Celebrating inner ‘gorgeousness’

Herbert Wilburn, left, National Board Certified library media specialist at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Strasburg, and Christine Jones, a school instructional coach, stand beside a bulletin board in the hall recognizing Sidney Duckworth, pictured left, and Kiersten Wilson among 49 students chosen for the school's "I'm Gorgeous Inside" project, which started last November. Both 11-year-old fifth graders are from Strasburg. Josette Keelor/Daily

STRASBURG — At Sandy Hook Elementary School earlier this week, photographs of two fifth graders were spotlighted under a white sign with capital red letters:

“I’M GORGEOUS INSIDE.”

Underneath the heading, the photos showed Sidney Duckworth and Kiersten Wilson — both Strasburg residents, both 11 and both nominated by their teachers for being helpful and kind.

Like 47 other students featured in the school’s “I’m Gorgeous Inside” program, Sidney and Keirsten aren’t about boasting. That’s what sets them apart in a school with more than 900 students, said Herbert Wilburn, the school’s national board certified library media specialist.

“I don’t think they see themselves as special,” he said. “They’re not the kind of kids who show off. … I guess it’s a credit to the parents, they’re just raised really well.”

The idea for the program came to him last fall after he drove past a house for sale with a sign out front reading, “I’m gorgeous inside.”

“It just kind of struck me as kind of humorous,” he said. It was the sort of house that people normally passed by. He started thinking about his students, and the idea clicked. “We’ve got some great kids here, and the great kids get lost sometimes.”

He and school instructional coach Christine Jones came up with initial examples of students who might be perfect for the program, “and it didn’t take long to come up with a pretty extensive list,” Wilburn said.

Everyone who nominated a student has met every student in school, he said.

They chose an even number of boys and girls and tried to represent all grades, but Wilburn said the program featured mostly fourth and fifth graders. Those students have been there longer, so staff members have had more time to get to know them.

“They’ve had a chance to be gorgeous longer,” Wilburn said, laughing — “for their gorgeousness to come to the top.”

Though most students didn’t think of themselves as gorgeous, when asked, they seemed to know what inner beauty looks like.

“It’s hard to put it in words,” Wilburn said. “[But] even when we would talk to kids about it, they knew what we meant. And they would name kids. … I think they all had a feeling of what it was, even if they couldn’t verbalize it.”

Teachers asked students to comment on classmates’ inner beauty, and Wilburn said one response immediately came to mind:

“‘When we play tag and she’s it, she doesn’t throw a fit,'” he recalled. “And I thought there’s no higher praise from a kid than that.”

In March, Jones said, “We had the kids write notes about what a teacher was like if they were gorgeous inside.”

They received answers like, “She lets you ask questions even if people think it’s silly.”

Wilburn photographed students in November, surprising them later when their framed image made the bulletin board. But when one of his students was having a tough day, he said he directed her to his desk where her photo was framed and waiting for its chance in the spotlight.

“When she saw it, you could just see her face just light up,” he said. “Then she puts her game face on and she comes out and sits down and gets back to work.”

Planning for next year, Jones said they hope to start earlier and feature up to 60 students.

“We’ve been working, as a school, on more positive discipline,” she said. “So this really did go well, highlighting students in a positive way. If we had more space, we’d highlight more of them.”

Wilburn also challenged other schools to take the lead and recognize their own students for being model individuals.

“That’s really why we wrote this, is we were hoping that people would do it.”

Contact staff writer Josette Keelor at 540-465-5137 ext. 176, or jkeelor@nvdaily.com