Pacific Northwest Magazine / Cover Story
The Class of Miz T: Sue Turner is there for her students every flip, jump, turn, step and misstep of the way
Miz T kneels on a blue mat in the small gym, flipping child after child over her right arm, pinwheels in a breeze. Nine kids in 52 seconds; eight classes a day (plus recess and after-school exercise club); 180 days in a school year; 32 years in Miz T's career — and counting.
Here comes Andrea, wringing her fingers nervously even though she's practiced back-handsprings a zillion times. "Strong arms, Andrea!" Miz T says, thrusting her own arms up to form a big A. Andrea nods, bends her knees, reaches high and arches, eyeballs rolling toward ponytail.
Please please please let Andrea get it this time, please. Miz T steadies her right arm to act as a fulcrum, left hand ready to flip Andrea's legs. Some kids, you spot them twice on a back-handspring and they leap out of your arms, back-handspringing down the mats like a turbo-charged Slinky. Others need a hydraulic lift to hoist hips over head. Zero kinetic zing, but talk about determination. Andrea has practiced this same maneuver over and over every lunch, every recess, every day the gym is open after school — ever since kindergarten. She's now in third grade. Four years. Half her life.
"I'm really close to my back-handspring," Andrea confides while waiting in line for another go-round. "I'm not sure when it will come. Maybe this year or next year. I'm trying to get better and the best I can be. In second grade, I got so discouraged, I stopped doing it for awhile. Then I started again 'cuz Miz T always says: 'If you want it, you've got to work for it. Don't give up. Don't ever give up.' "
When Andrea gets her back-handspring (it'll be "hers" when she does it on her own), she can officially join SCATS, a child acrobatic team featuring the most skilled tumblers, jump-ropers, unicyclists, jugglers and handwalkers at Seattle's Sanislo and Dearborn Park elementary schools. You may have seen them at Sonics and Husky halftimes. Little kids juggling toilet plungers, zooming on unicycles tall as basketball backboards, leapfrogging through each other's legs (upside-down) while jumping double-Dutch rope.
Sue Turner, known to the kids as Miz T, and her husband, Bud Turner, started SCATS 31 years ago to showcase the street-tumbling they taught to inner-city public schoolchildren during gym. The idea was to get away from competitive games where half win, half lose, and the class dissolves into aggression, confusion and fear. (Remember dodge ball?) Instead, the goal was for every child to grow stronger, faster and more agile no matter their shape, size or skill.
Over the decades, as New P.E. rippled across the nation, generations of Seattle SCATS wowed crowds. These days, the team performs mostly at other schools; their schedule is booked two years solid.
So it was surprising when Miz T hesitated, slightly, in agreeing to a story about the already high-profile troupe. It took less than five minutes after school to figure out why. The cinderblock gym was filled with tiny tumblers, talented kids like Jeffrey, who bursts into aerial cartwheels easier than most kids sneeze. Yet Miz T gave just as much attention to Andrea and other wannabes. "You can write about SCATS," Miz T said, "but y'know? I really love all my kids."
Why else would she buy them snacks and uniforms and extra equipment? Chauffeur them home when there's no late bus? Organize skating and dance parties for their families? Gobble her sandwich in 5 minutes so she can spot kids during lunch in the gym?
Why else would she dream up "Cosmic Bowling," a gym teacher's nightmare involving 90 bowling pins, 48 orange pylons, 65 clothespins, nine balls, fluttery play money, tiny plastic chips and hundreds of Christmas lights to be tangled and untangled, set up and stowed, several times a day? ("If it's cool, they'll like it and get into it and they'll have confidence to keep moving their bodies and try new things — and that's what teaching is all about.")
If she didn't care, why would she bother to yell?
SANISLO ELEMENTARY sits in a quiet grove of elfin cedars and salal deep in the Delridge corridor, a landlocked strip of West Seattle marked by family apartments, gas stations and a K-Mart.
The school's 2001 annual report shows 292 students, of whom 3 percent are American Indian, 23 percent Asian American, 17 percent African American, 17 percent Latino and 25 percent Caucasian. About a third of the students have limited fluency in English; a quarter qualify for free or reduced-price lunch. On standardized tests, third- and fifth-graders perform slightly above the national average in reading, language and math. Ninety-nine percent of parents come to parent-teacher conferences, student attendance is good, suspensions and expulsions virtually nil.
