The clock in Dawn Randall’s classroom is ticking closer to 11 a.m. on a cold Thursday in early March.
The fifth-graders in her language arts class should be fidgeting and dreaming of the moment when they can leave the confines of the classroom for a few minutes of movement.
Physical education — often seen as the best time of the day for many kids — is up next.
But on this day, Randall, dressed in a sweatshirt, jeans and laced-up tennis shoes, is in the middle of a lesson on sugar and more than 20 pairs of eyes are trained on her as she flutters around the classroom tossing questions with the skill of a softball player.
“Is sugar toxic?” she says.
Randall points to the words written boldly on a dry erase board at the front of the class. Underneath an empty can of Mountain Dew and an empty package of Reese’s Pieces are taped.
She grabs an empty bottle of Fuze, a vitamin juice drink produced by Coca-Cola. It was brought in by 10-year-old Marley Breese. For Randall’s lesson on the prevalence of sugar in everyday items, she asked students the day earlier to search their cabinets for items with higher-than-expected sugar contents.
A table near her desk is full of bottles of barbeque sauces, tea drinks and empty candy wrappers.
“Do you drink this?” Randall asks Marley.
The young girl admits it’s not her drink, but her sister loves them.
“Mrs. Randall, that has 42 grams of sugar in there,” she says matter-of-factly as if the response is the only logical one to her teacher’s question.
“But it says vitamins A, E and D,” Randall says. “This is probably good for you.”
She turns the bottle over in her hand.
“Read the label. It only has a little bit of those vitamins and is mostly just sugar,” Marley says.
It’s the kind of exchange that now happens daily in Randall’s classroom.
A few little changes are happening in this fifth grade classroom and Randall is the catalyst.
As one of the fifth-grade language arts teachers at Elyria’s McKinley Elementary School, Randall says she knows its her job to teach students how to read, write, reason and speak with proficiency, but this year the veteran teacher has also decided those duties should not keep her from also teaching the students about their health in a way that can have a lasting effect.
The best lessons are those that can be applied to real life and since Randall, 50, is embarking on her own weight loss journey she knows the lessons she teaches today will put her students on the winning side in the fight against childhood obesity.
She started Aug. 30, 2012, with a goal of losing 100 pounds of “real estate” off her body.
“When you eat something, it is either going to help your body or hurt your body,” Randall says. “I know because I have spent years making the wrong food choices and look where it has gotten me.”
Randall shoots a quick glance to the clock. It’s time for her lesson to pick up the pace — literally.
“Okay, its super run time,” Randall says.
The students hop to their feet and await instructions. The goal today is to run in place for six minutes — the class’ newest achievement — while answering a series of questions with a partner. It’s content-driven material that is all based on the district’s common core standards, but the students are oblivious to that as they stretch their arms and legs.
The great thing about being a language arts teacher, Randall says, is as long as you’re teaching students how to speak and listen in a powerful way, people will leave you alone to do the job.
“True or false, once you have a fat cell, it never goes away?” Randall says as the first question.
More than two dozen pairs of feet pound the floor — the crushing sound mimics a stampede of horses.
“It’s fun when you’re doing something because it feels like the time just goes fast,” says 11-year-old Brendon Toy. The words came out in quick bursts between deep breaths.
“This is not about losing weight. We don’t want anyone focused on fat or skinny,” Anastasia Romano says. “This is about a healthy body.”
To hear her students talk about their bodies in such a positive way is both shocking and gratifying for Randall.
In the many years she has worked as a teacher, she has spent many a day as the recess monitor and has watching the gradual change in her students.
“The number of students that a doctor would consider obese has just grown over time,” she said. “I remember when I was in sixth grade and my teacher showed a movie about drugs. One guy on drugs in the movie thought he could fly, jumped out of a window and died. That stuck with me so much so I know what I am doing here with these kids could have the same lasting effects.”
Although Randall was never an overweight child, she started picking weight, first in high school, and has continued to agonize over her weight her entire adult life.
She’s a self-admitted sugar addict, the kind of person who would find it hard to pass up cake, pie or doughnuts placed in front of her.
Decadent foods were a main staple of her diet for many years and it was also the salve that eased her pain when her husband, John Randall, died after his battle with cancer.
Dawn turns into giggles and loving grins when she speaks about John. He was the love she was not expecting, she says.
When John came into her life, he was 14 years Randall’s senior, divorced, fit — walking four to five miles every day –- and battling terminal lung cancer.
As Randall puts it, “How could I not love him?”
Randall met her husband through mutual friends. They became fast friends and as the retired Oberlin language arts teacher’s health began to deteriorate, it was Randall who took on the role as caregiver.
“John was the last one to know I loved him,” Randall says. “When he was put on hospice with less than a month to live, I just wanted to be his friend and not burden him with my love.”
Despite Hospice, John kept up with radiation treatment in hopes of shrinking the tumor that was pressing on one of the main arteries leading to his lungs. It led to a recovery that lasted long enough for John to be removed for hospice care, Randall to confess her love, John to respond with love of his own and the couple to marry in a quiet affair in downtown Oberlin’s Tappan Square on John’s birthday.
It also led to what Randall calls the happiest three years of her life. With terminal cancer always hanging in the background as the force that would rip John from her life, Randall said she just loved her husband as long as she could and even embraced his love of healthy living.
He ate right and was very active for all of his life.
“Other than cancer, he was really healthy and I think that’s what gave us so much time,” Randall said. “I joined a gym, started working and eating right because how can I not when John had cancer and he did it. He was my inspiration.”
But even before he died — January 2010 — Randall said her husband knew her battle with weight would not get any easier after he was gone. On day closer to the end, Randall said she asked her husband what he worried about most with his impending death. His two word answer still makes her heart ache so many years after the fact.
“He just said ‘Your health,’ ” Randall said. “He went out of this world worried about my health.”
Grief and growing
Losing John was not an easy pill for Randall to swallow.
When John died, Randall said she unconsciously began eating through her grief. Within six months, she gained 60 pounds.
“It just came on so fast,” Randall said.
It took years for Randall to admit she needed to change. Food was the salvo that was healing her broken heart.
There is always a moment when people know they can’t continue living the way they always have. For Randall, that day was Aug. 30, 2012. She put out a plea to her network of friends on Facebook, telling them she was ready to make a lifestyle change and needed their support to do it. Randall’s `”Downsizers Group’’ started from there.
The language arts teacher also made a list of mountain top goals — lose 100 pounds, write a book about the inspiring way her husband lived while he was dying, become fit enough to make a trip to Glacier National Park to a spot John had hiked to before meeting his wife but dreamed of taking her, and finally leave a copy of the manuscript on the mountaintop in his honor.
“Just doing this makes me know he would be so proud of me,” Randall said. “He lived so well when he was dying and how can I waste a day of my life.”
Incorporating her students into this journey seems nature to Randall, who is often lauded for her energetic teaching techniques. When she decided to change her life, she was on her way to becoming an insulin-dependent diabetic, which strongly runs in her family. How many of her students were on their way to the same, Randall said she remembered thinking toward the beginning of this school year.
“One day I was out at recess and I quietly counted the number of kids dealing with weight issues,” she said. “The number grows every year.”
Now, Randall said she uses the common core standards to engage students in a different way. They are reading labels and writing reflections on why they should or shouldn’t eat a particular food. They are journaling about their own ideas on what it means to be healthy. They researched doctors and dieticians.
“The more excited they get, the more I know I have to feed them this information,” Randall said.
Contact Lisa Roberson at 329-7121 or firstname.lastname@example.org.