Mr. B & Room 208
Editor’s Note: University of Notre Dame hockey forward Anders Bjork, a 6-0, 181-pounder from Mequon, Wisconsin, finished his Irish career in 2017-18 by winning All-America honors and leading his team to the NCAA Frozen Four. Yet as great as Bjork’s impact was at the Compton Family Ice Arena, he maybe made even more of a difference just a few blocks south of campus at Perley Fine Arts Academy in South Bend.
Notre Dame student-athletes volunteer their time each year in record numbers. Whether coordinated by the Student Welfare and Development division within athletics, organized by teams or identified by individuals, virtually every Irish student-athlete is involved in some form of community service.
Perley teacher Courtney Baranay explains exactly why “Mr. B” became a treasured figure not just in her third-grade classroom but throughout the school. – John Heisler
If you were to ask me the exact day that Anders Bjork showed up in Room 208 at Perley Fine Arts Academy, I would be hard pressed to remember. But that is simply because he has become a permanent fixture in our classroom these days. Not a week goes by that we don’t see or hear from “Our Mr. B,” as the kids call him.
I believe he arrived sometime in the fall of 2015, around the middle of September. Wanda Thomas, who coordinated our volunteers, brought Anders to my room one afternoon and told me he was fulfilling some required hours for a class he was taking. Here in front of me was a very tall, very sweet young man who looked more excited than the kids to be here.
We were in the middle of math class, so I gathered up a group of kids and asked Anders if he minded working in the hall with them. He readily agreed, and off they went. It wasn’t until math was almost over that I realized that his group was still in the hallway. When I peeked out there to see what was going on, I saw an amazing sight: Anders was on the floor, surrounded by these little third-graders, intently working on their math activities. Not one child was goofing off, everyone was very engaged and they were almost finished with the whole assignment! It was then that I knew there was something special about Anders.
Until you have spent time in a classroom, you don’t understand the “hoops” teachers sometimes need to jump through to get and keep the students’ attention. Here was a college kid, who had so much going on in his life, spending time with a bunch of third-grade inner-city kids. And he was genuinely enjoying himself!
I’m not really sure how many hours Anders was supposed to fulfill that fall--I’m assuming maybe 15 to 20. What I do know is that this young man continued coming to Room 208 weekly. And if he couldn’t make it, he sent the kids a message letting them know how much he missed them. But I digress--let me tell you everything we have experienced with Anders.
During our first year together (the 2015-16 school year), it became obvious the children had no idea about the sport of hockey. I mentioned to Anders how cool it would be if he could bring some of his equipment with him, just to give the kids an idea of what hockey was all about. I had some space on one of our bulletin boards, and thought it would be fun to have an “All About Mr. B” board.
We started by having the kids interview Anders about his life and his experiences with the sport. Anders sat through the barrage of questions and didn’t bat an eye. But the best thing was the next week when he arrived with his entire bag of hockey gear, complete with a hockey stick! We laid the entire outfit out on the floor to show the kids just what Anders had to wear for every game. They were fascinated! But Anders didn’t stop there. He let every student try on his helmet and pads, and we took pictures with him. That was all it took--I now had 18 third-graders who had fallen in love with this young man. They couldn’t stop talking about him, how “cool” he was, the next time he’d be in to visit--and on and on and on.
Then there was the day in late September when Anders texted to let me know he wouldn’t be in the next day. His mother was coming to town and only had a couple of hours to spend with him. (Anders’ younger brother traveled for hockey, and they were in town briefly for a game.) I assured him family came first, and we would see him the following week.
That text was followed up by another one from Anders about two hours later. Here is the text I received: “Miss B, if it’s alright with you, I’ll be coming tomorrow with my mom. She wants to meet the kids and see our classroom.” And she did! They arrived right before recess, and the kids were ecstatic to meet “Mrs. B.” She stayed over an hour, and we took pictures and went to play outside. Mrs. B shared with me that Anders was having such a good time with us in Room 208 that he frequently called to tell her about all the adventures we were having! I told her that because of Anders I now had a classroom full of children who were interested in going to college and trying new things.
I warned the children that Anders had one of the most grueling sports schedules ever. His team’s season started in October and went all the way until almost April. I wanted to make sure they understood that once the season started, we probably wouldn’t get to see this young man as often as they would like. I couldn’t have been more wrong in that assumption. Anders made sure to come each week that he wasn’t traveling, and if he was out of town he always texted the class to let them know he was thinking about them.
