Ten Years In

All of the sophomore boys knew: Ms. Dewey was not to be trifled with. In my memory she stands about 5’2”, though it’s possible she was taller. Whatever her exact height, she was a slight woman, but she had a look that could stop you in your tracks. The Dewey glare was the stuff of legend, and we quickly came to realize that the glare was actually a warning. Only a fool would persist after receiving it, and if by chance she had to open her mouth to put a stop to your foolishness, the worst thing one could do was attempt to match wits with her. Her wits—unlike yours—were razor-sharp, and when challenged, she took no prisoners. Sometimes, you would see a friend in the hallway between classes, and from his downcast eyes and mopey walk, you just knew. He had run afoul of Dewey.

I start with this description because to understand the impact that Elaine Dewey had on me, I think it’s essential to understand this side of her. But it’s also important to note that she had a wonderful sense of humor and a laugh that, despite her diminutive size, could fill a room. I remember her, more than any of my other high school teachers, beginning class on Mondays by asking us about our weekends and regularly sharing what she called “cocktail party information.” Know this stuff, she would say, so you don’t end up looking stupid someday. She was tough, but it was also clear that she cared.

One of my strongest memories from sophomore English was her telling us that she was a competitive powerlifter—and a champion powerlifter at that. When she was feeling mirthful, a clearly distinguishable form of the glare might also be accompanied by a snarling but only semi-serious threat: “I could bench press you.” We believed her. Amongst 15 year-olds with meathead tendencies, this provided instant credibility. Looking back, I wonder if this biographical tidbit was true. I have no specific reason to doubt it, except that as a teacher, I’ve come to realize the power of a little mystery. I’ve never told my students a lie about myself, but they have at times chosen to believe myths that I did not see fit to correct.

With one exception (more on that later), I don’t ever recall having a one-on-one conversation with Ms. Dewey during my time as a student. Her class was not my favorite (it was hard), but more than any other teacher I ever had, Elaine Dewey changed my life.

First and foremost, she taught me to write. Of course, I already knew the basics when I got to English 10, but Ms. Dewey taught me to sweat the details—to revise, and revise again, until the words fit together just the way I wanted them to. This, I have come to know, is what writing really is. The best writers do not simply have a gift; they have a work ethic. Ms. Dewey drilled us on the parts of speech, made us diagram sentences until we were blue in the face, and assigned us the longest essay we had ever written to that point. However, she also let us choose the topic: I wrote about John Rocker and his First Amendment right to voice his deplorable views. (It seems I was a civil libertarian even from an early age.)

I actually believe that I do my best thinking through writing. (I have tried to impress upon my students this benefit of writing, but it has negative consequences, too. Occasionally, an e-mail that should probably be 2-3 sentences can sometimes take me an hour to write as I end up going through several revisions… but at the end of that hour, I’ve got an e-mail that I’m damn proud of.) Though I don’t do it as often as I would like, I have come to love writing, and without Ms. Dewey’s class, I’m not sure that would have happened.

Ms. Dewey’s most powerful lesson, though, came two years after I took her class. By that time, she had moved into an administrative job, but she remained the faculty sponsor of the National Honor Society. About midway through my senior year, when I had already been admitted to college, I started to slack off. I enjoyed making people laugh, and with the pressure of college decisions off my shoulders, I began to relish the role of class clown. I did enough to keep my grades decent, but I also did stupid things to make sure everyone knew that I didn’t really care that much about school.

My physics teacher, Mrs. Friel, bore the brunt of my nonsense. Once, I opened the window of our first-floor classroom and snuck out while we watched a movie. I walked all the way around the school to the front door, and straight back to Mrs. Friel’s room. (I was rebellious… but only a little bit.) When I walked in, Mrs. Friel said, “I don’t remember giving you permission to leave!” I nodded at the window and said, “You didn’t.” My classmates loved it; Mrs. Friel, not so much. Another time, I snuck in the same window during my lunch period and sat in the back of the room talking with a friend during his class. Several minutes passed, and when Mrs. Friel finally noticed me, she yelled (angrier than I had ever seen her), “Matt! Get out!” So I went right back out the window. I didn’t mean any disrespect by my actions, but they clearly showed a lack of respect.

