Often adults believe that small children haven’t formed a full understanding of the world and its ways yet. But when five Minnesotan elementary school kids saw how one of their classmates was being victimized, their empathetic responses were surprisingly mature for those of their age group.
Those kind children, moreover, went to Franklin Elementary, located in the small city of Mankato in Minnesota. And while there, students are usually introduced to all the highs and lows of the education system. This, unfortunately for some, includes some degree of bullying behavior from fellow pupils – as is seen in the majority of schools worldwide.
In 2015, meanwhile, James Willmert was a fifth-grader at the school. And in his short life so far, he had experienced a great deal of hardship. He had been adopted as a baby from an orphanage in the South American country of Columbia, for instance. Then, shortly after Willmert had been brought to his new home in the U.S., his adoptive father had died in a cycling accident.
In addition to this, Willmert has a learning disability, which means that his educational needs differ to those of his classmates. As a result, he spent some of the time in fifth grade separated from his peers in another classroom. All of this combined to make Willmert stand out to some of his fellow students.
After all, bullies like nothing more than to exploit difference and perceived weakness, so the disadvantaged youngster often found himself the object of their attentions. Unlike his classmates, Willmert grew to dislike recess because he would suffer the most abuse then, away from the close supervision of his teachers.
It was during one such break from the classroom that Willmert’s situation caught the attention of five of his fellow fifth graders. Specifically, friends Jake Burgess, Gus Gartzke, Tyler Jones, Landon Kopischke and Jack Pemble were playing together during their break when they noticed someone picking on Willmert.
And although what they witnessed wasn’t physically aggressive, it nevertheless perturbed the gang of boys. In a 2015 interview with the friends on Minneapolis network KARE 11, Pemble began, “Why pick on someone…” Then Burgess butted in, “…who has special needs?”
“They were, like, using him and taking advantage of him,” Burgess went on. “Because he’s easier to pick on, and it’s just not right,” Pemble continued. So, along with their three other friends in the group, the gang decided to do something about the problem.
And, in particular, they decided that the best way to end Willmert’s bullying was to simply stand by his side. As a result, the group made friends with their lonely classmate by inviting him to sit with them at lunch. But while their gesture to share their lunch table may have seemed small, its impact was massive.
Soon, in fact, Willmert was regularly eating with his new friends. However, their relationship went far beyond comparing the contents of their lunch boxes. Often Willmert would need help to open his bag of chips or other item of food packaging, for example. So, without a word, one of the gang would happily offer some assistance.
And this was not the only way in which the fifth graders would come to Willmert’s aid when his lack of dexterity let him down. The schoolboy typically struggled to tie the laces of his shoes, for instance. So, every time a lace would come undone – which happened quite a lot – one of his new buddies would get down and fasten it for him.
And with new friends by his side, Willmert soon learned to love being away from the classroom. Margi Willmert, the boy’s mom, explained to KARE 11, “He used to not want to go out for recess or anything, it would be like a struggle. And now he can barely eat his lunch to get outside to play with those guys.”
And it wasn’t just Willmert’s mom who had noticed the change in her son. Mallory Howk, the fifth graders’ teacher, had also seen Willmert’s newly-formed friendships and the benefits that they were having on his confidence and sociability. “It really kind of makes you proud to be their teacher,” she said.
Howk also revealed that Franklin Elementary did put on anti-bullying lessons. However, the teacher thinks it is fair to say that the boys’ actions went far beyond anyone’s expectations. Indeed, the gang of friends took the wider lesson of what they had learned and focused it on the needs of their classmate.
However, their actions, although altruistic, were not all about charity at all. Jake Burgess would tell KARE 11, for one, that Willmert was simply “an awesome kid to hang out with.” As the weeks passed, in fact, the five boys developed a genuine relationship with the former bullying victim. The group bonded mainly over their shared passion for sports.
“He has a notebook with over 600 teams of college,” Tyler Jones revealed to the KARE 11 cameras as Willmert is shown flicking through the self-compiled volume of college football teams. “That’s how much he likes sports,” Jack Pemble added, sounding suitably impressed.
Another interest the five boys shared before meeting Willmert was video gaming. So, naturally, the gang asked their new friend if he enjoyed playing sports video games, too. However, Willmert had to admit to his buddies that he didn’t even have a console at home, let alone any games.
And that’s when the circle of friends concocted yet another plan. Pooling their money together, and with their parents also chipping in, they saved up to buy Willmert a PlayStation gaming platform and some accompanying games to get him started. They then called round to their buddy’s home with their gifts in hand.
Willmert and his mom gratefully accepted the youngsters’ generosity, and the boys played together for hours on the new console. That occasion marked the first time that Willmert had ever had school friends round to his house. And his mom appreciated what it meant. “I’ll never forget it. Never,” she admitted to KARE 11.
What’s more, the kind actions of Burgess, Gartzke, Jones, Kopischke and Pemble helped them land the Minnesota Spirit of Youth Award, after they had been nominated by their teacher Mallory Howk. However, while many people saw them as heroes, the gang maintained that they were just being a good friend to their newest member, Willmert.