Friday was the Springfield School District's eighth Diversity Day — a chance for students in the Montgomery County community to learn about different cultures, interests, and ethnicities.
But this one was different — and more heartfelt: It was a celebration of the life of James Taylor, a Diversity Day founder and Springfield High French teacher for 25 years, who died last summer of cancer at 52.
Taylor was also an adviser to the Montgomery County school's multicultural club and helped start Voices of Excellence, a leadership group for African American students. "He was not only a teacher, he was a mentor," said Barry Weidner, a teacher at the high school and a Diversity Day cofounder. Said Natalie Lewis, another teacher: "He was an awesome person and a wonderful teacher. He taught life, not just French."
Students said they felt the loss. "He was very energetic; he brightened everybody's day," said Justin Peyton, a senior. "I miss him a lot."
Said Calvin Speight, also a senior: "He was funny and motivational." Diversity Day, he said, "gives everybody a chance to experience different things" than they are used to. And, added Peyton, "it brings everybody together."
During Friday's Diversity Day, renamed James Taylor Day this year, students listened to poetry and looked at exhibits highlighting religious, artistic, cultural, and musical diversity. They held parades celebrating their personal and ethnic identities; the kindergarten at one school wrote and recited a video about Taylor that was shared with other schools. One video highlight: Taylor bought more Girl Scout cookies than any other teacher, they said.
Wendy Royer, superintendent of the 2,150-student district, said she and all of Taylor's admirers "wanted to do more than plant a tree or hang a banner" to honor him.
The district, which was once "not very diverse," Royer said, now has many African American and Hispanic students. It is about 15 percent African American and 4 percent Hispanic; Hispanic enrollment is almost double that of just a few years ago. "We want to raise the cultural proficiency of the district. … We need to be more inclusive," Royer said.
At the high school Friday, the Gospel Disciples, a 10-member group that Taylor knew through his church, performed at a student assembly, which was attended by Robin Dixon, Taylor's sister.
"The students meant everything to him," Dixon said of her brother. "This was a good day. To think, he did so much to make a difference for these children."
How much of a difference? At the assembly, teacher Kristin Ward asked everybody who had Taylor in a class to stand up — dozens did. Then she asked all those whom he had advised in an activity to join them — many more stood. Finally, she asked all those who "saw the value of his life, and laugh, and character" to stand as well. All the students rose and clapped.