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Ten Years In

In my last post, about my parents and their influence, I noted that my stepfather, Bob, coached several of my Little League teams. But he wasn’t really a baseball coach. He knew more about the sports he had played as a child: basketball and football—and ice hockey, which wasn’t much played in sweltering South Mississippi, where we lived. As I got older, Bob recognized his limitations and backed away from coaching baseball.

When I was 12 (I’m pretty sure), I played for the Marlins, coached by Steve Merrill. I already loved baseball by the time that Coach Merrill entered my life, but looking back, I believe he is the person who turned that strong interest into an enduring passion. Coach Merrill taught me that baseball is a craft—something to be mastered. He taught me that you don’t simply go out there and throw a ball around; there is a right way and a wrong way to do it. He showed me how to grip the baseball across the seams so that it would fly faster and straighter. At first base, he showed me how to use the corners of the base to receive throws from various points on the infield. Many of the things he taught me, I now teach my players the same way.

Coach Merrill’s approach to teaching the game jibed perfectly with my parents’ expectations for me. As I noted, they expected me to play hard and listen to my coaches, and in Coach Merrill, I had found a coach worth listening to. In fact, I couldn’t get enough of his practices.

More than any other individual, Coach Merrill opened up the intricacies of the game to me. After that season with the Marlins, baseball was an infinitely more complex sport, and I realized how much I had to learn. It was probably around this time that I began accumulating books detailing everything from the proper footwork for turning a double play at second base to how hitters fare in various counts (e.g., a 2-0 count versus an 0-2 count). I’m sure I didn’t understand them all at the time, but this is undoubtedly what set me on the path toward becoming a baseball coach. I even remember buying The Physics of Baseball at age 12 because it promised to teach me why a curveball curves. (I thought that if I could perhaps get a handle on the physics of the thing, I could hit it better. Unfortunately, I still can’t make much sense of that book, but it remains on the shelf.)

Coach Merrill had two sons, Tanner and Jace, who were roughly my age. Tanner was in my class at school and played on the Marlins. Jace was a year or two younger, so he wasn’t on the team, but he often came to practices. Both were extraordinarily athletic, and I remember being jealous of their talent, but they got away with nothing. (I also played basketball for Coach Merrill one season, and I have a hazy memory of Jace, who was one of the best players on the team despite being the youngest, taking a crazy shot or doing something otherwise selfish. At the next whistle, he found himself on the bench.) Coach Merrill taught his sons to take advantage of their talent and strive to be great, but he had no patience for embarrassing others or using their ability solely for their own benefit.

Coach Merrill was an Air Force chaplain, but for a “man of the cloth,” he was no prig. (It’s worth noting here that at that age, I wasn’t aware of what he did beyond knowing that he was in the Air Force; he never talked about his religious beliefs or his work, and I probably assumed he was a pilot like everyone else in the Air Force.) He did promote good sportsmanship, and I believe he had his priorities very much in order when it came to winning and losing, but he also knew there came a point when you had to stand up for your team. I remember him going out to argue a call during one game, and while he argued with the umpire, Tanner told a story (perhaps embellished) about his father once getting ejected from an older brother’s game. As I remember the story, the game had remained close despite his team’s lukewarm effort, and at one point, the umpire made a bad-though-not-egregious call. Coach Merrill seized the opportunity. He supposedly looked at Tanner, who must have been 8 or 10, and said “Go get in the car” before promptly going out and getting himself ejected.

At that age, I probably just thought it was “cool” that he had gotten tossed like Bobby Cox, who managed the Braves, my favorite team as a child. (For what it’s worth, Coach Merrill did not get ejected from our game that day.) It would be easy to use this as an example of a man’s “temper” or poor sportsmanship, but reflecting on this story now, I see something deeper possibly at play. As a coach (and teacher), I’ve learned that there are times when what your team (or class) needs to hear is “I’m behind you, but I can’t do it for you. Now go out there and win this game without me.” In a way, this is the opposite of the hackneyed “Win one for the Gipper” speech, wherein players are asked to play hard for someone else.

In the end, it comes down to our vision for kids. Our job is to teach them well, light a fire, and then have them go out and do it for themselves… whatever “it” happens to be: baseball, school, a career, etc. Coach Merrill did that for me, and in spite of the fact that I have seen or spoken to him in over 20 years, the lessons live on and the fire still burns.

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After writing about my grandmother in my first post of this series, the subjects of my second post are perhaps predictable. Along with Maggie, my parents had the greatest hand in shaping me into the man—and the educator—I am today.

