Third grade class finds unique connection to Notre Dame football

Mike Vorel
South Bend Tribune

Age is just a number, and Notre Dame is a state of mind.

If you don’t believe it, let Allison Silva provide the proof. A teacher at Taylor Leadership Academy in Stockton, Calif., Silva’s third grade class forms a long, winding line to slap the “Play Like a Champion Today” sign before tests. Her students bust out the school’s fight song after touchdowns and during pep rallies — and while the pitch sometimes varies, they nail every word. They wear identical green shirts with a white shamrock on the chest, the words, “Learn like a champion today!” stamped proudly on their backs.

They are Notre Dame’s Class of 2029, and they never miss a game.

“I wouldn’t say every single one of them has a full grasp of football down, but they definitely know every player by their number,” Silva said. “I explain as they go, because I have five brothers, so I joke that I have pretty good football knowledge. They’ve just gotten more and more intense about it as the weeks go on.”

Test Day Irish Style! @NDFootball@GoFightinIrish@FightingIrish@ASeasonWith@nd_news@NDAlumni@TNNDN@NDonNBCpic.twitter.com/u040WW39h9

— Ms Silva's 3rd Grade (@alsil23) November 6, 2015

In fact, the class’ Irish fascination started long before the season. At Taylor Leadership Academy, in a low-income area, many of Silva’s students would potentially be first-generation college graduates. To instill the idea that college isn’t just a fantasy, but a reachable goal, each class “adopts” a college that it embraces and learns about throughout the year.

Three years ago, Silva’s third graders verbally committed to Notre Dame.

“I just sort of presented a lot of options to them of colleges I had connections to in my personal feelings,” she said. “My brother went to Notre Dame. My dad is the biggest Notre Dame football fan.

“There was no close vote. It was Notre Dame. It was (the football team) on their video games. They just loved it.”

As time passed, the snowball rolled into an avalanche. Last year, Silva started a Twitter account so the class could directly interact with Notre Dame football players. And this year, with an especially engaged group, adulation gave way to imitation.

“One of the boys said, ‘Can I go slap the sign? I think I’ll feel better,’” Silva recalled of the “Play Like a Champion Today” sign hanging at the front of the room. “I was like, ‘Sure. If that makes you feel like you’re ready to learn, go for it.’

“We started doing it before multiplication tests. Now they line up. They do it. They really put themselves in the shoes like they’re Notre Dame students … and football players, apparently.”

And don’t forget the band.

“On one of the first football games they showed them singing (the fight song) and the band was playing it, and they asked me what it was and I told them it was the fight song,” Silva said. “They learned it, and it took them seriously about an hour before they had it down. So we sang it in front of our whole school.

“Now, after every touchdown, they start singing it. Our local pizza parlor is super awesome for putting up with us, because we take over … and they’re very loud.”

So proud of these ND students! @FightingIrish@NDFootball@TNNDN@NDonNBC@TheIrishNation@GoFightinIrishpic.twitter.com/S1bLSDubrt

— Ms Silva's 3rd Grade (@alsil23) November 7, 2015

Every Saturday, Ms. Silva’s third grade class meets to watch Notre Dame football. They yell for Jerry Tillery and Sheldon Day, who they feel like they know intimately from “A Season with Notre Dame.” They cheer for Jaylon Smith, who has interacted with the class on Twitter.

S/O to Mrs Silva's 3rd grade class for supporting my teammates and I! #GoIrish Love Jaylon! ☘☘☘ @alsil23

— Jaylon Smith (@JaeeSmiff9ENT) November 10, 2015

Social media, in fact, has pulled the class even closer to the team. Every time a player responds, it means more than a casual click. It’s a nod of acknowledgment between one generation and the next.

“I feel like they understand that it’s bigger than just, ‘I’m retweeting back,’ Silva said. “It’s creating this college connection for these students. These are their heroes. There’s no ifs, ands and buts. The Notre Dame football team, they just think everything of them.

“So when they get a response, it’s beyond, ‘Oh, this is so cool.’ One of the students screamed, ‘We really are Notre Dame!’ That’s how they feel. That’s why it’s been so magical this year, because they really do feel like Notre Dame students.”

***

A few weeks ago, so did Allison Silva.

Prior to the Senior Day game against Wake Forest, a camera crew flew to Stockton, Calif., to film Silva and her class for Notre Dame’s “First Time Fans” documentary series. As part of the experience, they sent Silva back to South Bend to soak up her first Notre Dame football game.