Over Christmas break he was selected to be on the Junior National Hockey team and he and his team traveled to Finland for the competition. We kept up with the tournament online, and the same day Anders flew home he got off the plane and came right to see his kids. He brought them a poster, and all the players on the team had signed it for the kids. He also brought the jersey he wore during the tournament as well as the bronze medal he won. I will have you know those items are still hanging on our “Mr. B” wall--along with the hockey stick he brought them to hit the piñata with at the end of last year. (He brought a piñata filled with candy so the kids could experience having a piñata.)
That first year we were together, Mr. B made sure to come to as many programs and activities as he could. This young man didn’t have a car on campus, so he would borrow his roommate’s truck or ride his long board to see us (across some pretty busy roads--but don’t mention that to his coach, I’m sure that is frowned upon). Our school corporation sends our kids to the Snite Museum on Notre Dame’s campus every year, and Mr. B met us both times we’ve gone and spent the morning with us learning about sculptures. He even did the activities with us!
I think the most exciting moment for that group of kids was in that 2015-16 season when Anders invited the entire class to see one of his hockey games! It was scheduled for a Friday night, and we kept the whole thing a secret from the kids. Anders came at the end of school one day on his long board and signed shirts for all the kids. My partner teacher and I then spray-painted Anders’ name on every shirt along with his number 10 on the back. The night of the game we had a pizza dinner, then walked over to the rink in time for the 7 p.m. game. For many of our kids, it was the first time they had set foot on Notre Dame’s campus.
But, alas, every good thing must come to an end, at least that’s what I thought (again, how wrong I was). So I started to prepare the kids for when Anders left for the year. The day he brought the piñata was both one of the best and worst afternoons. When the kids realized he was leaving for home, many of them were inconsolable. They cried for more than an hour and continued to cry when they got home. I know this because I had several text messages from parents who didn’t know what to do with their distraught children. But Anders did! Every week until the end of the year he would FaceTime the class! That way they could still keep in touch with him! We also got to FaceTime with his brother, mom and dad. As a matter of fact, the kids wrote letters to Anders’ family as well as writing to him at the ice rink. During the weeks Anders had to travel, we kept in touch by writing letters to him and sending them to the rink.
Now fast forward to the 2016-17 school year. I got a text from Anders around the middle of August, asking when school started because he couldn’t wait to see his class from last year and meet the new kids! I couldn’t believe it. Here was this young man with the whole world at his disposal, starting his junior year and contacting me to find out when he could come back to Perley.
And what a year it was! Again, he came to the Snite with us, and he made plans to get his “new” class to a hockey game. He came every week (and sometimes twice a week) for recess and lunch. He brought several of his teammates to visit “his class” and bragged endlessly on the kids. He knew every one of them, and it was like Christmas every time this man stepped into the room. Meanwhile, I could die of a heart attack right in front of them, and they wouldn’t notice.
So, you might be wondering what impact Anders Bjork had on these children. Well, I will tell you. These children learned geography because we kept track of where Anders played his games. There is a spot on his board titled “Where in the World is Mr. B?” It was a student’s job to stick the pushpin in the state where he happened to be playing that week. We had an idea of what “stats” are as we also kept track of the team’s wins. We had a spot for how many goals and assists Anders got during each game, and the kids loved to check and see how well he did over the weekends. They were quick to point out information Anders had taught them about Notre Dame, the sport of hockey and anything else the kids discussed with him during his “lunch bunches.”
Anders helped mediate disagreements between the kids, taught them how to let things roll off their backs and not be so quick to judge. He would draw with the girls in the room (I had 16 that year) and sit and play Legos with all the boys (only seven that year). He would answer any question they had, he let them wear his hat, he played games with them at recess--and he even got in trouble right along with the rest of the class for not paying attention to the gym teacher (you might not want to mention this either, I don’t think my principal knows about this).
That’s only a fraction of the “things” Anders did with and for these children. The most important thing this man did for the children was to keep coming back. I have taught in inner-city schools for 10 years. I have had hundreds of people come through my classroom doors--volunteers, students doing field experiences and a few student teachers. They were all wonderful (some more than others).
But these children are used to people coming in and out of their lives. Volunteers stay for three or four months, coming once a week, and then their time is over. Field experience students usually come for 30 hours, and then they are off to another assignment. But Anders kept coming back. It didn’t matter if he only had 30 minutes to spare, he always came back.
These children have experienced levels of disappointment and heartbreak that many of us will never have to live through. I can tell you stories of these children being removed from their homes, watching their parents getting shot right in front of them, and on and on. But Anders became one of the most constant, loving figures in their young lives. He gave them what some of their own parents could not--his time and love. If there was a child talking with Anders and Anders needed to get to hockey practice, he would wait until that child was finished with his/her story before he left. I sometimes cringed at the thought of Anders trying to explain to Coach Jackson that he was late because one of his “kids” had to finish an important story.