My mother and father divorced when I was young; I have no memory of them as a married couple. From what I’ve gathered over the years, it was not an especially happy marriage, so perhaps that is just as well. Following their divorce, there was a period of time when it was just my mother and me, and though my memories of that time are suspect given my age then and the intervening years, they are formative. My hazy recollection of my hard-working single mother humbles me, and even when forced to resort to feeding me Spam, she never failed to make time for me. I loved it when she read to me and once got so excited that I accidentally poked her in the eye with a children’s book cut out in the pointed shape of a cat’s ear, which left her wearing an eye patch. I imagine that she was a more cautious reader after that, but she still imparted a love of reading which I count among the best gifts I have ever received.

A few months before my seventh birthday, she remarried. I remember my stepfather, Bob, from that period as being extraordinarily tall and much more athletically inclined than my mother. (In her defense, my mother did have some athleticism. She used to tell me about playing volleyball and running track in high school, and a few years later, once I had grown a bit and was feeling cocky, I challenged her to a footrace. She demurred, but I continued to pester her. Finally, nearing her wit’s end, she consented. We took our marks, got set… and she promptly left me in the dust, crossing the finish line at least 5 yards ahead of me before limping around the house for a week.) At any rate, Bob was more than willing to throw the football and teach me how to shoot a basketball properly, and later, he would coach several of my Little League teams. On top of his investment of time, the addition of his income opened doors to me that had previously been closed, like trips to the aquarium and Tae Kwon Do classes.

When it came to parenting, my parents were strict. On Diana Baumrind’s spectrum of parenting styles, they were solidly authoritative, sometimes even leaning toward authoritarian. They had firm expectations and set high standards in everything I did. When it came to school, I was expected to earn Honor Roll. When it came to sports, they didn’t care so much about wins and losses, but I was expected to listen to my coaches and play hard. After I finally convinced my mother to let me play tackle football at age 11, I injured my foot in the third week of practice. She watched from the car as I sat on the sideline, and after about half an hour, she stormed across the field to inform me that she didn’t come to watch me sit on my butt. I could either get up and play, or I could get in the car and we could go home. I angrily told her that I would be happy to play if I could walk, and she accused me of being melodramatic. At the end of practice, my coaches carried me to the car. Bob was working late that night, and by the time he got home, I had gone into Maggie’s old room and gotten her walker. Seeing this, Bob decided that we should go to the hospital and get an x-ray. It turned out my foot was broken, and my mother felt terrible. I still like to hold this over her head, but I also take a strange measure of pride in it. My mother—the woman who refused to let me play football for fear that I would get hurt—bawled me out for not playing with a broken foot. Again, high standards.

I can’t remember my parents pushing me to do anything I didn’t want to do, with one noteworthy exception: piano lessons. I had no interest in playing the piano, but as I neared the end of elementary school, I looked forward to joining the middle school band. My parents told me they would happily support me in this, but that I would have to begin taking piano lessons a year in advance in order to learn how to read music. Playing the piano struck me as a fairly sissy thing to do back then, and I said so, but there was no getting around it. I wanted to join the band, so I learned to play the piano. (In fact, I ended up enjoying it and stuck with it long after my parents gave me permission to stop.)

The expectation was clear: If I was going to do something, I was going to do it the right way.

This was reinforced, not surprisingly, through extrinsic motivation, and if Maggie was the good cop, my parents played the bad cops. I don’t recall ever receiving any tangible rewards from my parents for good grades or strong play (though I probably did at times). Excellence, at least an excellent effort, was simply expected, and if I didn’t meet their exacting standards, I could definitely expect a consequence.

They were sticklers for discipline, but my parents were also open to reason. Even as late as my junior year of high school, I had what I believed to be an insanely early bedtime of 10:00pm. Most of my classmates did not have a bedtime at all, and to me, it felt infantilizing. (It was probably also infantilizing to have my mommy wake me up every morning, but I don’t think I complained about that.) Finally, before the start of my senior year, I presented my case to my parents. “I don’t think I should have a bedtime this year,” I started, and already I could sense them beginning to roll their eyes. We’ve been down this road before, they were obviously thinking. Still, I pressed on: “I’m going to be a senior, and next year, I’ll be away at college. I won’t have a bedtime there, and I need to learn how to manage my time myself.” They glanced at each other, and as I continued, I eventually got some nods. My argument seemed to be hitting home!

