Life lessons from a grandfather's wisdom

During my first year at the University of South Carolina, I often purchased a morning cup of coffee in the university’s student union. Early one morning, I spotted a young man dressed in a business suit and bow tie carrying on an animated conversation with a group of undergraduates. I had regularly encountered the young gentleman—with his ubiquitous bow tie—as I traveled across campus. Eventually I learned he was Chase Mizzell, a leader in the university’s student government. As an avid reader of the school’s daily newspaper, I was able to follow this charismatic young man’s political career.

In reading the Daily Gamecock, I discovered that Chase was an Honors College student from Folly Beach, South Carolina, and a sophomore enrolled in the international business program. I learned that during his freshman year, he was having lunch in the restaurant in the Honors Residence Hall and noticed extra food being carried away at the end of the lunch shift. He asked food service employees what became of the leftovers and discovered that they were thrown away. Chase knew immediately that he wanted to change that. Realizing that the city of Columbia faced the challenges of a growing homeless population, Chase began his mission. He spent a year researching state law, met with health officials, identified homeless shelters throughout the metropolitan area, and worked with the director of the university’s dining operations. As a result, Second Servings was born. The food donation program currently matches on-campus restaurants with small shelters throughout Columbia, offering food three times each week. Thanks to Mizzell’s leadership, over thirty thousand meals from the university’s dining facilities are now delivered to the shelters each year.

Chase continued his efforts to bring about positive change. His success establishing the Second Servings program fueled his election to the vice presidency of the student government. The following year, he campaigned again and was elected student body president with a whopping 82.5 percent of the vote. The optimistic young leader continued his efforts to address real problems on campus. He discovered that many students encountered “situational poverty” during their college years and went without food in their cupboards when they faced emergency expenses, such as a financially overwhelming car repair bills. Chase and his student government team worked with campus administrators and succeeded in establishing the Gamecock Pantry. With annual food drives held each year, student volunteers now manage a well-stocked food pantry in which members of the community may complete a confidential application and receive support from the pantry.

Reading about Chase’s exploits led me to ask a few questions. I learned of his dedicated efforts to hold an annual dance marathon to raise funds for a children’s cancer hospital, his leadership of students involved in Habitat for Humanity, his mission work in Haiti, and other social action projects. As I read, I wondered how his passionate interest in helping people had evolved.

I was fortunate to arrange a meeting with Chase during his final semester. He had passed the presidential gavel on to his successor and was happy to meet with me. On a sunny day in April, we enjoyed talk on the university quad. In introducing myself, I shared my research interests with Chase, letting him know that I had followed his university career through the Daily Gamecock and was impressed with his accomplishments. More importantly, I explained that I wanted to know what enabled him to become the compassionate person he was.

Chase shared his story with me: His father died when Chase was an infant, and his grandfather became his mentor in life. They grew close as they spent time fishing, watching Westerns on television, and enjoying watermelon on warm summer days. In their conversations, John Mizzell passed on wisdom that helped shape his grandson. He instilled within Chase the importance of listening to people. Chase explained, “He helped me to understand that all of us have a story to tell, and you can learn something from everyone you meet.”

In order to learn from others, Chase’s grandfather introduced him to a Southern tradition he called “scootapootin.” On Sunday afternoons, they would get into an old yellow Chevy and drive around their seaside town until they found someone—from the mayor of the community to the housekeeping staff at the local hotels—whose story they wanted to hear. Together they would spend hours listening to the fascinating stories that people shared around Folly Beach. Chase was inspired by these stories; they taught him to value authenticity in people. Listening to others’ experiences motivated him during his college years, and he explained to me that people he met every day on campus humbled him. He mentioned a custodian at the student union: “The man works so hard all week and then spends weekends volunteering to work with intellectually disabled men. He challenges me. Who am I to waste time when there are people who have much less and do much more?”

His grandfather passed away during his freshman year, but Chase continued to seek out stories from those around him. Realizing that he spent close to an hour every day walking to and from classes, he challenged himself to use that time to meet three new people. He would introduce himself to a stranger, work his way through some small talk, and then pose a question: “What are you passionate about?” His friendly approach occasionally met with bewilderment. Some were happy to describe their interests, and he was happy to offer help. When others weren’t really sure about their passions, he encouraged them to continue pondering the question.

With young people today often limiting themselves to communication through electronic devices, Chase’s example serves as a reminder to educators that gifted students benefit by learning from a wide variety of people in their communities. My hope is that educators will here this young man’s story and be inspired to incorporate some variant of scootapootin in their classrooms. Providing time for young people to engage in each other’s stories, and in their teacher’s stories, is a great way to begin. Extending this further, educators in gifted education may want to consider providing opportunities for students to enjoy oral history experiences with community elders. Chase Mizzell left a legacy to his alma mater and surely made his family proud. The lessons he gained from his grandfather are best captured in the following message from Chase. I am certain that he would ask us to pass it on to our students:

One of my biggest values, and as simple as it is, is loving each person…no matter who they are, whether they are on the board of trustees or a janitor—getting to know them, caring enough to engage in their story. I think in the simplest of ways, it just comes down to love.

This blog post, an excerpt from Teaching for High Potential (to be released in summer 2016), is by Thomas P. Hébert, professor of gifted and talented education in the College of Education at the University of South Carolina. 

Editor's note: This is part of a series of blog posts that is collaboratively published every week by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute and National Association for Gifted Children. Each post in the series exists both here on the NAGC Blog and on Fordham's Flypaper.