More astonishing numbers: One in 3 Sanislo students can do a back-handspring; 23 can juggle three objects more than 100 times in a row; 25 can do more than 100 "double-unders," twirling a jump rope underfoot twice for every jump, and 22 can stand on their hands for longer than 30 seconds.
This might be the only school in the nation where the principal's hallway admonishments include: "Walk on your FEET please."
The hall, decorated with whimsical papier-mâché Pigs-on-Parade, is the school's major artery, and it leads straight from the front door to the gym. To newcomers, the gym at first appears unbelievably chaotic as bodies, beanbags, jump ropes and wheels spin through space at heights and speeds not normally seen in the non-circus world.
It's breathtaking to watch these children defy gravity. Especially when you consider some are dealing with stuff that could drag a kid down: imprisoned parents, dead parents, quarrels and drugs and stress about money at home. Especially if you think of the millions of other children, at this very moment, slouching slack-jawed in front of a TV. Especially since 62 percent of American adults are overweight or obese, along with 13 percent of children and teens.
Imara, toes dangling above her eye glasses, walks by on her hands. David and Loriann zip through tumbling runs. Dong and Kata turn double-Dutch ropes, skittering across the gym floor in their socks so Ahmed can somersault off a vaulting board and jump in rhythm.
"Lots of energy here today," Miz T says. The athletes are pre-adolescent so the air doesn't reek. It vibrates. What more could a teacher want?
But Miz T is not happy. She has a hand on her hip, lips tense, even the curls of her perm tighter than a moment ago. She's not smiling (not unusual since she's not a huggy, cooing kind of teacher). What's ominous is that she's backing her cordless microphone away from her mouth, which means she's about to yell. Her voice ricochets off a brightly studded climbing wall before settling on those who dare swing from chin-up bars and giggle.
"You are OBNOXIOUS, RUDE, LOUD and you DON'T LOOK GOOD. YOU'RE ROLLING ON THE FLOOR, LAUGHING AT PEOPLE. I DON'T CARE HOW GOOD YOU ARE! You are NOT going to PERFORM if you DON'T HAVE GOOD BEHAVIOR! I'LL LEAVE YOU BEHIND! You are NOT going to EMBARRASS US! Hello!? THIS IS A TEAM! It's NOT ABOUT PUTTING OTHER KIDS DOWN. IT'S ABOUT PUTTING THEM UP!
"Now you've ALL seen LITTLE DEVONTE" (an extraordinarily talented third-grader on the SCATS team at Dearborn Park). "He's in that gym EVERY MINUTE of his LIFE and he gets BETTER and BETTER. He can do TUCKS and SPLITS and WHEEL WALK and JUGGLE. He can do 319 DOUBLE-UNDERS and he's a NICE boy who HELPS OUT and CARES about his TEAM!
"We are GETTING READY for a PERFORMANCE at DENNY! MIDDLE SCHOOL! I WON'T have you looking like GARBAGE! . . .
"YOU have 10 SECONDS to get your equipment and SIT on the RED CIRCLE. . . . 1, 2, 3, NOW GET BUSY!"
REMEMBER GYM? Were you ever picked last? Bored? Humiliated because you were too small, too big or a klutz?
Before World War II, physical education consisted mostly of squat-thrust calisthenics. Those gave way to traditional games like football and baseball. Then the President's Council on Fitness was founded in the '50s after it became clear European kids were in much better shape than Americans. By the late '60s, a success-for-all, lifelong-fitness movement was starting to take hold, but it had not yet come to the playground at Seattle's T.T. Minor Elementary, where Miz T (then Sue Lilliman) was doing her student teaching:
"The kids would come out after playing a game and they were angry, screaming at each other 'We won! We got more points!' They went wild. Fights. Food on the ceilings. I said, I don't have a clue what I'm going to do, but not this. It's too combative. I wanted an alternative for the kids, something where they're competing one-on-one with themselves so they can see progress and feel good instead of bullying each other. Bud and I started brainstorming different kinds of activities. We bought a bunch of whisk brooms real cheap and started making things up."
In 1971, the district superintendent asked Bud and Sue, then newlyweds and both physical-education teachers, to bring their students to perform at the Puyallup Fair. The children danced and tumbled in tie-dye T-shirts to Three Dog Night's "Black and White." Nothing fancy, but it gave the kids a goal, applause, and that was cool. SCATS was born.
Growing up in North Seattle, Sue Lilliman had always wanted to teach. As a small child, she'd line up dolls and stuffed animals in her room, assign pretend homework, then sit at her little desk to correct their papers. During summer, she'd gather neighbor children at the backyard picnic table to draw pictures and play school. Of course, Sue was the teacher.
