"I'm a lawyer," the tall, distinguished-looking man in the stylish, gray, double-breasted suit tells the class of rapt fourth-graders.
"I used to be a football player."
He used to be not just a football player, but Alan Page, Hall of Fame football player. And when he announces he played for a total of 15 years for the Vikings and then the Bears, some of the children gasp in appreciation.
"You know Walter Payton?" one asks.
Page says he does.
"You know Mike Singletary?" asks another.
Page says he does.
"You know Michael Jackson?"
No, not Michael Jackson. Page smiles. The kids are impressed with celebrity, and they're impressed with Page, who retired 10 years ago, because he used to be one and because he knows others. Michael Jackson, Michael Jordan, Mike Singletary, same deal.
But now, Page is a lawyer, who works as a special assistant attorney general for the state of Minnesota --unglamorous, but not unrewarding, work. That's what he has come to tell the youngsters at James McHenry Elementary in the Union Square neighborhood. He has spent the first of two days in Baltimore talking to fourth-graders at various schools, telling them how he went to school, studied hard, got his high school diploma, got a scholarship, earned his college degree and, while playing pro football, went to law school and then became a lawyer. He comes to tell them that they can do something very much like it themselves.
That's his message to thousands of at-risk students -- hope, possibility, real opportunity in the real world.
"It's about contributing to the belief that they can be successful," Page says of his visit and visits like this one to cities across America. "Alot of kids don't believe they can be successful. They look around and they don't see enough successful role models that relate to them.
"In the fourth grade, they still have belief. What you have to show them is that the way to be successful is through preparation. It doesn't just happen. You don't wake up one day and you're a lawyer any more than you wake up one day as a pro football player."
If this sounds like a lecture, it is not. Page does not lecture. He talks to kids, who intuitively sense his warmth. You should see him in the classroom. You should see the kids' eyes. They respond to him first because of what he used to be and then they warm up to who he is. At least some of the time.
Sometimes, you talk to kids, you get a dialogue going, and you feel very hopeful," Page says. "Other days, you look at the conditions of some of the kids and you wonder if they can make it. You can be very discouraged." Alan Page does not look discouraged this day. He is in Baltimore on behalf of something called the Kodak/Alan Page Challenge in the Great Cities. Fourth-graders in 46 urban school districts are being encouraged to write an essay of 100 to 150 words on the topic: "With an !! education, the future is yours." There are prizes. There are kids thinking about education.
"What do you want to do when you grow up?" Page asks another group of fourth-graders at James McHenry, which sits across from a boarded-up building in a neighborhood that has seen better days.
A flurry of hands reach for the sky. Remember how you did that in the fourth grade. Call on me. Please.
"A football player," says one youngster.
"A football player?" Page says. "Is that all? Anybody can play football. There must be something else you want to be in your life."
The kid thinks about it. Finally, he says, "A basketball player."
Page smiles. Eventually, he gets the kid to come up with fireman.
When another kid says a doctor, Page suggests that the next time he goes to the doctor to ask him or her how you become a physician. He tells them it's possible. He tells them they don't have to settle for less.
Page travels from city to city, as many as three days a week, selling this program and the message that, with education and belief, anything is possible. It's simple. It's direct. It's a message that needs to be heard if we're going to end the despair thathas taken hold of many urban centers.
It's a message that Page feels compelled to share. He does it because he can, and he does it because he must.
"I have the opportunity," he says, "because I was an athlete. That gives you a form of instant credibility. It gets your foot inside the door. And I feel because I have the opportunity, and it's something that I believe in, that I should take the time.
"We have a lot of difficult challenges in our cities. Drug-related challenges. Crime-related challenges. Poverty-related challenges. Health-related challenges. Sometimes, people just throw up their hands and say the problems are too great. But I try to look at one child at a time. That's the way you get at a problem."
One problem that Page can address is that of role model. He is the perfect one. You wish more athletes were like him, but athletes are no different than anyone else. Some give of their time. Some couldn't be bothered. Just like, say, some doctors or rock stars.
The more important point, Page says, is to make the invisible role models visible. Teachers, nurses, lawyers, secretaries, carpenters. To that end, Page has established a foundation in Minnesota that funds post-secondary education for needy high school graduates. Their form of repayment is simply this: to go back into their old schools as mentors and role models.
"The youngsters see someone from their neighborhoods, ZTC someone they know, and they see them having success," Page says. "That gives them the sense that they can be successful, too."
The kids don't know Page, who retired before many were even born. But they listen to his low-key, motivational presentation, anyway. He tells the kids he believes in them and their future. The idea is to get some of them to believe along with him.