Going To The Mat For Mikell Washington

“06880” doesn’t often profile athletes. They get their props in the Westport News and other media.

Besides, if I do one, I’ll be inundated by every well-meaning parent of every kid who ever hit a ball, shot a basket or swam a lap.

But Mikell Washington deserves an exception — because he’s an exception.

His story is not a typical Westport one. And he does not compete in a typical sport.

Mikell Washington. In addition to wrestling, he’s a talented singer and sax player.

Mikell is a wrestler. Though he wears the Staples “S,” he lives in Bridgeport. Yet he wore that “S” proudly, all the way through the New England tournament earlier this month.

Mikell’s older brothers, Andrew and Adam, won places in Westport’s Open Choice program, the lottery that brings Bridgeport youngsters here beginning in 1st grade.

As a sibling Mikell was offered a spot too. He’s been a Westport student through Green’s Farms Elementary School, Bedford Middle, and now as a Staples senior.

It isn’t easy. He gets up at 5 a.m. to take a long bus ride. He doesn’t get home until 6:30 or 7 p.m.

In middle school, he sometimes wanted to quit. But his mother — Gardenia — kept him going. Now, Mikell says, “I’m very happy for it. Even through the worst times, I appreciate being here.”

After his freshman football season at Staples, Mikell saw the Giunta brothers running sprints. They were getting ready for wrestling, and said the team needed a heavyweight. The next day, Mikell and his brothers showed up.

At first, rolling around the mat was just fun. Soon, however, he realized how much he wanted to win.

He didn’t. During his entire 9th grade year, Mikell won once: a junior varsity bout. He was 0-for-that-entire-varsity-season.

“I hated losing,” Mikell says. One reason he lost so much was his weight. Just 5-5, he wrestled in the 285-pound class.

He cut out junk food. That — combined with rigorous training — helped him shed pounds by the bucket. As a sophomore he was a 189-pounder. He stayed that weight as a junior. This year he moved up to 195.

More than nearly any sport, wrestling rewards determination and perseverance. By this year — thanks to year-long work with assistant coach Jeff Lauzon, the off-season Monstarz Wrestling Club, summer camp at Oklahoma State, and his own experience combining moves with strength and stamina and an understanding of leverage — Mikell placed 3rd in the FCIAC (league) tournament, 3rd in the LL (extra large schools) state tourney and 3rd in the state open.

He capped the season with a win at the New England tournament in Providence — the 1st for a Staples wrestler in 18 years.

But there’s more to Mikell than just grappling. As a defensive lineman, he’s been part of 2 FCIAC championship and 2 state runnerup football teams. He’s an all-state rugby player too.

Mikell Washington, performing with the choir at last winter’s Staples Candlelight Conert. (Photo/Lynn U. Miller)

Mikell sings in the choir, and plays sax in the Staples band. He’d love to do jazz band, but there’s no time.

As a part of the St. Baldrick’s club, he’s shaved his head to raise money for childhood cancer research. “When I see kids who are so much less fortunate than I am, that’s not a big sacrifice,” he says.

Next year, Mikell hopes to attend either Penn State or UConn. He plans to study criminal justice.

Being part of Open Choice — and making the choice to wrestle — has helped make Mikell Washington who he is. Staples “has given me a new view on the world,” he says. “The skills I’ve learned have been amazing.”

He singles out a freshman biology teacher, Heather Morley, for simple words of advice he never forgot: “You can be whoever or whatever you want.”

But he saves his biggest praise for his mother.

“She’s my biggest critic, and my number one fan,” Mikell says.

“I remember when I was younger, I was breaking down to my mom. I wanted to quit, but she said if I thought like a loser I’d be a loser.

“Then I won my first match ever. I felt like I’d won a national title. It was the happiest moment of my life.”

17 responses to “Going To The Mat For Mikell Washington

  1. Great story Dan. I hope Governor Malloy reads it and reconsiders his ill-advised bill to reform the way all Connecticut public schools are run. As your article aptly demonstrates, Mikell Washington is succeeding in Westport schools for three reasons: a great mom, teachers who engage students, and personal responsibility. First, there is no substitute for at least one great parent or guardian. Without one, rich or poor, almost all kids are lost – no matter the resources spent on them or how good a school they attend. Second, thanks to Westport teachers who inspire children to dream. Our teachers engage students, teach them to think, encourage them, and instill in them the knowledge (and burden) that they are responsible for whoever and whatever they become. The students get it. They word hard, gain confidence, and achieve because of who they are and who they’ve become.

    Today, Governor Malloy is putting all that at risk. In an effort to close the achievement gap in Connecticut between students from high and middle income families and lower income families, Governor Malloy seeks in his Reform Education Bill SB 24 to force all schools districts, including successful systems like our own, to test more and incentivize teachers to “teach for the test.” Our teachers love their jobs and when they say to a student “You can be whoever or whatever you want” it resonates because the teachers know it to be true. Will our teachers still believe that when our government imposes state wide teaching methods on them that are geared not to inspire, but merely to measure. I fear that the limitless expanse of ideas that are used to inspire our students will be cast aside for a limited set of facts, figures and calculations that our State and Federal Governments believe are the measure of an education. We need to let Governor Malloy know that there is a whole lot of learning going on in Westport that isn’t on his proposed tests and that could be lost, in fact, through the imposition of more and more testing under the mandates of SB 24. Less successful school districts appear to have a lot of problems, and I don’t have the answers on how to fix them. But, Westport schools are not broken and the state government should stay out of them.

