It's About Us

It's About Us
Posted on 09/20/2017
V. J. Smith speaking

Having begun the fourth week of school, students at Spencer Middle School (SMS) are settling into their daily routine which includes an emphasis on positive culture and climate.  To kick off the year, SMS Boot Camp was launched to help prepare students and boost their skills to create a positive environment, among other things.  “Each grade-level team came up with an idea that would be their theme for the year, and they will touch on it through activities,” explained Adam Gress, SMS Dean of Students.  He continued, “Each theme falls under the culture and climate of the middle school and how we all interact with each other.  It was a way to really lay the foundation for schoolwide expectations, and how to work together as a team.”

During Boot Camp, the eighth-grade team read The Richest Man in Town by V. J. Smith, and journaled about it.   The book, commonly referred to as “The Marty Book”, inspired by a Walmart cashier by the name of Marty, carries a message of how to interact well with others and how one interaction can change everything. 

Becky Koenig, SMS Language Arts Teacher, led the eighth graders in reading and journaling about “The Marty Book” during Boot Camp.  “The eighth-grade team is working on collaboration and courage to take on difficult tasks, and our Boot Camp theme with “The Marty Book” really leads into encouraging kids to do the right thing and to think beyond themselves for the greater good around them, and to be supportive.  So as eighth graders, we think this is the perfect time to capture their hearts and to get them to be engaged in supporting each other and being good friends, good learners and good leaders in our building,” shared Koenig. 

As a culminating activity to reading the book during Boot Camp, SMS brought Smith to speak to the students, and Koenig took the stage to introduce him.  “In Boot Camp, we read the book that has become kind of our mantra about how to treat people.  One thing I want you to think about is when we read this book, it touched our hearts and it touched our minds, and I want you to give a warm middle school welcome to Mr. V. J. Smith who is going to share his story!”

Captivating the audience immediately, Smith started by sharing a conversation he had with Angie Ward, SMS Guidance Counselor, about social media.  “You are a generation who grew up with it.  It is all around you,” said Smith.  He went on to add that he is from a generation that was not, and even though it is intriguing, Smith has learned that he cannot base his life on it, saying, “The world is so big, and we miss so much stuff in life because we are looking down.  Do you know where stuff is,” he asked the students?  “Out there!”, lifting his arms up and spreading them out to his sides.

He quickly cut to the heart of his talk when he said, “The entire time I talk this morning, hear me when I say this.  It is the most important thing I say.  In your lifetime, you will have a fulfilled life if you lift up the life of other people.  If you take the time and lift up other people by what you say or what you do for people, you will have a fulfilling life.  Because what you learn in life…it isn’t all about you.  It’s about us!  Lifting each other up.  That’s where it happens.”

Smith’s talk encompassed many personal stories from experiences throughout his life.  Smith served as the Assistant Athletic Director at South Dakota State University (SDSU).  He had many successful years serving in that role, mostly through relationships he formed that had significant impact on his professional career, ultimately impacting SDSU and the lives of many students by the endowed scholarships that were received through his relationships.  In explaining the reason for his success, Smith shared, “It’s because I always put other people first.  I always put other people first.” To paint a picture with the students, he told them how he would give up a seat at a crowded event or allow people to move in front of him in a line. 

He went on to explain the importance of being grateful.  “We like to be thanked.  There isn’t one of you…none of you that doesn’t like hearing thanks.  It acknowledges kindness.  It acknowledges goodness.  Think how many times you have done something nice for someone.  You went out of your way to do something special for someone, and no one acknowledged your kind act.  It hurts.  You feel cheated.”  To emphasize his point, he showered the room with thank you cards and encouraged the students to use them. He shared with the students the importance of handwritten thank you notes.  “You want to make a big impact on someone’s life?  Write them a note,” encouraged Smith, which led to the much-anticipated story of Marty, the Walmart cashier extraordinaire who changed Smith’s life forever in January of 2000.

Marty was an older gentleman who, after a full life, wanted to be around people, so he applied for a job at Walmart.  When Marty became a cashier, his lane grew longer than any other.  Smith, a busy man and usually in a hurry, grew frustrated at how slowly Marty’s lane would move, but that all changed when he had his own personal encounter with Marty.   When it was Smith’s turn in line,  he was treated to Marty’s personal customer experience.  Smith explained, “He wasn’t thinking about the last customer.  In the moment, the guy 100% was in the moment.  First thing out of his mouth every time was, ‘How’s it going?’  For the entire time, he would look right in your face, ending each trip through the checkout line by coming around to the side of the customer and saying, ‘I sure want to thank you for shopping here today, and you have a great day.  Bye-Bye.’” 

Smith decided to write a letter to Walmart headquarters, singing Marty’s praises  It was after that when a great, lasting friendship was born.  Smith learned that Marty had an eighth-grade education, lived in a trailer, fought in the war, and eventually got a job at Walmart so that he could be around people, but those things didn’t define Marty.  Marty was defined by the connections he made with people, and the happiness people felt after interacting with him.  Marty died in 2004, but his lessons in life remain.  “The great lesson is this.  When we take the time, and put forth the effort to lift up the life of someone else, we lift up our own lives, and that is when the world changes.  When we lift up the people around us.”  Smith continued, “In my lifetime, I worked with so many people who had big titles and held important roles, but nobody impacted V. J. more than Marty.  The guy who had no title.  The guy who affected the lives of thousands of people by treating us decently, and every one of you sitting here today has the ability to affect the life of someone else by how you treat them.”

When Smith ended his message, the impact of his words was truly visible by the students who approached Smith, hugging and thanking him.  When asked how he felt about the message, eighth grader, Zachary Russell, shared, “It was really inspirational, is how I felt.”  He continued by explaining the main lesson he learned, “Put yourself before others and care for others because you get good things in return.”