Feb. 23, 2010
Ireland Heatrick knows what a good basketball player looks like. That is what the fifth grader at Knoxville's Gibbs Elementary School was thinking as Tennessee sophomore forward Renaldo Woolridge stepped into her classroom Monday morning.
"I didn't know he was coming when I got to school but I found out later that morning," Ireland said. "I am not a huge basketball fan, but I think I can recognize a good player when I see one."
Woolridge took time out of his schedule to visit with Gibbs' fifth graders and speak to them about topics ranging from his hip-hop career to the importance of chasing a dream.
"I told them about using writing as an expression of who you are and what you're feeling," Woolridge said. "I have reached a step in my life where I have achieved part of what I want to achieve. But every day I get up and work harder to reach my dreams.
"I told them they have to have that mindset, and the only person stopping you from trying is you. I wanted to tell them that so they could have someone to look up to. I had a few people like that when I was their age, and that direction really helped me a lot."
According to Lisa Stalans, a Gibbs Elementary fifth-grade teacher, Woolridge's passion for writing really stood out to her and her class.
"I was impressed with his passion for writing and his willingness to share that with the kids," Stalans said.
"That was one of the most touching parts," Brian Russell, associate director of advising for UT's College of Arts and Sciences, said. "When he talked about writing and how he used it to express himself, he urged the students to do the same.
"He said it helps get everything off your chest, rather than be violent or do something else their parents wouldn't like. (Expressing your thoughts constructively) helps you regardless of what you are going through."
The 6-foot-8-inch Vols hoops star used his influence to stress to the students the importance of working hard in school and overcoming obstacles to achieve those dreams.
"He talked about having ups and downs in everything you do," Russell said. "He talked about how he was starting for the basketball team a few weeks ago but recently hasn't played as much.
"He said that it wasn't going to deter him from accomplishing his dreams--the students really got into that message."
And it meant a lot to Ireland and her classmates to have the Los Angeles native reach out to them with such an encouraging message.
"I liked that he is a basketball player but he isn't only a basketball player," she said. "He works hard in school and he is a writer and a rapper, too. After he left, my friends and me were talking about how great it was to see someone like that."
After Woolridge had been speaking to the kids for more than half an hour, the crowd of students began fidgeting a little. But that all stopped when one student asked Woolridge to rap one of his melodious tunes.
"One kid asked me to rap and I did," Woolridge, also known by his hip-hop moniker--Swiperboy, said. "It was crazy because the whole time I was talking they were all fidgeting and whispering a little. But when I started to rap the first line of my song `College Hoops Time,' they all got really still and quiet."
After taking a few pictures and signing some autographs, Woolridge left the classroom to head back to the UT campus. But his message resonated with the students long after he left.
"He said to never neglect school," Ireland said. "I really love school, and when he said that I thought it was really amazing. To hear someone as gifted athletically as he is say that really meant a lot to me."