But not without instructions.

The entire trip itinerary was designed by her students, a frenzied South Bend scavenger hunt. They sent her to the Grotto, to the stadium, to Touchdown Jesus, to the Golden Dome.

“It was sort of their trip through my eyes,” Silva said. “People are like, ‘How was it?’ I don’t know how to describe being on campus. It’s a feeling that you get. It was one of the most incredible experiences of my life.”

Though the Class of 2029 was unable to attend, Silva made up for it with a scream-inducing surprise.

“When I was on my trip, Malik Zaire Skyped the class,” she said. “For the first 10 minutes, it was literally just getting over the screaming. They just could not even believe he was talking to them.”

Once the screaming subsided, the questions came streaming in via video.

What does it take to be a Notre Dame student?

How many hours a week do you study?

Is the Golden Dome pretty?

The Class of 2029 asked, Zaire answered and Notre Dame suddenly didn’t seem so far away.

“They have absolutely latched onto Malik Zaire,” Silva said. “They just think that he is the greatest thing in the world, which he is.”

"Way up" isn't enough! This day is surreal! Thank you @LuckyLefty8 my class loves you and wants to be just like you' pic.twitter.com/OXdF4WFseG

— Ms Silva's 3rd Grade (@alsil23) November 13, 2015

***

On Saturday, Notre Dame-Stockton finally collided with Notre Dame-South Bend.

Thanks to the generosity of a donor that heard about Silva’s story, the entire class was provided tickets to the Irish’s regular season finale at Stanford — a brief 80-mile trip down the road.

Best trick ever! Thanks to some wonderful generous people we will be attending the ND vs Stanford game! #waywaywayuppic.twitter.com/TBJvjX9Std

— Ms Silva's 3rd Grade (@alsil23) November 18, 2015

For most of them, it was their first football game. For many others, their first foray onto a college campus.

For Silva, it was proof — from a pizza parlor to Palo Alto — of just how far they’ve come.

“I’ve been teaching for eight years, and it’s the greatest job in the world,” she said. “But I will never, ever forget the day that I got to tell them that they were going to go see the football team.

“I can’t describe how it makes me feel as a teacher, because it’s clear that I love them. I wouldn’t do all of these extra things if I didn’t believe in their future. It just makes me feel very emotional that others believe just as strongly as I do.”

I shouldn't let the kids shoot their own videos! Hard to tell but they are singing "Stanfords going down for real"! pic.twitter.com/gcyzm25xPu

— Ms Silva's 3rd Grade (@alsil23) November 27, 2015

We are on the way! Go Notre Dame! We love you! We will be yelling timber! #ndclass2029#ineestostopcrying#waywayuppic.twitter.com/oVci7Zn5Mr

— Ms Silva's 3rd Grade (@alsil23) November 28, 2015

With the birthday boy who cancelled his 8th bday party! He says, this is a dream come true so it's worth it! #wayuppic.twitter.com/rzcgnBSR3l

— Ms Silva's 3rd Grade (@alsil23) November 28, 2015

We are here! Go @NDFootball we love you! This is our best day ever! #ndclass2029#lovethem#timberpic.twitter.com/DuPPq2U8kD

— Ms Silva's 3rd Grade (@alsil23) November 29, 2015

We are here and we are allll green! Go Irish! We love you!@NDFootball @FightingIrish#ndclass2029#waywayuppic.twitter.com/K3qF09gJ5L

— Ms Silva's 3rd Grade (@alsil23) November 29, 2015

We don't care about the score we love our team! Our heroes forever! #ndclass2029#wayup#proudofourcollegepic.twitter.com/4CbYgr2xgQ

— Ms Silva's 3rd Grade (@alsil23) November 29, 2015

Rudy on the way home! This was the best day ever we are so grateful to be Irish! We love ND forever! #ndclass2029pic.twitter.com/PUmtUpKHG2

— Ms Silva's 3rd Grade (@alsil23) November 29, 2015

Allison Silva's third grade class in Stockton, Calif., has formed a special connection with the Notre Dame football team (photo courtesy Allison Silva).
Allison Silva's third grade class in Stockton, Calif., has formed a special connection with the Notre Dame football team (photo courtesy Allison Silva).
Allison Silva's third grade class in Stockton, Calif., has formed a special connection with the Notre Dame football team (photo courtesy Allison Silva).