I don’t remember which one of them spoke first when I eventually rested my case, but I do remember what was said: “That sounds fine, on two conditions. First, we won’t tell you when to go bed, but we also won’t wake you up. You are responsible for getting yourself out of bed in the morning and getting yourself ready for school.” Eagerly I replied, “Of course! What else?” And without missing a beat: “The first time we see a C on your report card, your bedtime is 10:00.”

Occasionally these days, my students or players give me reason to talk about self-discipline. I like to quote John Wooden, who said, “Discipline yourself, and others won’t need to.” Looking back on it, though, my parents’ thinking seemed to be, “We will discipline you so that someday you will be able to.” I’m sure I resented them for it at times, but as an adult, I am so grateful. I occasionally think about my parents when I force myself to go to bed early or pull myself out of bed at 5:45am. I don’t particularly like up before the sun rises, but I have found that I am at my best mentally in the morning, and I often use that time to read or write or prepare for the day. It would be so much easier to sleep as late as possible, but there are things to be done. Be disciplined.

My parents weren’t generally the type to preach, but they did make sure I learned the value of work at an early age. I helped out as a child, whether it was getting something from the pantry as my mother cooked dinner or helping my stepdad as he repaired the fence or built a deck. As a young teen, I had household responsibilities that I “owned,” including feeding the dog daily and mowing the lawn every weekend. Once I was able to drive, I was expected to find a paying job, and I worked pretty much year-round, with the exception of baseball season. Winters were often my busiest time of year, when I would go to school, lift weights with the baseball team after school, and dash home for a quick dinner before reporting to work. Luckily there were often slow periods at my job which allowed me to get homework done.

In addition to progressively developing my work ethic, my parents also took advantage of every opportunity to teach me about accountability and sacrifice. One morning during my senior year, I was running late and came into the school parking lot a bit too fast. (Per our arrangement, they had not woken me up.) In my haste to park and rush into my first period class, I clipped the right rear bumper of a friend’s car. When I told my parents that evening, they made it clear that paying for the damage was my responsibility. I remember being amazed at what it cost—$800 for something that small?!—but I have never had another careless accident like that. I didn’t have enough money saved up to pay for the repairs outright, so they agreed to pay my friends’ parents on the condition that I would pay them back a certain amount from each paycheck until my debt was cleared.

I felt bad about hitting my friend’s car (more accurately, her parents’ car), but at that age, I was most upset about how this would impact my ability to make the rite of passage “Beach Week” trip to Myrtle Beach with my friends after graduation. Of course, I also knew better than to complain to my parents about how “unfair” any of this was. I had created this problem for myself, and it was up to me to solve it. So I devised a plan. My parents usually gave me money (about $15 per week, if memory serves) to buy my lunch at school. Instead, I stopped at the grocery store on the way one morning and bought a box of saltines and a large jar of peanut butter. I kept them in my locker, and for most of my senior year, that was my lunch every day. I pocketed the vast majority of the lunch money my parents gave me and set it aside for Beach Week.

I don’t know if my parents were aware that I was doing this, but I think a small part of them might have been proud. Especially before she remarried, my mother had worked hard and made personal sacrifices to provide for me, and though my sacrifices were nowhere near as noble as hers, I had accepted responsibility for my mistake and I had made a choice that aligned with my priorities. I delayed gratification and sacrificed a full hot lunch for weeks on end, all with the goal of being able to make the trip to the beach with my friends.

In high school, I remember thinking my parents were extremely strict, at least relative to those of many of my classmates’, but looking back, they were not helicopter parents. They set high standards and communicated their expectations clearly, but then they more or less stayed out of my way unless I somehow came up short. I was allowed to make mistakes, and then I was corrected. I was sometimes micromanaged, yes, when it came to things like bedtime, but on the big questions, I was allowed to think for myself—to make my own decisions and then live with the consequences.

Given their unwavering expectation that I attend college, one might have expected them to pressure me to apply to this or that school, or to look over my shoulder throughout the application process. In fact, the opposite was true. As I recall, their only input during the college search came in the form of questions. At one point, I was enamored with the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and I talked about it non-stop. One day, probably as I waxed poetic about that unmistakable shade of blue, my parents asked, “How are you going to pay for that?” I had never considered the question. I replied, “Well, won’t you pay for it?” They said that they were happy to pay the lion’s share for an in-state school (I would still have to take out loans to cover some), but that anything above and beyond the costs for an in-state school were my responsibility. After a quick glance at the out-of-state tuition, UNC quickly fell from my list. I ended up applying Early Decision to the University of Virginia, and to be honest, I’m not even sure my parents were aware that I was working on the application until I asked them to write a check for the application fee.

