Desert plants can produce beautiful flowers. Sam Terry would know that because he's supposed to be studying the physiology of desert plants...

Share story

Desert plants can produce beautiful flowers.

Sam Terry would know that because he’s supposed to be studying the physiology of desert plants right about now.

Instead he’s getting a group of kids from Asa Mercer Middle School ready for a trip to Vancouver, B.C., where they’ll play an exhibition game during the world championships of Ultimate Frisbee this weekend.

The Mercer Mustangs have won several championships, including Spring Reign, the largest Ultimate Frisbee youth tournament anywhere.

The Mustangs didn’t just win the spring tournament, they won its Spirit Award too, which is significant because Ultimate Frisbee is as much about good sportsmanship as it is about winning. There are no referees and fair play is part of the code. Opponents give each other high fives.

“This group of kids is so much fun to be around,” Terry says, “that even teams we beat 11-2 tell us they can’t wait to play us again.”

Terry says his diverse team really sticks out at the tournament in Burlington and league games at Ingraham High School. But they’ve adopted the Ultimate culture just like their competitors from north-end and private schools.

At practice this week a bunch of the players shouted out why they like Ultimate.

“Meeting new people … the spirit of the game … not too competitive … everyone being nice at the end of the game … no refs, you do it yourself … learn new skills … positive energy … make great friends … It’s a lot better than staying home and being a couch potato.”

Terry says Ultimate is “an incredibly powerful way of working with youth.”

The team becomes a community, the kids have a productive way of spending their time, and the game reinforces positive social values. It’s an antidote to the appeal of gangs, and some of these kids need that.

Remember DéChé Morrison, the 14-year-old who was shot to death on a Seattle street in January?

Terry says he was on the team for a while before drifting away. “He was shot only a couple of blocks away from where a couple of players lived. It’s part of their lives.”

He and the other coaches talked with some of the students about the shooting. “One kid was just sitting there and started choking up: ‘But, I taught him how to throw forehand,’ ” the player said.

The game becomes part of the lives of kids who stick with it. Several have written essays about Ultimate, and one girl did her eighth-grade history project on its rules. Terry says he sees eighth-graders mentoring younger players. “They help the younger kids understand how to act and fit with the team culture.”

It’s contagious. Zhi Chen joined as an eighth-grader because “everybody was playing at lunch and I wanted to join. It’s fun.”

Jesse Bolton, who also completed eighth grade this year, said he likes the way Terry coaches. “He’s not too hard on us, but he makes sure we get it right before we move on.”

Terry says, “Kids want to do stuff, and if they have adults around who want to push them and provide positive opportunities, they are going to take them.”

Terry is following in the footsteps of his mentors, including Paul Raymond, one of the founders of The Northwest School on Capitol Hill, where Terry learned to play Ultimate Frisbee in high school.

Raymond fought for civil rights and social justice, and founded programs for children in East Los Angeles and Watts during the 1960s. Terry’s father, Mark Terry, another founder, still teaches science at Northwest.

Terry put off graduate school and tried to do what Raymond preached: If you see a problem, fix it.

He helped one of his players get into Northwest.

“People were congratulating me about it, and I was kind of uncomfortable about it. Really, all I did was use the access I have because of race and class privilege to undo a few of the obstacles that shouldn’t be in her way to begin with.”

Terry has been working at Mercer for four years now. He was planning to start working on his master’s at Seattle University, but when the invitation to take the kids to Vancouver came, he put off school again.

“More and more, I see what kind of potential there is in this outside of the classroom working with youth,” he told me. “I’m not sure anymore that I want to be a traditional teacher.”

Desert plants will have to wait while he explores another way to help kids bloom in their challenging environment.

Jerry Large’s column appears Monday and Thursday. Reach him at 206-464-3346 or jlarge@seattletimes.com.