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Students ask, 'What would Baba do?'

When it came time for the students at Ashland Middle School to choose the face of the school’s 2014-15 anti-bullying campaign, there wasn't much of a debate.

The goal was to encourage students to stay positive, show respect and in general help make AMS a safe, secure environment for everybody. And nobody around, they decided, does those things with more enthusiasm or heart than AMS youth advocate Abdiaziz Guled.

So when the student body gathered for a brainstorming session to come up with a theme for this school year’s anti-bullying campaign and somebody suggested “What would Abdi do?”, it stuck like a dart to a bull’s-eye. That shouldn’t come as a surprise, explains AMS leadership teacher Jamie Haden. Guled, who goes by Abdi or Baba, has become an iconic figure at the middle school since he was added to the staff in 1997.

“He’s like the Mother Teresa of the 21st century,” Haden said. That is, if Mother Teresa were a 6-foot-5 man with an impossibly broad smile who was born and raised in Somalia and, in another life — before he was recruited by Southern Oregon University to play basketball — herded goats for a living.

What is it about Guled that is so remarkable? Ask virtually any Ashlander that question and they’ll quickly tick off a half-dozen Abdi-isms off the top of their head as if they’d been waiting all day for somebody to ask. Responses paint the picture of a man who almost can’t exist, but does: kind, sincere, warm, empathetic and relentlessly positive, but in a way that deflects the attention away from himself and toward those around him.

Indeed, his disdain of the spotlight that his influence can sometimes draw is well known and respected, to the point where, when told of this story’s focus, an AMS secretary said flatly, “Well, you won’t get much out of him … too modest.”

But Guled did agree to talk about the “What would Abdi do?” or “What would Baba do?” movement at AMS, at least under the condition that the story details the program itself.

For the last three years the students at AMS have been responsible for choosing a slogan or theme for its anti-bullying campaign, such as “iAMStrong”, which was chosen for the 2013-14 school year. Once they picked “What would Abdi do” last fall, they then got to work developing the idea into a full-fledged campaign. Part of that process included working with a local graphic designer, Mark Arinsberg of Mark Arinsberg Photography + Design. With Arinsberg’s help, students then produced posters that would be laminated and posted throughout the campus.

Guled did his part, too, gamely striking poses that the poster designs required. His image was then digitally cropped, cut and pasted.

The poster designs were completed last spring and installed throughout the halls at AMS over the summer. And, thanks to Arinsberg’s expertise and the students’ creativity, they’re quite eye-catching.

In one, Guled’s head is attached to the body of a cartoon super hero who’s flying through the air, grinning broadly. The text asks, “Bad Day … what would Baba do?” In another, Guled is shaking hands with a boy and saying, through word balloons, “Hi kid, I’m Baba,” under the question: “New kid on campus? Having trouble making friends? What would Baba do?”

Still another asks: “See someone feeling under the weather … What would Baba do?” Rain pours down from a pair of giant gray clouds, but the boys are sheltered by a huge yellow umbrella that’s being held by — you guess it — Baba.

Wrist bands emblazoned with the theme are also made, although Guled is still waiting for one that says, “What would I do.”

Has the campaign made a difference? Haden believes it has, partly because AMS has chosen to be proactive about the subject, partly because Guled, who also coaches soccer, basketball and track, has tremendous influence on campus.

“He’s always positive and always trying to encourage people to do their best and do the right thing,” she said. “I think that it’s just a reflection of Abdi’s life work, that he’s known to be a positive role model and students look up to him and know that they can always count on him to do the right thing. So when they’re asked to think of a positive role model, Abdi comes up eight out of 10 times because he does it day in and day out. It’s just the kind of person he is.”

And what does Guled think about the whole thing?

“Sounds like a dictatorship to me,” he said with a laugh.

But seriously….

“I think it comes down to just kids doing the right thing and helping other kids be kind,” he said, modest as ever. “It’s to make our school a better place, to take care of one another. I don’t know if I’m the right example, but ....”

Joe Zavala can be reached at 541-776-4469 or jzavala@dailytidings.com.