New teacher thinks outside boxing by Lisa Black borrowed from The Chicago Tribune 12/29/13

By Lisa Black, Chicago Tribune reporterDecember 29, 2013

 New teacher thinks outside boxing

She also helps coach sport at all-male school

Leo Catholic High School officials admit they were skeptical when Kimberly Hickey showed up last summer to apply for a job teaching math.

At 24, the Winnetka native arrived fresh out of graduate school, with a long blonde braid, press-on nails and a voice that squeaks when she’s excited. But Hickey impressed school leaders with her passion, her academic credentials and her honest demeanor.

And, oh yeah, she could also box.

“Here’s this 5-foot-nothing, 100-pound-nothing,” said Mike Joyce, head boxing coach at the all-male South Side school. “It’s like, wow, how long is she going to last here?”

Joyce no longer asks that question. Hickey is his assistant boxing coach. She learned the sport at the University of Notre Dame and says she applies the lessons in self-discipline to her own life — and in her classroom. She said she can relate to some of her students’ struggles, despite their vastly different upbringings. Boxing, she says, boosts self-confidence and allows her to manage emotions in a healthy way.

“All the kids respect her,” said Joyce, a 1986 Leo graduate and lawyer who volunteers at the school. “We respect her. … She doesn’t suffer fools.”

Like her students, Hickey seems to relish a challenge while resisting stereotypes.

Leo High opened in 1926 in the Auburn Gresham neighborhood, enrolling Irish Catholics until racial tensions and white flight led to declining enrollment in the 1960s. Today, 90 percent of Leo’s 153 students are African-American.

The Archdiocese of Chicago offers Leo some financial support, but the school — formerly run by the order of Irish Catholic Brothers — remains largely fueled by private donations. Alumni lead the fundraising efforts, trying to keep the school at 79th and Sangamon streets open by focusing on a college prep curriculum of core subjects, along with athletics, administrators said.

Hickey, by contrast, attended New Trier Township High School, one of the state’s wealthiest public schools, where students can choose to learn one of seven foreign languages and enroll in a multitude of Advanced Placement courses. She now lives in Chicago.

As a first-year teacher, Hickey said, she picks her battles with students and administrators (she’d love to see a psychology course added to the curriculum, for instance, but now is not the time to push for it).

“I am not lovey-dovey at all. I am not a sugary person,” Hickey said one day after demonstrating a left hook during boxing practice. “I have a lot of qualities I think this culture embraces. I am a very honest person, to a fault. I am blunt. The boys embrace people who are true to themselves. I think they appreciate me.”

Twenty-four students participate in the boxing program, some for physical fitness and conditioning, while others aspire to compete professionally, said school President Dan McGrath, a Leo graduate and former sports editor at the Chicago Tribune.

Hickey “is very empathetic with the kids, but not overly so. She’s not a pushover,” McGrath said. “If the students know you care about them, they respond well. Some come from some very difficult circumstances.”

Hickey’s experience in boxing sets her apart from most first-year female teachers, he said.

“It’s a real blood-and-guts sport, and it’s only in the last 20 years or so that women have been boxing,” McGrath said.

In Hickey’s algebra class one day, two students played chess in the corner and one danced to music while several others huddled over their studies. Because the class sizes are small, Hickey said, she can work with students individually, and require that they finish their homework before heading to athletic practice after school.

If they can solve a math equation, she said, she doesn’t care if they aren’t always sitting quietly at a desk: “There are some sacrifices you need to make.”

Most days after class, she heads down the hall to a large room converted into a boxing ring and adjoining practice area, where sun streams through windows. The room quickly fills with the smells and sounds of teens working up a sweat as they strike punching bags: thwump-thwump-thwump.

News articles about successful Leo graduates cover the walls. One poster reads: “To achieve success, you must 1. Work hard. 2. Believe in yourself. 3. Work hard.”

“Leo has a really good academic program,” said Clifton Thurman, 17, a junior from Englewood. “I understand the teachers and I understand the work. They are able to help us, one-on-one.”

When she arrived, Hickey admitted to students that she hadn’t boxed in a few years. She views her coaching as a team effort.

“Here, we are taking the punches together,” Hickey said. “I am not trying to show them I can jab harder.”

A Notre Dame professor who started the university’s boxing program for women in 1996 said Hickey is teaching the young men valuable lessons about themselves, as well as how they perceive women.

“What a great thing that she is doing, helping break down some assumptions and stereotypes,” said Aimee Catrow Buccellato, architecture professor at Notre Dame and adviser to the university’s women’s boxing program.

Boxing provides “the opportunity to test your will,” she said. “You learn a lot about yourself, and it helps you learn how to handle other challenges in life.”

At Leo, Hickey views the sport as a character-builder more than a competition. She has told her students that they will never see her cry, as she tries to strike a balance between disciplinarian and mentor. Yet, for a moment when they are gone, her eyes brim with tears:

“The black male figure has such a bad stigma,” said Hickey, who worked as a student teacher in Philadelphia at Overbrook High School, also situated in a tough neighborhood.

“The one thing I hope for my boys is that they not feel that stigma. … They think they have to be so strong and badass because that’s the way society says it should be.”

The students have been protective of her, as well.

It’s no surprise that Hickey has found acceptance at the school, said one student, James “Juice” Britton, 17, a junior and wide receiver on the football team.

“Everyone deserves a chance.”

Copyright © 2013 Chicago Tribune Company, LLC

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