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Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Dear Coach (#2, sort of)

Yesterday, I wrote about hating high school (true). Today, I want to write about middle school. It wasn't better.

It wasn't a bad school and it wasn't like I didn't have friends. I did. I was just a typical miserable middle schooler.

Mostly I read books. I read to occupy myself. I read to escape. I read to learn, dream, think.

I had one teacher who I think really got me.

He was our 7th grade Art teacher. He was our high school football coach. He was the only black individual employed in our entire school district (at least, as far as I ever knew).

He also cursed like a drunken sailor who had just stepped in a literal hornet's nest.

I loved his class. The students were quiet, busy, and generally on task. Those who wanted help stood in line and waited.

We waited quietly too, or he would boot us to the back of the line.

There was only one thing he required of us: effort.

Some of us were natural artists, some of us weren't and had to work to master the concepts.

There are three things I remember about Coach.

First, he nicknamed me "Belle." He never caught me reading in class, but he saw me reading as I walked down the hall.

I didn't even have to ask him why. Disney's Beauty and the Beast had only recently been released and I cannot explain how much I loved the scene where Belle walks through town reading a book.

Coach probably didn't know how much I adored that scene, but he made the connection and I appreciated it.

Second, I have this incredibly clear memory of him melting down in class one day. It was spectacular.

He had been working incredibly hard not to curse and was insanely proud he had gone two whole weeks without slipping.

That day in class, I watched one of my least favorite peers break his last nerve.

She was at the head of the line with her still life. I was near the back.

I remember her whining (most of the time, really). And I remember the words "I can't."

She kept repeating "I can't." After about two minutes of increasingly tense conversation, Coach blew his lid.

He cursed her out something fierce. He ranted and raved against "I can't." He was adamant that those words were the stupidest, most useless phrase on the planet (insert 5-7 expletives in that sentiment).

Then he cursed and ranted and raved and stomped around the room and threw a can at the wall while he cursed her out for making him break his non-cursing streak.

Two weeks was his best record. He was beyond pissed that she pushed him to the literal breaking point.

He was livid with himself for cursing.

More, he was upset that she had, that any of us might have, so little faith in ourselves.

It was a powerful message. Combined with the fact that the target of his wrath was a child I could not stand and who was routinely mean to me, this scene is indelibly etched into my mind.

He showed me that, as a teacher, the most important thing is to believe in your students, even, maybe especially, when they can't believe in themselves.

The third thing I remember about Coach was almost the opposite in tone. It was an incident that was an exercise in patience.

We were outside for some reason. Coach was wearing some sort of spandex shorts. Someone complained about the sun. When Coach responded, the child made a comment about how the sun wouldn't effect him.

He didn't get mad, or call out the kid. He asked a question about why the child believed that. I remember a few other kids crowding around asking and answering questions.

One statement I recall clearly: "But black people don't tan."

I thought for sure Coach would be aggravated. Instead, he bellowed out the biggest belly laugh. Then he pulled up the edge of his shorts and indisputably put that myth to rest.

The most outrageous request came next when someone asked him if his color came off and if they could touch him.

Now, this was a small town and a homogeneous community. Most of the students had lived there and gone to school together their whole lives.

Many had probably never actually talked to someone of another race until they met Coach.

I knew all of this, but the ignorance (as in lack of knowledge, not poor behavior) still shocked me. It shocked me that anyone could be that ignorant of the world.

It shocked me that anyone would admit to being that ignorant.

Probably because I had been lucky enough to live in different places and meet different people throughout my life.

It had never occurred to me that in 1990, that level of isolation was even possible.

What made that memorable was the way Coach handled it. He created an atmosphere where those students had the option to ask questions without feeling defensive.

He educated them without offense, pretense, or discomfort. He didn't take it personally or show surprise at their questions.

At the time, I was mostly just flabbergasted by my peers. Now looking back, it was pretty cool the way he dealt with the situation.

I hope I have half the grace in similar situations.

So today, this isn't a letter to a teacher. Instead, it is a reflection, a collection of brief moments that have in some small way shaped the teacher I try to be each day.

All of those moments, both good, and not so pleasant, wind up being the good things when taken in the context of personal growth.

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