    • I support the Governor’s proposal for we need to weed out the bad teachers and schools. The only way to find this out is to test the students. Staples is not utopia (nor an isolated entity from the rest of the state) and not all students are as successful as Mikell. Actually, most go to 2nd/3rd tier colleges so the fallacy that Staples is a brain factory is misleading. I personally think they ought to bus in about 100 or so minorities from the inner cities to Staples. Not only will they benefit but the current students will be exposed to the real world. We shall see how well our teachers do with struggling pupils as well.

      • I oppose greater testing of students for the reasons stated above. To the extent my above comments gave the impression that Connecticut does not currently mandate statewide tests for our students, let me state clearly that Westport students take the same CMTs and CAPT tests that are given to all Connecticut public school students. Based on the performance of our students on the 2010-2011 10th grade CAPT mathematics and reading tests, Staples High School is ranked number 1 in the State of Connecticut. But Staples doesn’t need test scores to achieve a number 1 ranking in my book. Watch a Staples Players production, read the Inklings newspaper, talk to students on the math team, attend a Science Fair, witness the dedication of its athletes, attend a back to school night (and witness the enthusiasm of Westport teachers) or read today’s article by Dan Woog, and you’ll begin to get a notion of the excellent learning environment Staples offers its students. I assure you that it is all real and that Staples prepares our students well for the challenges ahead.
        Governor Malloy’s bill doesn’t address your wish to bus students in from inner cities, so passage of SB 24 won’t achieve your desired result. Passage of SB 24 will, however, burden Westport students with greater testing and cause teachers to teach for the test rather than doing what they do best which is to teach our students to think for themselves.

        • Keep drinking the Kook Aid, Jack. The powers to be having been serving it up for decades now. To my knowledge, a charter school in New Haven outranks many Fairfield County schools in testing. I am not sure of your point: that Staples is so special that we remain distant from the much required evaluation of students, teachers and schools in Connecticut?? We don’t live in a vacuum here in Westport and despite my dislike for “teaching to the test”, something must be done with public schools in this state as well as the country. Just because a high percentage of Staples graduates go on to college does not mean the school is immune from the high percentage of dropouts in Bridgeport. You can no micro-manage a state wide school system and to do so is pretentious if not prejudicial.

          • Jim Goodrich

            Ennui,
            Identify your New Haven charter school and let’s make a comparison.The NH school could be good but a charter school is a select school so why not make a comparison with our own non-selective, public high school?

            • First Amistad High School on Prince Street in New Haven has made tremendous strides in the last 6 years and they do not “cherry pick” their students.

              • According to an email sent to me, 56% of Achievement First Amistad High School in New Haven scored at or above goal in the 2011 CAPT. http://www.achievementfirst.org/schools/connecticut-schools/amistad-elm-city-high/results/
                While well above other New Haven schools, the performance is behind the 96+% of Staples students.

                • For a thread that degrades testing, it seems odd that testing is used to judge schools. I know, first hand, that First Amistad has taken kids who could barely read and sent them to Ivy League schools. And how does Staples compare with Choate or Greens Farms? Jim Goodrich complains that charter or private schools should not be in the same evaluation as Staples but it is certainly the competition at $19,200 a year per child. Also, Staples blamed the system when Xavier kicked their butts in the state football championship. Staples is good but not great.

  2. Mikell,

    Reading this post from Dan Woog, reminds me of your times at BMS!! Every morning, finding you in the halls with your brothers!!

    Now to hear of your perseverance, your successes, makes me smile the broadest smile ever!!

    Mikell, I am so very proud of you!! It has been a long time since BMS!! I look forward to knowing where your plans take you and wish you continued success in all that you do!!

    Dan, Thanks for providing such wonderful & inspirational story of success for a very talented & inspirational young man!!

    Coach Tom Wall

  3. Richard Lawrence Stein

    If Mr. Washington wasn’t busy enough he also works at ShopRite on Black Rock in Fairfield. He made a point of saying he liked my Staples shirt. What a great young man with a fantastic sense of humor… What a great representative of the Staples community.

  4. Eric Buchroeder

    This story would never have happened 45 years ago when I was in school in Westport. It is by far the most encouraging and hopeful documentation of the progress that’s been made in America that I have seen in a long, long time. Everyone involved has my deepest respect.

  5. Dan,
    Isn’t it time you wrote a book about these kids? We started Project Concern with the help of Joan Schine in the 1970’s. Manny won the legal fight that kept her on the Board of Education and we had our first kids from Bridgeport at the Bedford Elementary School (now Town Hall).

    Where are all these kids and what are they doing? And why don’t we have more!

    Estelle T. Margolis

  6. This was sent by a commenter who had problems logging on:

    Jack Menz, great comment and re-cap of the Malloy proposal and its potential impact on what happens educationally at SHS. I’d like to offer this link to Inklings online to readers wanting to know more:
    http://www.inklingsnews.com/news/2012/03/15/teachers-protest-governor-malloys-education-reform/

  7. Michelle Ludel

    My son wrestled as a freshman for Staples this year and had the opportunity/privilege to get to know Mikell…what a great kid and role model!! He will be sorely missed next year!

  8. Master Dude Abides

    Nice story about a nice and ambitious young man. It is also good to see the sport of wrestling holding its own. In many districts, it is has been eliminated, thanks, in part, to Title IX. One of your best, Professor.

  9. Mikell is an incredible boy with a great heart. My son played football with him and always commented on what a great kid he is. Gardenia has been a remarkable compass for her children and has persevered all these years to make sure her children became engaged in their schools and with the community at large. Kudos also needs to go to Julie Horowitz who runs the Open Choice program for the district. She embraces all the Open Choice families and considers them all part of her own. She works above and beyond to help the Open Choice families assimilate in our school systems. We should all be asking her how we can help her to better serve them.