As a teenager, being told (not in so many words) that I was limited to state schools struck me as unfair, especially since I had friends whose parents were paying all of their tuition for out-of-state or private colleges. As I matured, though, I came to appreciate my parents’ position, not unlike the way I appreciated my mother’s tough love on the football field. Aside from any purely financial considerations, Though I didn’t really think about it this way until well after the fact, I came to feel that I “owned” part of my college education in a very real sense, and I suspect that had something to do with the fact that I took it much more seriously than I did high school. When I left for college, my parents more or less stopped inquiring about my grades, but those student loan statements served as one last extrinsic motivator, hidden in plain sight. Still, one of the proudest moments of my young adult life was when I mailed my final student loan payment, several years ahead of schedule.

Like most kids, I suspect, there was a time when I thought my parents were just the worst. Now, though, I am incredibly thankful for the way I was raised. I know that my parents are responsible for many of my best traits—particularly my work ethic and self-discipline—as well as my tendency to set high standards for everyone around me, but first and foremost for myself. (They may also be responsible for my neurotic pursuit of “the right way” of doing everything, whether it’s loading a dishwasher, stapling a set of papers together, or standing for the Star-Spangled Banner before a ballgame. I know these quirks drive my students and players—not to mention my wife—crazy at times, but I’ll take the bad with the good.)

In the classroom and on the field, I refuse to apologize for setting high standards. I want my students to learn from their failures, just like I learned from mine, and in order for that to happen, the bar can’t be set too low. Students must strive for excellence and still come up short at times. Hard work is a must, and I believe that work ethic and self-discipline combine to produce success and, in turn, self-confidence. It cannot be the other way around. These are the building blocks of autonomy and adulthood, and more than anything, that is what I want for my students—just what my parents wanted for me. Tough love is hard, and I know that I waver more than my parents did, but I try to “fight the good fight,” as I would much rather my students resent me now and appreciate me later than like me now and leave my classroom unprepared for whatever comes next.

The summer of 1924 was a momentous time. International statesmen wrestled with the continued problem of German reparations following World War I, and Adolf Hitler sat in prison following his conviction for treason in the wake of the failed “Beer Hall Putsch.” Back home in the United States, Calvin Coolidge, having ascended to the presidency after the sudden death of Warren G. Harding the previous year, received the Republican Party’s nomination for a full term of his own. The United States was three-and-a-half years into its ultimately unsuccessful experiment with Prohibition, and many Americans were enthralled by the gory details of Leopold and Loeb’s “perfect crime,” which they believed would prove their status as übermenschen. Though financial recklessness would plunge the country into the Great Depression five years later, no one would have predicted that at the time. The American industrial economy was in full swing following its postwar reconversion, the stock market was beginning a tremendous bull market, and consumer goods—automobiles, refrigerators, and the like—were more readily available than ever before. Amidst all of this, on June 20, Margaret Orlean Owens was born to sharecroppers in rural Marengo County, Alabama. She was my grandmother.

Maggie, as I called her, was almost sixty when I was born, but until she was diagnosed with cancer, I never noticed any signs of aging. Unlike my grandfather, who dealt with a host of health issues, Maggie was vibrant and fun. She took a special interest in me, and she encouraged me to learn and get good grades—indeed, to pursue excellence in all things. If I brought home a stellar report card, I would often receive a card in the mail with a $5 or $10 bill a few days later. If I happened to play a great baseball game while she was in town visiting, I might get a silver dollar. (It’s worth noting that the use of extrinsic motivators was something of a family habit. Maggie’s older sister, whom I call Aunt Frances, once promised me $5 when I could name all fifty states and another $5 when I could name their capitals. I collected on the first offer; I never did on the second.)

Interestingly, as a teacher, I’m a fairly staunch opponent of extrinsic motivation for learning, and I can see the reasons why even in my young self. I’m not sure Maggie ever really recognized that she had created a monster, but when I was about eleven or twelve, I drew up a “contract” filled with what we now call “incentive clauses” for my upcoming baseball season. According to the terms, my parents would be obligated to pay me for certain milestone hits, RBIs, and stolen bases, as well as for each home run I slugged. Not surprisingly, my parents did not agree to the terms. Said contract went unsigned, and I remained in that sense a “free agent.” I have no doubt, though, that had I could have talked Maggie into signing such a sweetheart deal had she still been living.