"She was always doing something, always go, go, go," recalls her mother, Margaret Lilliman. "She could do anything. Run as fast as the boys."
That was more than a decade before Title IX, the federal rule mandating equal opportunity for girls in sports. Sue became a Nathan Hale cheerleader because in high school, sports were not cool for girls. Still, she loved to move.
After graduation, Sue studied speech at the University of Washington, quit college to earn money, re-enrolled at Seattle University, became engaged to a law student and started taking courses in P.E. Bud Turner, also majoring in P.E., immediately noticed. "She had frosted blonde hair and a pretty short skirt," he recalls. "She was smart and athletic. Everything I was looking for." He sent flowers to her house whenever he knew the law student was coming to pick her up.
Soon enough, Sue became the first in her family to graduate from college (3.9 GPA, highest honors), started work on her master's degree and broke her engagement with the law student to marry Bud.
School, SCATS and family life have been intertwined ever since. Daughter Kalyn, a junior at Seattle's Franklin High, was on SCATS. Son Matt became a physical-education teacher at Shoalwalter Middle School in Tukwila. "They'd always be talking: Let's try this idea, that idea," Matt remembers. "We'd go to the circus and they'd see someone tossed up in a blanket. They'd make up blanket basketball: Six kids holding a blanket would have to make a basket without touching the ball with their hands. Sometimes I'd joke around: This is getting old, let's talk about something different. But they love what they do, so that's kinda fun."
Together, Bud and Sue wrote six skill-activity books for P.E. teachers and taught more than 500 physical-education workshops. Bud has been coordinator for K-12 physical education in the Seattle Public Schools since 1979. Sue kept on at Sanislo. In 1991, she was awarded a Golden Apple for teaching excellence. She now teaches the children of her original students and has enough grad-fans to fill 32 yearbooks with testimonials.
Nepo Fotualii remembers when he was 7 years old, almost 200 pounds, the biggest kid in the school. Until he had Miz T, he hated moving his body because the other kids would stare and laugh. Instead, he sat in the shadows.
"Get up, Nepo," Miz T would say. "Don't limit yourself." She jogged by his side when the class ran the mile. She let him practice roller skating and juggling when no one else was in the gym. By the end of second grade, he'd learned to juggle four tennis rackets and basketballs and joined SCATS. Miz T ordered an XXL uniform, paid for it herself and passed it out with the other uniforms without mention. Nepo didn't care anymore about his size or what people said. He knew how to move.
"SCATS is probably what saved my life," says Nepo, now a junior All-Metro defensive noseguard, 6 foot 2, 385 pounds, on Sealth High's varsity football team. "I grew up in the streets. It was something to keep me occupied. Only Miz T knew what I was feeling inside, how I was keeping myself down. She doesn't yell at you because she's mad. She yells at you out of love. Miz T makes you feel like you can do anything. As long as you believe you can do it, Miz T will make it happen."
Former SCAT Yueh-Chun Chang weighs only 114 pounds, but she can squat lift 358 pounds, bench press 203 pounds and dead lift 413 pounds. In 1995 the U.S. Power Lifting Federation named her Best Lifter.
The strongest arms in the world, Chang says, really belong to Miz T. "She'd be physically there to hold us and support us, making sure we landed on our feet and not our heads. It felt very secure. She wasn't going to let us fall. She wasn't going to let anything happen to us at all."
Yes, Miz T's career was spawned during the civil-rights era. No, she never set out to make a statement about race, class or poverty. She and Bud chose to live in South Seattle and send their own two children to public schools because "it's real life, real people." She teaches at Sanislo because that's where she started. "These are the kids God has given me. I've stayed 32 years and I love these kids. When we turn on the music, it's show time. They put on their game face, stop messing around, and all the things I've said to them — it clicks."
THE TWIN RAINBOW ropes are 16 feet long, threaded with plastic beads that go thwack-slap-thwack when they hit the gym floor. Crowds focus on the jumpers, but it's really the double-Dutch turners who hold the timing in their small hands. Kata and Dong have memorized all the tricks and idiosyncrasies of every classmate who jumps into their ropes.
From across the gym, Miz T spots Dong's slump. "You look glum, chum," she yells. "What happened?"
