The coat closet of a third-grade classroom was Papay Glaywulu’s place to calm his anger. His classmates teased him about it, knowing the open-air space was reserved for his pushups until the rage settled.
It was a last resort, of sorts, for a teacher and principal who exhausted all other suggestions. They once brought in a student resource officer from the middle school who had dealt with troubled kids. Papay, 8 years old, pointed at the officer’s gun, still in its holster, and remarked, “That doesn’t scare me.”
Nine years later, Glaywulu (whose full name is pronounced POP-ee glay-WOO-loo) will recall those moments with vivid detail, even while he is better known for his fearlessness on a synthetic track. Better known for hopping off each leg alternatively, then flailing into a pit of sand. He is one of the best athletes in the state at this craft.
I can still picture him in that coat closet, so angry that he was seeing red, doing pushups to physically calm down. I haven’t lost sight of where he once was.
Kendra Carpenter, Papay Glaywulu’s third-grade teacher
On Tuesday, a party inside the Park Hill School District central office will celebrate his journey. The former elementary school principal is throwing the bash. The former third-grade teacher is using a personal day to ensure she can attend.
“I actually haven’t even cleared it with my superintendent,” said Christopher Daniels, Glaywulu’s elementary school principal who now works for the Park Hill district.
“If it crosses a boundary, well, I can take getting chastised for this one.”
Glaywulu has earned a near full-ride track and field scholarship to Oklahoma as a triple jumper. His jump of 50 feet, 2 1/4 inches broke a record at the Kansas Relays last month.
But even if he had never joined the track team three years ago as a high school freshman, even if he had never embarked on a triple jump career that at least one coach believes could reach the Olympics, next week’s party would proceed.
It’s not about the athletics. Glaywulu will be the first member of his family to attend college. He arrived in Kansas City with his father when he was 7, two years removed from a refugee camp in Liberia, a country in the midst of a civil war. He hasn’t seen his mother since.
By the time he had enrolled at Chouteau Elementary School in North Kansas City, his English was still raw. The culture was vastly different.
“I acted out. I was in Principal Daniels’ office so much that when I wasn’t in there, it was weird. Everyone would be like, ‘Hey, where’s Papay today?’” he said. “It was like my home.”
Glaywulu was prone to destroy classrooms. He would hurl chairs and computer monitors across the room. He would kick, bite, yell, cuss and punch.
He often spoke of revenge. Using an ink pen, he drew fake tattoos on his arm. Inside the designs, he wrote threats to classmates who had wronged him.
“He would pace almost like a caged animal,” said Kendra Carpenter, his third-grade teacher at Chouteau. “He would tell me almost every day how much he hated me.
“I had to apologize to my principal for crying in his office every meeting.
“But I felt like there was a reason he wound up with me, and I could see the good moments in him.”
In the early 2000s, Chouteau adopted a positive reinforcement plan, which it called “loops.” The plan was fairly simple: For each positive display of behavior, a student could earn a loop, which was essentially a token. Daniels would give Glaywulu a loop for something as simple as refraining from throwing a chair.
At any point, the students were free to trade their loops for a prize. The top prize, many of them agreed, was a custom “friend poster.” The kids could snap a picture with a friend, then print it out on poster-sized paper.
As a fourth grader — his second year in Kansas City — Glaywulu reached 100 loops and purchased the poster.
His selected friend for the picture? Carpenter. He rolled up the poster, stuck it in his backpack and presented it to his teacher on her birthday.
She has the picture saved on her phone.
A year later, Glaywulu moved into the Park Hill district. He re-connected there with Daniels another year later, after he also moved jobs. They have continued their relationship, with Glaywulu walking to the Park Hill central office on a weekly basis.
He rekindled correspondence with Carpenter via email, praising her for saving his life. She has that, too, saved on her computer. In another email, he requested she attend one of his track meets to watch him triple jump. Due to a meeting, she would be late, if she would be able to come at all.
“When I got there, he was just standing alone at the gate, waiting for me on the chance I might make it,” Carpenter said.
Carpenter and Daniels have been avid supporters of Glaywulu’s triple jump career. Daniels purchased a letterman’s jacket for him.
The career has followed a similar trajectory of his immigration into the United States. A rough start. Glaywulu hated the triple jump in his first week of practice. “This has to be the stupidest event I’ve ever seen,” he remembers thinking.
Gradually, he recognized his talent. He’s in his element during the competition, keenly focused on sprinting down a track and contorting his body into the air. In two weeks, he is one of the projected favorites to win the Missouri Class 5 state championship.
“I can still picture him in that coat closet, so angry that he was seeing red, doing pushups to physically calm down,” Carpenter said. “I haven’t lost sight of where he once was.
“If I teach for 30 years and Papay’s story is the only thing that comes from it, then it will have all been completely worth it.”