Former educator, legislator spreads acceptance at Nisswa, Pequot Lakes schools

John Ward has toured area schools to talk about bullying and acceptance with students

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Brainerd School Board member John Ward talked to students at Eagle View Elementary School in Breezy Point on Friday, May 5, 2023, about kindness while reading the book "Big Al." He read to Nisswa Elementary School classrooms Tuesday, May 2.
Travis Grimler / Echo Journal

BREEZY POINT — On a tour of area schools, John Ward, Brainerd School Board member and former state representative, has been talking to students about bullying with the help of "Big Al.”

"Big Al,” a book by Andrew Clements, teaches about bullying and acceptance. The titular character Big Al is a fish unlike the others in the ocean as he is bigger, covered in barnacles and even a little bit ugly.

But when the other fish need him, he's also brave inside.

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At his Friday, May 5, 2023, visit to Eagle View Elementary School in Breezy Point, John Ward gave out many high-8s.
Travis Grimler / Echo Journal

"I don't remember if I was in the Legislature at the time or still teaching … but another teacher in Brainerd asked me to come in and read this," Ward said.

The teacher told him that the book reminded her of Ward, whose right arm and hand are slightly different from others, which caused him to be a target of bullying early on in school.


Ward's right arm is shorter, his hand is smaller and has only three fingers, and he has scars on both his arm and his hand from where he had surgeries to unlock the full potential of his right hand and arm when he should have been in ninth grade.

The kids have been very attentive, very focused, very engaged and have asked great questions.
John Ward

Part of his tour to area schools has been talking about his arm, the way he was treated because of it in school and how he persevered through difficulties.

On Friday, May 5, Ward brought “Big Al” to Eagle View Elementary School in Breezy Point.

Students in one classroom said they learned lessons like:

  • Always include everyone.
  • Be kind to people you don't like.
  • Always be friendly.
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John Ward read "Big Al" to students at Nisswa Elementary School on Tuesday, May 2, 2023, to teach them about bullying and acceptance.
Contributed / Nisswa Elementary School

Ward has taken Big Al's story on tour as part of a promise to Brainerd School District voters.

"I promised when I ran for the school board that I was going to visit every school," Ward said. "This is my way of visiting every school, seeing every student, seeing the staff and talking to the staff."

Ward has visited almost every school in the Brainerd School District, including Nisswa Elementary School, where he read to students in kindergarten through fourth grade Tuesday, May 2.

Where he hasn't gone yet, he has visits scheduled.


As for Eagle View, which is part of the Pequot Lakes School District, Ward has a granddaughter in a classroom and he was a coach for some teachers from when he worked in education.

On his tour of the schools, Ward doesn't shy away from talking about his arm openly, allowing the students to ask questions and learn to understand, which is a key to acceptance.

I promised when I ran for the school board that I was going to visit every school. This is my way of visiting every school, seeing every student, seeing the staff and talking to the staff.
John Ward

There were varying questions at Eagle View about how old he was, when his birthday is and what classes he used to teach. One eagle-eyed student in the back of a class saw a scar on his hand and asked him about it, revealing that Ward has several scars on his hand and arm.

A student at one stop asked a question that surprised even Ward.

"One little kid asked about me being able to use my middle finger as a kind of gesture," Ward said. "Of course, the teacher was flabbergasted. And I was laughing inside of course."

Ward showed students how to fight the odds and succeed. In school, Ward was a multi-athlete student and president of his class. He was in football, basketball, golf, track and baseball.

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"Big Al," a book by Andrew Clements, is about accepting people for their differences. It's a book that John Ward related to his own personal bullying experiences at his Tuesday, May 2, 2023, reading event in the Nisswa Elementary School library.
Contributed / Nisswa Elementary School

To play baseball, Ward had to develop his own way to catch the ball with a glove and then quickly remove the glove so he could throw the ball with the same hand. He demonstrated this skill for a classroom at Eagle View.

Ward shared four things he learned growing up that he wanted the students to also learn.


  • Always believe in yourself.
  • Always work hard.
  • Always do your best.
  • Never, ever give up.

He said that mantra was why he was able to do things like catch and throw a ball or tie his shoes.
Ward said the school tour has been very positive.

"The kids have been very attentive, very focused, very engaged and have asked great questions," he said. "Really, that's why I'm doing this is to try to teach about kindness, acceptance and inclusion. The kids have been really tuned in really nicely. Those four lessons are really truly the lessons in my life that have helped me become who I am."

Travis Grimler is a staff writer for the Pineandlakes Echo Journal weekly newspaper in Pequot Lakes/Pine River. He may be reached at 218-855-5853 or

Travis Grimler began work at the Echo Journal Jan. 2 of 2013 while the publication was still split in two as the Pine River Journal and Lake Country Echo. He is a full time reporter/photographer/videographer for the paper and operates primarily out of the northern stretch of the coverage area (Hackensack to Jenkins).
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