Dong shrugs. Dumb day. Someone said he farted but it wasn't him. He feels like tucking into his shell like a tortoise, but Kata's waiting and Joanna and Artricia want to practice, so he picks up the ropes and starts turning. Thwack-slap-thwack. Scowl-smile-laugh.
"I really want the kids to feel good about themselves. Confident," Miz T says. This part of teaching — teaching life — isn't so different from helping students do back-handsprings. Each child needs pushing in a different way.
Dong is hardworking and serious; he needs to enjoy himself, hear the music. Jeffrey and his buddies are ultra-competitive; they need to learn it's not the end of the world if they don't win as long as they try. The other day, the fifth-grade über tumblers (Jeffrey, Jermaine, Tré and Delano) got into an Alpha-boy recess rumble (actually, tumble) over who was best. Could Delano really do five back tucks? Throwing off jackets and rolling up pant legs, they started in — flipping until Miz T shooed them back to class. After school, they whispered. But when the final bell rang, Delano, long of leap and cool of head, chose chess club.
Take a girl like Pearl. Now there's a healthy competitor. Pearl holds the primary-grades record for double-unders, just a few jumps short of the district record set by a high-school student.
Jumping rope always made Pearl feel good. When her mom died she started jumping more. She did 97 double-unders by the end of second grade, 128 in third grade, then 165, 215 . . . now she's hit 385. She's trying for 400 at Tuesday's district competition.
"Miz T has this really nice voice that goes, Go, Pearl. Go Pearl. It makes me feel really happy. My feet and arms start to hurt and my nose is itching and something is making me laugh inside my head . . . but I hear her and all the kids from my school saying, Go, Pearl!"
AFTER WEEKS and weeks of practice, it's time to board the yellow buses for the seven- minute trip to Denny Middle School.
Dong and Kata speed up just right when Kristen whizzes through her double-Dutch double-unders.
The tumbling dynamos are once again so tight they all feel wronged when one is left behind because a computer gobbled his homework. (Really.)
Pearl has a fever and sore throat, but won't give up a chance to do a challenging double-Dutch wheelbarrow-under with 35-pound Albert ("he's as light as a loaf of bread") and try to best her personal double-under record.
Miz T is so sick she can't yell.
No matter, the kids have put on their game faces. They troop into the drafty Denny gym to face bleachers packed with unsmiling faces. Middle school's a tough crowd. A few even jeer during the warm-ups. "It seems," Delano whispers to Jeffrey, "like there are a lot of people."
Once the music starts, the performance, as always, looks spectacular. They're prepared. They remember to throw up their hands in the air as they finish, even if they feel wobbly. The crowd cheers. The legendary Devonte, kinesthetic genius, is last seen loading mats thrice his weight onto the Dearborn Park bus.
Sanislo principal Eric Nelson congratulates the SCATS on their behavior. "When we get back to the school, we're going to write thank-you letters to Miz T because she's going, and we want to thank her for all she's done."
These kids don't miss a beat. Leaving us? When? Retiring? Next year? No one knows, the principal backpedals. "It's just good, when someone does something nice for you, to thank them."
Miz T boards the bus, resting her tired hand atop a brown vinyl seat. Jeffrey, who sometimes has trouble with his temper but can control his limbs to within a millimeter, reaches up and gently, accidentally, brushes her fingers with his own.
Miz T touches every seat on her way to the back, curling into a fetal position on an empty row marked Emergency Exit. She'd promised herself she could collapse after she got the kids through their performance. She closes her eyes. Her voice is gone. She is 55. Her arms ache. Sometime soon, but maybe not right away, she will retire.
The kids will be OK. They're prepared. They can hear her voice in their heads.
Get up, Nepo. Get up.
If you want it, you've got to work for it.
Hello?! Always KNOW what you're TRYING to do!
I heard somebody say, 'I can't.' Don't use that word around me.
If something is blocking your way, have the WISDOM to move it!
Ten seconds. . . Now get busy.
Go, Pearl. Go, Pearl.
Student athletes from Sanislo, Dearborn Park and Seattle's other public schools will compete in double-Dutch and double-under jump rope, pull ups, hoop handstands and more at Records Day this Tuesday from 3:45 to 6 p.m. at Sealth High School in West Seattle, 2600 S.W. Thistle St. All are welcome; there's a small admission charge for spectators.
Paula Bock is a Pacific Northwest magazine staff reporter.
Author's Note: The day this issue went to press, Miz T called to report that after four years of practice, Andrea did a back-handspring on her own. Congratulations to both of you!