s special,” Taylor, a senior All-American, said. “You don’t remember a lot of things when you’re that age because you just remember certain experiences. When they look back 10 years from now and see that they have something signed from Jared (Berggren) or from somebody like that, you know it might be pretty special to them.
“Like I said, that’s pretty cool.”
A CHANCE TO GIVE BACK
There are no requirements saying student-athletes at Division I institutions have to spend any amount of time giving back to the community that supports them.
There is nothing inside the NCAA by-laws suggesting a student-athlete has to spend an hour of his or her day, let alone an hour of a game day, inside a classroom filled with 27 of the most excited kids in Madison, each and every one trying to outdo the next by telling stories or talking over one another with hopes of receiving attention from their heroes.
It’s all goodwill.
“You don’t do things in order to get noticed,” UW head coach Bo Ryan said. “You should do things because it’s out of the goodness of your heart and you want to try to pass on some things that you’ve learned with other people, whether it’s for the elderly, for the youngsters — the first-graders — or whatever it is.
“We’re not in this thing by ourselves and giving back in some way is pretty good because somebody’s helped them along the way and people are going to (continue) helping them along the way.”
Neatly stacked on a bean-shaped blue table were four books: “Fish is Fish,” “An Extraordinary Egg” (both by Leo Lionni), “Llama Llama Mad at Mama” and “Llama Llama Red Pajama” (both by Anna Dewdney).
Immediately adjacent to the table were four chairs, three of normal size and one specifically made for a first-grader.
Berggren, standing nearly 7 feet tall, quickly claimed dibs on the largest chair, also the only one with any semblance of padding. He kicked off the reading festivities with “Llama Llama Red Pajama.”
“I think I put up a pretty strong performance,” Berggren said. “I set the bar high and I don’t know if anybody matched it.”
That’s essentially an admission that nothing went wrong, that no word was said with the wrong tone or inflection, that nothing was uttered to set off a crowd of six- or seven-year olds that can turn goofy at the turn of a page.
Dan Fahey, a junior guard and second to read, had that misfortune.
The guilty phrase in “Llama Llama Mad at Mama?”
‘Shirts and jackets, pants and shoes. Does this sweater come in blue? Brand-new socks and underwear? Llama Llama does not care.’
“Whitie tighties,” Fahey chuckled. “They were saying it throughout everybody else’s book.
“I chose the wrong book.”
Berggren narrowly averted that disaster.
“I was going to read that one, but then I switched it up,” he said. “Sometimes the kids have no filter. They just went nuts with it, saying ‘Whitie Tighties, whitie tighties.’ Even 15 minutes later, they were still joking about it.”
TIME IN THE LIMELIGHT
Fahey noted that going into classrooms full of young kids is cool, because they don’t know how one player’s on-court accomplishments may overshadow any others.
To the first-graders, everybody is equal.
“I don’t play that much,” Fahey said. “But they’re excited regardless if they do or don’t know who you are. They just see you as college basketball players, so it’s pretty impressive.
“You get a nice feeling because these kids are all excited.”
Bohannon, brother of former Badgers standout Jason Bohannon, is a transfer student from the Air Force Academy. He’s currently not allowed to play because NCAA transfer rules force undergrads to sit out one mandatory season.
So nobody, particularly not any first-graders, would be aware of Bohannon’s contributions to the team. They don’t see him practicing every day on the scout team. And they certainly don’t see him studying film or lifting weights.
The first-graders in Salzwedel’s class didn’t look at him any differently than the other three players.
“It’s just a neat experience,” Bohannon said. “At one point in time, we were in that same spot as little kids. I remember when I was in elementary school thinking I can’t wait until I’m one of those guys, one of those high school athletes or one of those college athletes that come back.
“It made such a positive impression on me at that age that I kind of wanted to be the one, if I got the opportunity, to make a positive experience for those people.”
Bohannon, who read “Fish is Fish,” was front and center for one of the more hilarious moments of the entire morning. As he finished and closed the back cover of the book, one of the kids voiced an opinion.
“I ended up getting someone chanting ‘Boring’ afterwards,” Bohannon, who was also sitting in the smallest chair, said. “And then Jordan Taylor got the whole class to boo.”
Taylor, smiling and laughing with the kids, was definitely the instigator.
“We just kind of started booing him,” Taylor quipped. “And the kids joined us.”
THE STAR OF THE SHOW
Growing up in suburban Minneapolis, Taylor was one of the biggest Kevin Garnett fans around. To Taylor, the Minnesota Timberwolves star center was larger than life.
“I remember getting his autograph when I was younger,” Taylor said. “I still remember that to this day.”
Now, as one of the nation’s best collegiate point guards, Taylor hopes to have a similar impact with some of the kids he gets to spend time with, even if it’s just spending an hour reading “An Extraordinary Egg” to a group of first grade kids.
“Obviously we’re no Kevin Garnett or anything like that,” said Taylor, who has done at least one elementary school reading per year since he’s been on campus. “But just to be able to see smiles on their faces, it’s pretty cool. And that’s pretty much what it’s all about beyond all the hype and all the criticisms.
“That’s what it’s supposed to be, it’s supposed to be fun and you’re supposed to try to have an impact on people.”
AN ENJOYABLE EXPERIENCE
When asked if she’d ever consider having Badgers players back in her classroom, especially after seeing the reaction of her students, Miss. Salzwedel didn’t hesitate to respond.
“Our classroom is busy and always full of energy which can be overwhelming from an outside perspective,” Salzwedel said. “But the players didn’t seem to feel that way at all. They were patient and kind to every child, even as they were signing a ton of autographs and posing for a lot of pictures.
“I would absolutely do this again for a class in the future.”
Taylor, Berggren, Bohannon and Fahey each signed autographs and smiled repeatedly and willingly for any kid that wanted a picture taken with them.
They signed T-shirts, hats, pieces of paper, backpack's, basketball cards, towels, basketball’s and just about anything else a creative first-grader could muster that they felt deemed an autograph.
“One of the kids wanted me to sign Bo’s name on his card,” Taylor said. “So I gave them my best Bo Ryan impersonation.”
In some instances that wasn’t enough.
“A lot of them asked for our phone numbers,” Berggren said. “I don’t know how that got started, but once one kid got started with that it became the ticket. Everybody wanted a phone number then. We were coming up with fake numbers and I started telling kids I didn’t have a phone.
“It made perfect sense to them that I didn’t have a phone.”
The pods of desks inside Salzwedel’s classroom serve as the centerpiece of a structured learning environment.
It’s the type of atmosphere conducive to laying an academic foundation for a student’s academic career. That welcoming classroom also undoubtedly serves as the backdrop for many memories.
There’s a good chance the experiences shared inside that room that Wednesday morning won’t soon be forgotten.