As these kinds of shenanigans began to pile up, I received a note from Ms. Dewey out of the blue, instructing me to report to her office after school. Uh oh. I knew immediately that I was in trouble, though I did not (in my thick-skulled adolescence) necessarily understand what exactly had caused this.

When I walked into Ms. Dewey’s office, I was expecting the glare. To my surprise, I didn’t get it right away. She was working on something and, barely looking up, said, “Have a seat.” She continued working. This was strange. It made me think that perhaps I was wrong; perhaps I wasn’t in trouble at all. The longer I sat there, the more I convinced myself. Finally, she put down her pen and looked up. “I assume you know why you’re here,” she said with a smile.

She was smiling! I was right! Maybe this was actually a good meeting! She was going to congratulate me for getting into my top college early decision!

“No, ma’am,” I said. (After moving to Pennsylvania, I had more or less stopped using ma’am and sir, but I still reverted instinctively to them in times like these, as if my brain recognize that danger lurked just around the corner.)

And there it was. The glare. The smile vanished, and in an instant, I knew that I had been deceiving myself. This was no congratulatory chat; I had crossed a line, and worse, given the opportunity, I had not owned up to it. “I’ve heard that you’ve been cutting up in class,” she practically spat at me through clenched teeth. (Note: Her teeth were probably not clenched, and there was probably no spitting, but it felt that way to me.)

My sophomore self, accustomed to interacting with Ms. Dewey on a daily basis, would have dropped my head, mumbled an apology, and taken my punishment right then. But my senior self was cocky. It was almost an out-of-body experience. I knew what I should do, and yet my mouth kept moving. Scared out of my wits, I nevertheless attempted to deploy them.

“Who told you that?” I asked incredulously. Attempting to give a little in order to get a lot, I made a partial confession: “I mean, I sometimes joke around in Mrs. Friel’s class, but it’s not—”

Her eyes narrowed and she cut me off. “I’ve heard it from three different teachers. Word is, you’ve been acting like a jerk ever since you got into U-V-A.”

I dropped my head. I mumbled an apology. I took my punishment.

In that five-minute conversation, Ms. Dewey set me on a different path. I don’t think I would have framed it this way then, but Ms. Dewey saw through my facade and cut me down to size. I have come to realize, over time, that pride is one of my vices, and looking back, Ms. Dewey was telling me as much. “You’re no better than anyone else,” she told me without ever saying those words. My actions were disrespectful of my teachers, and deep down, I knew that, even if I was too self-absorbed at that point to realize it.

Ms. Dewey told me in characteristically blunt fashion that she thought I was wasting my potential and that it didn’t matter if I was going to a top college if I continued behaving that way. But, if I was willing to swallow my pride, I would have a second chance. I was made to apologize—in person—to each of my teachers. I was made to do additional community service hours. And I was made to understand that if Ms. Dewey so much as heard my name mentioned by another teacher for discipline issues, I would be removed from National Honor Society faster than I could sneak out a classroom window.

Strangely, it was in this moment that I realized how much I cared about Ms. Dewey’s opinion. Just as Ms. Dewey wore a “mask” of toughness, I cultivated a “devil-may-care” persona. In that moment, though, I realized that I cared. As terrified as I was (especially of my parents finding out), I remember being most upset about the fact that I had let Ms. Dewey down. I’m sure that I was not a perfect angel for the remainder of my senior year, but I was definitely more self-aware.

These days, when my non-teacher friends ask me about classroom discipline, I tell them that it’s the students who are most like me who give me the biggest headaches—the ones who are capable but either don’t care or, worse, try to turn everything into a joke. Those are often the ones I butt heads with, and when I do, I am conscious of Ms. Dewey’s influence on me. (When I went back to my high school to visit in college, I remember telling one of my teachers that I had decided to pursue a career in the classroom. “You know, Matt,” she said with a chuckle. “You reap what you sow.” Truer words were never spoken.)

