Eric Smith, a former Winston Churchill High School All-Met athlete who starred for Georgetown University's basketball team last year, made an impression after he finished giving a two-hour interview and basketball clinic for 55 youths.
Fourteen-year-old James McClellan left the session at Bethesda's Thomas W. Pyle Jr. High School with ambitions. "I've really been goofing off since I've been here," he told his instructor, Sydney Arzt. "But after being with Eric, I know I will act differently."
Smith's visit to McClellan and the other youths was sponsored by the Breakthrough Program, part of the Basic Skills Summer School Program in Montgomery County. The skills program is offered to students who will go into seventh and eighth grades in September who need intensive remedial instruction in reading, writing and math. The students are in the lower third in their class in these areas.
Breakthrough is one of seven skills programs, with each offering a different type of academic help.
"Our theme is those who break through their setbacks can achieve their goals," said Arzt, who runs Breakthrough with three other instructors. "We do not use textbooks. We use a four-step format: one, understand the problem; two, plan the solution; three, solve the problem; four, review the plan and solution. Our 85 percent attendance record proves the program has been successful."
Last week, Breakthrough sponsored a two-day session that featured Smith and others who have "broken through to overcome setbacks or who have become self-sufficient," Arzt said. On the first day, the students met a paraplegic, a reformed alcoholic and her daughter, a blind man, a woman who lost 130 pounds and the creator of the End World Hunger Benefit Committee.
Smith, drafted in the fourth round in the recent National Basketball Association draft by the Portland Trailblazers, amazed the students the second day.
Although he claimed he was "very lucky when I grew up: I had no real problems because I had always had good people around to help me," he said he sacrificed much as a youngster to achieve success.
"I would sacrifice a meal to go out to the playground and practice by myself," he told the students in a news conference setting in a sweltering classroom. "You should always stay two steps ahead of everyone because you can always be pulled back. You can't be afraid of being laughed at and doing something on your own.
"When I was in high school, the guys on the team called me a kiss-a-- because I would always listen to the coach. I could have got upset, but I let it go. You have to be willing to give up a little bit to get a little bit."
After his talk, Smith conducted a clinic on basic basketball skills. While Smith dazzled the youths with his talents, Candy Kelly, 13, reviewed the interview session: "My mom thought it would be good to learn how to respond and deal with people. I could be at home or at the pool talking to the lifeguards, but it's okay. I've also learned how to interview people. But I wish my brother was here. He could learn how to shoot (the basketball)."
Gilbert Quarshie, 12, who moved from Ghana to Silver Spring in 1978, also was glad to be in Breakthrough. "I had to improve my reading and handwriting a lot," he said. "At first I didn't like it, but the teachers have helped me a lot. I would like to go to college and be an engineer. My dad's an engineer. And Eric just taught me how to dribble and to not be afraid to make mistakes."
On the session's first day, each speaker gave a written message to the students. Brenda Gilmore became a paraplegic because of a car accident. Today she is a photographer for the Smithsonian Institution. "Don't let people tell you what you can't do. Go for what you want," she urged.
Mimi Cameron, a reformed alcoholic, is director of Montgomery County's Department of Education Employee Assistance Program, which provides counseling for county faculty members with personal problems. She assured them, "It's okay to make mistakes, and it's okay to ask for help. Strong people ask for help."
During Cameron's talk, a student told the class that his grandfather was an alcoholic. "He said it while kids were snickering in the background," Arzt said. "It brought tears to my eyes. He never opened up like that before. After the session I told him he really did a good thing, and he felt good about it."
Another student was equally moved. She wrote Cameron: "I am glad that you stopped drinking alcohol, and I hope you continue not to. If I get mad or upset, I just listen to peaceful music. Why don't you try that? If it works . . . tell me."
Carol Kravitz, an employe at the Hebrew Home of Greater Washington in Rockville, has lost 130 pounds as a member of Overeaters Anonymous in Springfield. "Life is full of changes that children have to overcome," she said.
Recent Churchill graduate David Dennis, 18, has poor vision in one eye and a slightly disfigured face as the result of a car accident. His message was simple. "My football coach (at Churchill) said you always have to have it right here," he said, clutching his chest.
Jennifer Collins, 12, has a vision problem that has slowed her learning. "The people in the program have made her feel real special," said her mother, Barbara. "She has learned to deal with her problem. She has organized her thoughts better."
While the other speakers detailed their fights to overcome personal problems, Pat Kogad of the End World Hunger Benefit Committee told of her experiences in taking on a worldwide problem. Her message to the students was: "Don't ever give up. If you want to do something, it can be done. You must have the willingness to make it work."