I know the words on this paper cannot possibly convey all that Anders has done for the children here at Perley. Because, you see, he didn’t just belong to Room 208 anymore. This man could not walk down the hall without a gaggle of children yelling, “MR. BEEEEEEEEEE!” And Anders stopped to say “Hi!” to every one of them. One day he arrived at 11:10 and didn’t make it to class until 11:35 because he was busy talking to “his kids.” And “his kids” weren’t just the kids in my room or former kids in my room. They were the brothers and sisters of my kids, the friends of the brothers and sisters and on and on. Anders had never once stepped foot in the kindergarten classrooms, but I had students from there asking when “Mr. B” will be coming.
Some people mistakenly think that "things" are what these kids need--more books, more clothes, more toys, candy, etc. What they need is to know that someone LOVES them. They are used to having people come and go from their lives, and they learn to expect that. But with Anders, he was here when he said he would be, he stayed longer than he intended to, he listened, and he's here. If they could not count on anything else in their lives, they knew that Mr. B would come to see them.
One time I had to tell him not to come, as we had a bullying issue that was out of control. It wasn't until I told those kids that Mr. B wasn't coming and read the text he sent (which was stern and out of character for Mr. B--he was extremely disappointed in his kids) that my class dissolved into tears. They were more devastated that they upset Mr. B. And we didn't have one incidence of bullying/teasing after that. Not one.
Our “Mr. B” board continued going strong, and we just about ran out of space to add any more pictures. Every week the kids ran in to see which pictures I’ve posted. There was a contest to see who had taken the most pictures with Mr. B. They begged me to make copies for them, and at the end of the year I did that. The previous year’s students made their own photo albums, and each one had at least 10-15 pictures with Anders.
I made as many memories as I could for these children because I need them to know that there will be much disappointment and heartache in this world, but they must always remember that their Mr. B loves them.
Unconditional love is real, and it exists in the heart of Anders Bjork.
If you don’t believe me, come and talk to my kids.
Mr. B came to see “his kids” after the NCAA Championship ended last May. It was hard to tell who was happier--the class or Mr. B! He then came one more time in July, and we attended South Bend’s East Side Reunion, which happens in the summer right in the park next to Perley! We were able to see a handful of our Perley kids, which was just what Mr. B was hoping for.
In August Anders made probably the most important decision of his life--he decided to accept an offer to play for the Boston Bruins, the team that had drafted him back when he was just 17. He made sure to call me before it hit the news, as he knew I would have to explain to “his” kids that we wouldn’t see Mr. B as often as we had in the past. They were VERY excited for Mr. B, and also pretty sad, as you can imagine the bond they all share. But Anders did one last thing before he left for Boston . . . he passed along Jake Evans’ cell phone number and told me Jake would be calling to keep the tradition alive!
Sure enough, I received a text message from Jake in August. He wanted to continue what Anders had started two years ago, and he just happened to have a few teammates that wanted to come along--more than 20 to be exact!
One Wednesday in late September Jake arrived just in time for lunch with the class, and he brought along three of his teammates! They sat with the kids while they ate and got to know each other. Then we had a dance performance by two of my students, and then we all sat in a circle and asked our new friends some very important questions: Where are their homes? How old are they? What are their favorite sports (after hockey, of course!)? And how old were they when they first played hockey?
I took many pictures, because we now have a giant Notre Dame hockey poster in our hallway, and we will add the photos to the poster as we continue to meet our new friends from that little college down the road.
And the absolute icing on the cake is that my new class has already gotten to meet Mr. B! We FaceTimed with him when his girlfriend Sanne came to meet my class and spend the afternoon with us. She was here in September, and the kids STILL ask weekly when she’ll be back.
Mr. B promised his kids he would always find a way to stay in touch, and he has never gone back on that promise. Better yet, he has passed his love of being with the kids on to many of his teammates, who will no doubt be stopping by Room 203 in the very near future . . . yes, Room 203. Nothing lasts forever, so they say. Our class had to switch rooms due to an influx of children to Perley after the school year started. I figure if Mr. B can make such a huge life change, we could move down the hall a bit.
I did have one student who was very concerned that Mr. B would not be able to find us if he came to visit, since we had switched rooms. I told that little guy not to worry, because now it will be really easy for Anders to find us . . . we’ll call ourselves “Room 203 and Mr. B (and friends)!”