I don’t know if I pull off the glare as well as Ms. Dewey did, but I am not above a show of righteous anger at times. Even so, I try to leave room for the second chance. I certainly felt judged by Ms. Dewey in that moment, but I needed to. I was disappointed in myself for disappointing her, but I was too arrogant and self-absorbed at 17 to recognize it on my own. Still, I would hate to think that she formed her lasting opinion of me in that moment.

In those challenging conversations, which happen all the time between teachers and students, I try to keep this in mind. Much is made of “character education” these days, and there are entire “character curricula” available for purchase. There is a place for well-designed programs like these, but at the end of the day, though, character education comes down to individual teachers setting a high standard of appropriate behavior and caring enough about their students to hold them to it.

That’s what Ms. Dewey taught me. And that’s why I still revere her, almost 20 years later.

That’s also why I revised this post many (too many) times before finally pressing “Publish.”


When I was 13, my family moved from the Mississippi Gulf Coast to suburban Philadelphia. It was, suffice it to say, something of a culture shock. Most people who know me now are surprised to learn it, but as a child, I did have a southern accent, and in Pennsylvania, I was the only kid in school who said “y’all” and “fixin’ to.” Heads turned, as you can imagine. Like most young teens, I was extremely self-conscious, and my Mississippi mannerisms made me stand out like a sore thumb. Thankfully, my experience with Coach Merrill (see my last post) had turned me into a decent baseball player, and among adolescent males, athletic ability confers tremendous social benefits.

I didn’t realize it right away, but as it turned out, I had stepped into a fairly competitive environment, and my skills were in demand. Unlike in Mississippi, the Little League teams in Pennsylvania stayed together for multiple years, and so there were longer-term rivalries. In particular, the coaches of the Seminoles and the Comanche (all of the Senior League teams were named for Indian tribes) had become something like arch-nemeses, and there was a certain intensity around their games. Almost immediately after moving into the area, I began hearing stories. One of my friends, whose name was also Matt, played for the Seminoles, and he talked about the Comanche like Red Sox fans talk about the Yankees; they were the “Evil Empire.” As the spring season approached, Matt told me that his coach wanted me to tank the tryout so that he could be sure to pick me up. I looked forward to playing with Matt, and so I was on board with the plan, but when I mentioned this to my mother, she responded—not surprisingly—by telling me that under no circumstances was I to give any less than my very best effort.

Truth be told, I didn’t have a great tryout. I’d like to say that I listened to my mother, but the truth is that I probably split the difference. I didn’t deliberately blow it, but I certainly underwhelmed during the tryout, which was held in the school gym owing to some unseasonably cold weather. The draft was later that week, but I felt confident that I would soon be joining Matt on the Seminoles.

For some reason, my mom was late picking me up that day, and so as I stood outside the gym waiting for her to arrive, I worked on my swing—probably practicing Joe Brockhoff’s “Super 8” hitting system, pausing at each stage of the swing to check my mechanics. (Like I said, Coach Merrill had taught me that baseball was a craft to be perfected.) I was locked in, not paying much attention to my surroundings, so I was caught off guard when I heard someone call out from a car, “Hey, what’s your name again?” It took me a couple of seconds to realize that it was Eric Poppel, coach of the dreaded Comanche, leader of the Evil Empire. “Uhh,” I stammered. “I’m Matt Edmonds.” “Great,” he said. “I’m going to draft you. I’ll be in touch later this week.” And then he drove away.

Wait… what just happened? “Oh great,” I remember thinking.

Actually, it was. In fact, it was the best thing that could have happened. I ended up playing for “Poppel” (as all of his players called him) for two years, and though he turned out to be a very different kind of coach from Steve Merrill, he made a tremendous impact on my life, especially at that stage.

