Speaker inspires Bon Lin Middle students at Gold Award celebration

Bon Lin Middle School eighth-graders Kayla Wienbeck and Jared Pearson hold the banner recognizing their school's Gold Award as principal Cody Duncan looks on. Photo by Carolyn Bahm

Bon Lin Middle School eighth-graders Kayla Wienbeck and Jared Pearson hold the banner recognizing their school's Gold Award as principal Cody Duncan looks on. Photo by Carolyn Bahm

Music rocked the walls of the Bon Lin Middle School in Bartlett Friday as students filed in for a celebration and to hear an inspirational speech from an iconic Mid-South athlete.

The school is one of just two West Tennessee schools honored with a Gold Award for its Response to Instruction and Intervention-Behavior (RTI2-B) program. This program offers different levels of support that meet the behavioral and social needs of students.

The school has been selected as an RTI2-B Model of Demonstration School for West Tennessee and is one of only two schools to earn the second-highest award at the Gold Level. There are only four other schools that were recognized in West Tennessee with silver and bronze awards. Honors were given out at this year’s Partners in Education Conference in Nashville, hosted by the Tennessee Department of Education on Jan. 30-Feb. 2.

Fletcher Cleaves

Fletcher Cleaves

Friday afternoon’s school party included an upbeat presentation by Fletcher Cleaves, a former football player for Cordova High School. Cleaves was paralyzed at age 18, the day before his first football game as a scholarship athlete at Lambuth University. He said a texting driver swerved into his lane, and his car flipped into an embankment, leaving him paralyzed from the waist down.

His severe injuries wiped out the future he’d imagined.

Cleaves played sports throughout middle and high school and was contemplating going pro some day. Even during the off-season, he trained three hours each afternoon to stay in optimal condition. He eventually added a personal trainer for the same reason. Once he earned a college football scholarship, he took that responsibility equally seriously and concentrated on that full time throughout the summer before Lambuth classes started. He planned to use his talent on the field to pay for his degree, because he was aware that football days end for everyone.

“Less than 1 percent of high school athletes make it to professional sports,” he said.

Then his accident changed the arc of his life. “You don’t know what curveball life will throw you,” Cleaves said.

He continued, "But it’s not the obstacles in your life that define you. It’s how you respond and overcome adversity."

After his accident, he decided not to feel sorry for himself, and he kept his drive to succeed. When he overheard his doctor telling his mother a long list of things he could no longer do, he bowed up. “I felt like he was trying to tell me how good I can be.”

Cleaves said his point of view is that the sky is not the limit. “The sky can’t be the limit when there’s already footprints on the moon.”

He used that as motivation during his 10 days in the hospital, keeping him going through two surgeries and a year of intensive rehabilitative therapy in Atlanta. He had to learn how to do everyday tasks again, such as holding a pencil or feeding himself that people take for granted.

He persevered, his faith sustained him, and each success gave him joy. He completed his computer science degree at the University of Memphis two years ago and now works in IT.

“You may think that I’m a strong person with a strong will, but the truth is, we all are,” Cleaves said. "We all have greatness inside of us. It just takes the right circumstances to bring it out."

He gave the youths in the Bon Lin Middle School gym some sound advice: Don’t take life for granted. Don’t be afraid to try out for the A team. Don’t be afraid to ask for help. Don’t be afraid to be yourself and make your own decisions; you’re the author of your own story. Do make smart choices.

He had everyone, students and teachers alike, repeat along with him: “The choices I make today will affect my tomorrow.”

Written by Carolyn Bahm, Express editor. Contact her at (901) 433-9138, bartlett.editor@journalinc.com or carolyn.bahm@journalinc.com.