Next week, almost 100 graduating Vashon seniors will receive cash scholarships in a ceremony broadcast on Facebook Live, but one special award is being given to a student in honor of longtime island educator Cornelius Lopez.
This award, called “Making a Difference Now,” was created by the Vashon Community Scholarship Foundation to recognize a community member who has made a significant contribution to the quality of island life.
This year, said VCSF board member Linda Mather, the award will honor Lopez for his creativity, commitment and belief that the self-esteem of his students is of equal importance to learning math concepts.
“His trust in the goodness of others is inspiring,” Mather said, adding that the Lopez scholarship award will go to a senior “whose optimism is contagious and who personifies kindness — someone who reflects Cornelius’ values and takes the time to connect with others in meaningful ways.”
Lopez, who has now long passed all the standard milestones for teacher retirement, has taught for 56 years, including 45 years at McMurray Middle School.
Last October, The Beachcomber chronicled Lopez’s 80th birthday party, a joyous celebration held at Camp Colvos Brewery that was attended by friends, former students and colleagues.
“He is amazing,” said Frank Daniels, another teacher at McMurray, told The Beachcomber. “He never quits questioning how we can do better.”
Jenny Granum, who is both a current colleague in the math department and a former student, was also at the party.
“He puts in the most hours of anyone I have seen,” she said. “He eats, sleeps and breathes education.”
Renowned for classroom antics such as encouraging students to stuff dozens of pencils into his beard and leaping from behind the classroom door to welcome students by crying out, “Welcome to the math experience!” Lopez has won a legion of admirers throughout his decades at McMurray.
He’s also embraced extracurriculars and outdoor learning, leading his students in measuring the height of trees, based on their shadows, on the school’s campus. He and his students also helped plant almost 200 more trees in the forest trails behind the school, so that future classes could identify and measure them.
And on far-flung field trips, he has repeatedly guided eighth-graders on journeys to see the world and feed their minds.
One year, he led students on a community service trip to the economically disadvantaged town of Jonestown, Mississippi, to paint houses and clean up dilapidated properties.
And for 25 years, Lopez took eighth-graders on McMurray Exploratory Week bike trips to the San Juan Islands and Vantage, Washington.
One islander, Beth Tuttle, recalled Lopez’s both profound and idiosyncratic impact on her daughter, Maeve, who went on one of the bike trips with Lopez.
“He would walk around the kids’ tents every morning, whistling the same tune, to wake them up,” Tuttle said. “Maeve can still remember the tune.”
And if all that wasn’t enough, for 10 years Lopez also opened up the school on Saturday mornings, to welcome students who needed extra help with math. Students were encouraged to invite parents and friends to join them, and many did — lured by the Lopez’ promise of maple bars for all.
“Kids will do anything for a glazed donut,” Lopez said.
But for Lopez, something much deeper has always been at play with his relationship to his students, and his approach to teaching.
“You have the opportunity to be a person from whom students might gather strength,” he said. “Everyone deserves respect and support.”
And since the launch of online school in March, due to the coronavirus pandemic, Lopez is now busier and more challenged than ever.
Teaching by building personal connections while navigating new technology is tough, he said, in a phone interview last week.
“It’s like being a first-year teacher all over again,” Lopez said. “In [each] classroom, there are 27 or 28 kids, and they can help each other, and you can walk up and down the rows and give kids support and help.”
Now, he says, individual contact with students is more needed than ever.
“With office hours, emails and Google meets, you have to follow up — and with 120 students total, that’s a lot of people to work with one-on-one,” he said.
To that end, Lopez has enlisted the help of two assistants — one a former student who is studying engineering and currently home from college, and another a trusted classroom professional who is quarantined in a beach cabin in Oregon — to help him reach out to students with advice and math tips.
“You need to communicate with the kids and keep the contacts open,” Lopez said. “It means recognition, encouragement and motivation, and all that takes lots and lots of time.”
He’s also encouraged his students to pair up virtually with math buddies — a way of keeping classroom camaraderie alive.
“It’s really important to know the kids you work with, to know their home situation and little things about their outside of school interests,” Lopez said. “And one of the things that this virus has brought about is that you do get to learn things about the kids that you didn’t know before.”
Some of his students, he explained, have surprised Lopez by asking if their brothers or moms could be their math buddies.
“Finding out about their families, who is willing to work with a sibling — it gives you insight you wouldn’t have otherwise,” he said.
Through it all, Lopez said, he’s had revelations about the silver linings of online education in the age of coronavirus.
“So much of [education] has been about grades and assignments, and those things are now playing a lesser role,” he said. “I think people are now thinking about what is really important, and how to make a difference to people — that should be the emphasis, but this has really forced it.”
And even with the hard challenges of 2020, Lopez said he is still not really thinking about retirement.
“I’ve always just thought about the present, not so much about the future, so it’s a way’s off,” he said.
In the meantime, he’ll continue to find inspiration from his students.
“Young people bring so much to the classroom — they’re super energized,” he said. “As a teacher, you’re close to kids and the way they think and the way they do.”
The Vashon Community Scholarship Foundation’s awards ceremony for graduating island high school seniors will be held online, at 6 p.m. Wednesday, May 27, on Facebook Live. A link to the ceremony can be found at vashonscholarshipfoundation.org.
Emceed by ENJOY Productions and featuring nine presenters practicing physical distancing, the ceremony will announce different cash scholarships for 98 graduates of the class of 2020.
The Vashon Community Scholarship Foundation, a nonprofit organization, was established in 1986 by a group of parents and other community members. Since then, VCSF has doled out more than $2 million in scholarships for island kids.
There is still time, prior to the ceremony, to donate to the designated fund for the scholarship named in Lopez’s honor. To find out more, email firstname.lastname@example.org. To make general donations to VCSF, visit vashonscholarshipfoundation.org.