Poppel was fairly knowledgeable about the game, but looking back, I don’t think he was a tactical or strategic genius. Instead, his wizardry lay in motivation. After I got to know him, I would have run through a brick wall for him, and I think most of my teammates felt the same way. In fact, friends of mine who played on other teams (not the Seminoles, mind you) talked about how they wished they could play for Poppel and the Comanche. (Oh, and during my two years, I don’t think we ever lost to the Seminoles.)

I didn’t have a good read on how old Poppel was, but in my memory, he was probably in his late 20s, or early 30s—about 15-20 years older than us players. At that point, he was unmarried and had no kids of his own, and he could be crude, even inappropriate at times in his interactions with 14-15 year old boys. I remember him once showing up to a game clearly hungover. When someone bolder than me asked him why he looked so rough, he spoke openly about being out too late partying. I’m sure that my mom, had she known some of the topics of conversation, would not have approved. But to a teenage boy, that was the allure. Poppel was “cool,” and he treated us like equals. In so doing, he forged a bond with his players.

Poppel, without ever being direct about it, encouraged us to take ownership of and leadership in the team. I remember being called to the phone by my mother on several occasions. As I took the receiver, I would ask who was on the line. “It’s your baseball coach,” she said. (Eventually, this became common enough that my mother shortened the exchange: “Matt!” she would call out as she set the receiver down on the counter. “Poppel’s on the phone!”) If it was in-season, he would call to talk to get my thoughts about the lineup. In the off-season, he would solicit input on how we could get the team together for a practice. I recognize now that Poppel was probably calling a lot of the guys, and I honestly don’t remember how much he ever took my advice. But that’s beside the point; the point is that he asked. He was the first coach who ever did. He was the first adult who didn’t treat me like a kid.

It was just a Little League team, but Poppel tried to run it like a year-round program. He wanted players who were committed, and so in retrospect, it makes perfect sense why he drafted me. (In fact, in one of our first conversations, he told me as much: “Honestly, you didn’t look great in the tryout, but any kid who is willing to work on his swing the way you were is probably gonna be good. That’s why I picked you. Don’t let me down.”) Poppel was a master bullsh*tter, but he also didn’t sugarcoat things. He had a way of making you feel important, but he would also tell you straight up if you sucked that day.

Even when he was blunt, I never doubted that Poppel was behind me. His actions spoke as loudly as his words, as when he would meet me at the field to work on my speed or my catching skills one-on-one. (Just as with Coach Merrill, I still use some of the drills that Poppel taught me with my players today.) He wrote a workout for me to do on my own, and he would call me to make sure I was keeping up with it.

As a side gig, he organized sports card/memorabilia shows in Philadelphia, and he would often “hire” me to do all sorts of odd jobs on those days. It wasn’t exactly backbreaking labor, but the point was that I had to show up on time and be responsible for accomplishing my tasks. That was my first “job” aside from chores around the house, and I think it prepared me for holding a job throughout much of high school. I fear that many kids, especially those from upper income tiers, don’t get that kind of valuable experience today.

As I approached the age where I would no longer be eligible to play for the Comanche, our conversations began to change. Rather than baseball, Poppel began to talk to me more about the future: about school and college and career choices—the path ahead. He encouraged me to keep working hard in every area. He was working to get his own company off the ground at that point, and he told me that I’d have a job there after college if I wanted it. I believe he was sincere in that promise.

As an educator, I’ve come to realize that there is a time in a typical teenage boy’s life when his day-to-day connection with his parents wanes, and when he reaches that point, he needs a mentor to keep him moving in a positive direction. In many ways, Poppel was that person for me. He recognized potential in me, and he encouraged it. He taught me to believe in myself, preached the value of hard work, and made me believe that I could be a leader.

I’ve lost touch with Poppel over the years, but this Thanksgiving, I have reason to be grateful for many things. Not the least of those things is that, when I was 14 years old, Eric Poppel saw through a mediocre tryout and caught me honing my craft… even though I didn’t want him to. It’s funny how life works out sometimes.

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.

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.