Maggie had been diagnosed with breast cancer when I was too young to understand what cancer was. She received treatment and was in remission for several years, but in time, the cancer returned. With her second diagnosis, Maggie progressively lost her independence, first moving to the town where we lived (though in her own apartment), and later, as both the cancer and the treatments became more aggressive, moving in with us. By this point, I was aware that Maggie was sick, but I thought her moving in with us was the best thing in the world. It meant that my greatest champion was just down the hall, and I could spend time with her every afternoon after school.

While she lived with us, Maggie often asked what I had learned about that day, and if her interest was feigned, she deserved an Oscar. I still received rewards for good grades, though sometimes it meant accompanying my mother to the bank to make a withdrawal on Maggie’s behalf. Showing my report card to my parents was something I had to do; showing it to Maggie was something I couldn’t wait to do. The money played a significant role in that, I’m sure, but looking back, it’s the warm glow of her pride that I can still feel after all these years.

I still have a few things from Maggie. One of those is the last card she ever sent me, which I saved though it contained no money. I was spending the summer at my father’s house, as I always did then, and Maggie’s condition deteriorated. When it appeared that the end was near, my mother sent for me, and I returned home. By the time I arrived at Maggie’s bedside, she had slipped into a non-responsive state. At my mother’s urging, I squeezed Maggie’s hand and told her I was there, and at this, the faintest hint of a smile crossed her lips. That was all, but it was enough. She had said goodbye. I was ten years old.

I know enough now to realize that this may have been an involuntary response, a stimulus of some kind from my squeezing her hand. Still, I prefer to think of it as one last smile for me. She passed away later that night without regaining consciousness, and a few days later, after the funeral, I returned to my father’s house. Waiting for me there was the card, which had been mailed just a day or two before I went home to see her. The envelope was addressed in my mother’s handwriting, and it didn’t immediately occur to me who it was really from, but Maggie had clearly insisted on signing it herself. You can tell from the signature—sloppy but unmistakably hers—that her strength had been fading. The card’s message was simple, but perfect: “Don’t forget—I love you.”

I had felt numb in the immediate aftermath of her death, and I had kept my emotions in check fairly well. But I remember vividly the moment when I opened this card. I was crushed, and I cried uncontrollably for what felt like hours. Even now, twenty-three years later, as a grown man, I am moved to sobs when I re-open this card and read it. That is the power of her enduring love.

Maggie loved me, and she believed in me. The love she gave was never conditional—never dependent on my performance in school or on the baseball field. Still, something about her love made me want to earn it. I’m not sure how she did that, or if she was even conscious of it, but Maggie’s masterful blending of unconditional love and extrinsic motivators set an early tone for my life. I knew that I was loved, and yet I strove to be worthy of that love. Maggie believed in my power to be extraordinary, and when I doubt myself today, I remember this. She confronted—and eventually succumbed to—a debilitating disease, and yet even in the most difficult moments, she invested herself in me. She shared her abundant love until the very end, and I never forgot it.

I can’t think of a better description of a teacher, and though becoming a teacher had never even crossed my mind when Maggie passed away, perhaps it was her example that led me toward this career. It is certainly one that I aspire to, despite knowing that I fall far short of it on a daily basis. It’s easy to get wrapped up in the day-to-day: the assignments, the grades, the e-mails, but education is, at its core, about relationships. To have the impact that I hope to have, my students must know that I care deeply about them—that I believe in their potential and am willing to invest myself in them. As I enter the classroom today to begin my tenth year as a teacher, I’ll try to keep Maggie’s example closer to fore of my mind.

Next Monday, August 21, will mark the start of my tenth year in the classroom–a milestone which seems to invite some longer-term reflection. As I think back on my career so far, there have been so many people who have helped to make me into the educator (and indeed the man) that I have become, and it seems appropriate to commemorate Year Ten by paying homage to them.

With that in mind, I’ve decided to write one post each month this school year (August through May) in which I reflect on the influence of some of my many teachers and mentors. Though I doubt that I could ever repay the collective debt of gratitude that I owe to these women and men, my hope is that my words will give them some small measure of pride as they themselves reflect on the lives they’ve led and the impact they’ve made.

This effort is not entirely selfless, however. In reflecting on why and how these individuals shaped my life, I’ll also strive to identify a few through-lines that will propel me forward into the next ten years.