Vikings kicker Blair Walsh begs to differ with Robert Fulghum, author of “All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten.” Thanks to students at Northpoint Elementary in Blaine, Minn., Blair can prove that lessons about empathy and encouragement in times of disappointment don’t come until first grade.
Blair missed a 27-yard field goal in the closing seconds of a 10-9 playoff loss to the Seattle Seahawks in January that ended the Vikings’ season. He was devastated in the immediate aftermath, and a fair share of fans put the loss on his shoulders.
“He had his moments when he was feeling down, then he picked himself up and went to the interviews and did them with class,” says Judie Offerdahl, a first-grade teacher at Northpoint. “I thought, ‘What a great example for kids.’”
Offerdahl and fellow teachers Sarah Myhre and Shelby Baker saw in Blair’s experience a way to combine three major instructional targets. Their classes had talked about empathy throughout the year, and had upcoming assignments on research and letter writing.
“We could do these in isolation or we could put them all together and make it more real for them,” Offerdahl says.
So, the kids spent the day after the loss learning more about Blair and drawing pictures based on what they learned. Myhre passed the drawings to the school’s public relations staff, who submitted them to a local TV station for one of its daily features. The station ran the pictures, and by the next morning, all the major media outlets in the Twin Cities wanted to cover the story of the first graders writing letters to Blair. Despite the presence of cameras in all three classrooms, the students remained focused, and all passed with flying colors.
Among their words of encouragement:
“For Blair Walsh. Keep on trying. Puppys are cute.”
“One time I made a mistake when I was doing a cartwheel. I felt embarrassed. You can still help the Vikings win the Super Bowl next year.”
Blair’s father saw the coverage and relayed the story to his son, who was so touched that he delayed plans to head home to southern California and showed up at school to thank the students.
“It says a lot about you guys to do that and say such nice things,” Blair told the first graders. “That cheered me up a lot and the fact you’d do that for me, somebody you’ve never met, that’s huge.”
With the start of a new season and school year, the teachers hope that the lesson of empathy remains real, not only for fans today but for the adults that their students one day will become.
“It seemed like there were so many people who think of themselves as fans who were angry or upset,” Offerdahl says. “Kids can get frustrated with a friend or brother or sister, too, but have a quality where they quickly move on and are willing to give people another chance. I don’t know when or how we lose that, but I wish we all held onto that first-grade mentality.”