The gymnasium at Bradwell Elementary School was packed Thursday morning with 100 teachers and principals from around Chicago, plus a handful of students, a bundle of OfficeMax employees and loads of media, all in attendance to recognize educators for their work. Doing the recognizing would be Bears receiver Brandon Marshall, CPS CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett, and OfficeMax CEO Ravi Saligram, as part of their A Day Made Better initiative.
The initiative is one in which the company reimburses teachers for the money they spend out of pocket each year, a total that the National Education Association has said to be an average of $1,000 annually per teacher.
As far as the teachers knew, though, there were no gifts coming their way. OfficeMax had reached out to CPS to ask principals to nominate one of their teachers for recognition as an "outstanding teacher," and along with a free breakfast in the morning and a ceremony celebrating their accomplishments, that’s all these teachers were expecting.
But while the festive crowd listened to speeches, a slew of OfficeMax employees were behind a pair of double doors to the right of the stage, preparing big orange box after big orange box loaded with supplies, including paper, pencils, highlighters, glue sticks, binders, folders and desk organizers.
Meanwhile, Marshall sat in his chair onstage, waiting for Saligram to introduce him. When Saligram turned the event over to Marshall, the big wide receiver smiled, and then limped his way from his chair to the podium.
"Football is tough so I’m a little banged up," Marshall said, referring to his recent hip surgery and the pair of crutches he’d left by the side of the stage.
"When you guys were taking a stand," he said to the teachers in reference to last fall’s Chicago Teachers Union strike, "I was rooting for you guys." This brought intense cheering from the teachers. "You guys are the celebrities," he said. "You guys are the heroes."
When Marshall handed the ceremony back to Saligram, the executive surprised teachers by telling them they would be raffling off one box of school supplies.
Saligram announced the name of a young teacher, who squeaked when she heard her name, and then shouted in celebration as her fellow teachers applauded. From the other side of the gym came a big orange box, and she was flabbergasted when she looked inside. "Oh, thank you!" she said to Saligram and the rest of the OfficeMax team.
Saligram then praised the other 99 teachers before dropping the bomb: “To the OfficeMax people, every teacher here is a winner!” At that, the crowd cheered, perhaps thinking they were simply being complimented once more.
But two small cannons on either side of the gym blasted confetti, and the double doors opened to reveal the other 99 boxes. Suddenly realizing what was happening, the teachers’s cheers became gasps, and then a rolling wave of overwhelmed applause.
"Oh my!" shouted a woman as she broke into tears. A man behind her was crying lightly and shaking his head in disbelief, as were several others. Each teacher opened her or his box in shocked delight, posing for photos with their gifts like kids on Christmas.
"Since I’ve been here, I said that my number one goal was to be an ambassador in the community," Marshall said later. "And with that, you have to team up with people. When we got the opportunity to partner with [OfficeMax] ... it kind of goes with what I’m trying to do. Trying to get to the root of the issue. And that starts in the school.
"The best stories [about positive teachers] are the ones who are personal. The teachers who keep you after school or after class and just pour into you a little bit more, because they see something in you, or they don’t see something in you that you need. And that’s really important. That’s really the teachers that I have a strong bond with, and those are the teachers that are really successful with their students."
And the experience of seeing the faces of these teachers when the confetti began to drop?
"Priceless," he said. "Priceless. Because it’s the little things. You’re just supplying paper and pencils. That goes so long and so far. A lot of us get hooked on the bigger things and the things that aren’t worth anything. So I was just amazed to see the teachers’ faces when it comes to the little things, and how badly the schools and the teachers need the supplies."
Marshall smiled again. As usual, he was the center of attention, surrounded by adoring fans grateful for his hard work. On this day at Bradwell Elementary, it was not his hands that were attracting praise, but his heart.
Jack M Silverstein is a RedEye special contributor. Say hey @readjack.Want more? Discuss this article and others on RedEye Sports' Facebook page.