A lesson in kindness: John Ward teaches kids about acceptance, self-confidence

Brainerd School Board member John Ward is using his own life story to teach Brainerd students valuable life lessons.

John Ward talks to Kindergartners about acceptance.
John Ward, Brainerd School Board member and retired teacher, reads to kindergartners Monday, April 24, 2023, at Harrison Elementary School and talks to them about differences and acceptance.
Steve Kohls / Brainerd Dispatch

BRAINERD — Always believe in yourself; always work hard; always do your best; never give up.

Kindergartners at Harrison Elementary School learned those lessons Monday, April 24, repeating them after John Ward.

A Brainerd School Board member and retired teacher, Ward is taking time to visit students in the district and teach them about kindness and acceptance. He journeyed from classroom to classroom at Harrison Monday, reading the children’s book “Big Al” by Andrew Clements and talking to students about the themes of the book.

“My hope would be that … kids in general are more kind, more respectful, more inclusive with each other and don’t judge people,” Ward said.

The book tells the story of Big Al, a fish in the ocean who looks different from every other fish and has no friends as a result. The other fish are afraid of Al because of his bulging eyes, many barnacles and off-putting color. But when he goes out of his way to save a bunch of little fish, his ocean peers realize there’s more to him than his appearance.


Ward used his own life story to hit the lesson home.

One of the first questions that left a student’s mouth as Ward started speaking to them Monday was “what happened to your arm?”

It’s a question Ward has fielded his whole life and planned to answer for the kids, too.

“They’re so intrigued when I walk in with that arm, right?” he said. “That’s obviously the first thing they focus on, and obviously I’m gonna talk about that, but I’m gonna hook, line and sinker them first before I talk about that.”

When Ward was born, his right arm had four fingers a deformed radius bone and an underdeveloped ulna that never turned to bone and remained cartilage.

He had no feeling in one of the fingers, so it was amputated when he was in fifth grade to allow him better use of his hand.

He spent the entirety of his freshman year of high school in a hospital, where doctors removed his ulna and most of his radius, inserted a rod to help the arm grow straighter and reconstructed the elbow.

When asked what looked different about him, the kids were quick to point out the three fingers on his right hand, the small size of his arm and what looked like a bump near his elbow.


“I do have a bump, you’re right, and we’re going to talk about that,” he said.

After talking about what made his arm different, Ward asked the kids if they thought he was teased, called names or bullied because of his arm.

They all said yes.

And they were right.

“I was. And let me tell you about that,” he said. “When we see people that are different or act different, we need to get to know them. And we need to accept them. And we need to respect them. We can become friends with them just like Big Al became friends, right?”

Earlier in his life, between teaching, coaching and being in the Minnesota House of Representatives, Ward gave motivational speeches, talking about body image vs. self-esteem and the trials and tribulations he encountered because of his arm. When asked by a teacher to come read the “Big Al” book to students, Ward decided to take his motivational speeches into the schools, offering his time up to every building in the district. He saw it as the perfect opportunity to engage with students and be visible in the schools, as he said he would during last year’s School Board campaign.

And the response to his story has been unbelievable.

“And the kids are just so awesome,” he said. “They’re so respectful.”


Even the youngest students listened intently as Ward told them how he overcame the childhood bullies and the assumptions about what he would never be able to do.

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“But you know what? I’ve had a great life,” he told the kids. “... When I was growing up, I played baseball, I played football, I played basketball, I golfed. I did everything. I learned how to tie my shoes when people didn’t think I could tie my shoes. I’ve accomplished a lot of things. I’ve had a lot of good things in life. I’ve had a really successful life, and I’m humbly proud of that.”

He told the kids about learning to catch a baseball with his left hand, quickly remove his glove and throw the ball with the same hand.

“You can accomplish anything you put your mind to,” he said, before having the students repeat the four lessons he wanted them to remember and reminding them their teachers and school staff will always be there to help them.


THERESA BOURKE may be reached at or 218-855-5860. Follow her on Twitter at

Theresa Bourke started working at the Dispatch in July 2018, covering Brainerd city government and area education, including Brainerd Public Schools and Central Lakes College.
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