Sarah Garrecht Gassen: Finding your footing to stand tall

2013-10-03T00:00:00Z 2013-10-18T10:46:22Z Sarah Garrecht Gassen: Finding your footing to stand tallSarah Garrecht Gassen Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star

Middle schools are caldrons of antsy discombobulation.

A middle school principal years ago told me that working with kids going through puberty takes a very specific kind of person. We’re called to it, he said. I believe him.

Those awkward years are engrained on Homo sapiens’ genetic memory. That omnipresent unease, stoked by the lurking certainty that you are, without question, the only single person in the universe who has no clue how to behave, what to say, or what in heaven’s name to do with your hands when you’re talking.

That’s middle school.

So when Suzi Hileman looked at the seventh- and eighth-grade girls on their Pilates mats during a recent sports conditioning class at Amphitheater Middle School and said, “This is who I am on the inside — I’m 13 and convinced no one likes me,” it’s no stretch to understand exactly what she meant.

Hileman, of course, isn’t 13 and it most certainly isn’t true that no one likes her. She’s forthright with a sometimes unsettling starkness.

“I got my friend’s daughter shot to death,” she told me when we met in the lobby of Amphi Middle School, “so what else can I do but do everything I can, in her name, to help kids?”

Hileman didn’t “get” her friend’s daughter killed — Christina-Taylor Green, 9, was one of six people murdered outside a Safeway on Jan. 8, 2011. Hileman was also shot and severely injured.

The responsibility for that rests nowhere near Hileman. The sorrow and anger has pushed Hileman, always a do-er by her own description, to form a foundation called GRandparentsINresidence, or GRIN, and to act in whatever fashion she can to make up to the world for the loss of Christina-Taylor.

This mission brings her to Amphi Middle School and its next-door neighbor, Prince Elementary School. Both schools are on Prince Road just east of North Stone Avenue, an area where many kids live in poverty and simply do not have the opportunities that a child like Christina-Taylor, who lived (I first wrote “who grew up” and paused, because she didn’t get to grow up) on the more affluent northwest side.

Hileman wears what she calls her “Grandma coat” — a loose colorful light jacket — when she visits. It’s a repository for crumpled stickers bestowed on her by her young friends. After the shooting, she was asked to come to Amphi Middle to judge photographs that students took to document their lives. She saw a need and stayed. It’s part of her now.

These kids are part of her now, too.

About two years ago Hileman was working with Kyria Sabin, the studio director of Body Works Pilates, as she was physically recovering from being shot. They got to talking about the kids at Amphi Middle School and Kyria said something to the effect that she’d love to get Pilates into the schools.

This is the thing about wishing out loud to Suzi Hileman. You’d better be careful, because she will make things happen. She spoke with the principal, and a Pilates activity club was born. She talked with the manufacturer, and in exchange for using her story in its catalog, and it sent the school Pilates equipment for free.

It’s evolved to become the girls sports conditioning class. Athletes on Amphi Middle teams, and girls who want to play sports, are eligible for the class and selected by coach Lisa Powell, the school’s physical education teacher.

It’s the first Pilates class that’s part of a school curriculum to her knowledge, Sabin said. She and another instructor from Body Works visit the school for classes and lead the girls through the series of stretching and strength exercises. It’s silent, calming.

When the group began, the girls had no notion of what Pilates is – they called it Pie Ladies, and thought that the two instructors were the Pie Ladies, Hileman said. They asked what a Pie-late is.

Every Sunday, Amphi Middle School Assistant Principal Tanya Wall picks up three of the girls and drives them to the Body Works Studio at River Road and Campbell Avenue. They’re part of a Pilates Youth Program of 12 kids from eight middle schools across Tucson. The students come from different backgrounds. “It doesn’t matter. They’re all friends,” Wall said.

The three Amphi Middle girls will, if all goes as planned, be part of the group traveling from Tucson to Fort Lauderdale, Fla., next week to do a Pilates Youth Program presentation at the Pilates Method Alliance annual conference. Hileman is raising money on fundraise.com to help fund the trip.

Expanding the kids’ horizons is crucial, Hileman said. Every child needs to experience unfamiliar things — it’s how we learn.

“There’s a big world out there,” Hileman said. “They’ve gone from ‘What’s a pie-late’ to ‘I can do this!’ ”

Several weeks ago, Sabin and her colleague Veronica Laven walked slowly around the bare-bones classroom at Amphi Middle. The girls, that mix of outwardly quasi-grown-ups and quasi-children that fill seventh- and eighth-grade classrooms, go through the routine. The only competition in this class is against themselves, as they try to stretch farther and hold poses longer than they’ve done before.

“You have the strength to sit up tall,” Sabin tells them. “That will be your challenge.”

The girls nod. After class they tell me that Pilates helps them breathe better, be flexible, run faster, become taller.

They may not understand it just yet, but there’s more going on. It’s helping them to stand firm as young women.

Sarah Garrecht Gassen writes opinion for the Arizona Daily Star. Email her at sgassen@azstarnet.com and follow her on Facebook.

Copyright 2014 Arizona Daily Star. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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