I was a tiny child and I did not grow to my adult size until I was almost a senior in high school when I had a growth spurt that made the concept of growing pains feel brutally painful. My diminutive size and late blooming tendencies made me feel inadequate when it came to athletic challenges. I was able to run but my stride was so much shorter than my peers that I rarely kept up with them in competitive situations. I also seemed to be a bit lacking in hand eye coordination so games like volleyball and basketball were unbelievably challenging for me. I learned what it was like to be the last person chosen for a team. I had to endure the groans of the group that got stuck with me during competitions. Mostly I slowly but surely did my best to escape situations that required my athleticism, thinking that I was somehow defective in that regard. The jokes leveled at my lack of prowess from my brothers did little to change my opinion of myself when faced with the prospect of participating in games that required my physical prowess.
I kept to pursuits that used the talents that came naturally to me. I was able to learn even difficult concepts very quickly. I had a photographic memory. I sometimes joked that when God announced that he was passing out sports abilities I had my head in a book and missed the announcement. I decided to simply accept my deficiencies and move forward with my life. I became the sporting version of the kid who announces, “I’m no good in math” and then fulfills her own prophecy. It would take a gifted educator to convince me of the error of my ways.
I had to enroll several required classes in physical education as part of my college degree plan. I tried golf and was so bad that the teacher promised to give me a passing grade only if I promised never to pick up a set of clubs again and never to tell anyone that he had been my teacher. Tennis was not much better and that coach simply ignored me once she realized that I was hopeless. It would be a man with a PhD in physical education who would demonstrate to me the essence of a masterful educator.
As part of my coursework for being certified as a teacher I had to endure a college class designed to prepare me for the possibility of having to instruct students in physical education in addition to teaching the so called “three Rs.” The goal of the course was to cycle through every possible kind of athletic game just in case we might ever need such skills. I was miserable and seemingly unable to perform well with any sport. I counted down the days when my torture would be over and vowed to never interview for a job that might somehow place me in a gym or on a field even if only for a few minutes each week. Then, just when I thought that I was going to escape unnoticed, the perceptive professor asked me to stay after class for a conference.
I dreaded the encounter and felt that I already knew what he was going to say. I expected the usual complaints about how inept I was and a promise to pass me if I simply hung in for the remainder of the semester and promised never to even serve as a substitute teacher in any athletic capacity. I knew the drill, but it was still painful to hear such things. Instead he began asking me what kind of coaching I had received while still in elementary, junior high and high school. He listened intently as I told him that the usual sequence of events was to hand me a ball or an implement of some kind and tell me to begin playing without any formal instruction. I mentioned that I had been a baton twirler and that was the only time that my hands and my eyes seemed to work together. I also indicated that I like to dance and felt comfortable learning new steps without appearing to be a klutz but otherwise I felt like my brain and my body mostly worked at odds with one another.
He then invited me to stay for a few minutes after each class because he wanted to actually teach me how to do the most fundamental things. Thus began my education in how to sink a basketball in a hoop, how to throw and catch a baseball or football, how to connect a bat with a ball and so forth. I was surprised to learn that there were actually processes and ways of positioning my feet or using my arms. Suddenly I was doing things that I had always thought were beyond my abilities. It felt really good to make progress in an arena that had usually been terrifying for me. It also made me realize that as a teacher I would encounter students who had given up on themselves in some regard and it would be my duty to help them to overcome their fears. It was an amazing revelation for me.
I ended up spending my career teaching mathematics, a subject that had been secondary to my major in English. I had thought that I would be instructing students in the art of dissecting literature, parsing sentences and writing eloquent passages. Instead I became the guide for one of the most dreaded subjects for many many students. I quickly learned that a good number of pupils in each of my classes would be terrified of numbers and mathematical concepts. They would prefer just getting by and getting through the sequence of topics rather than attempting to master them. They were to math as I had been to sports.
From my own traumatic experience I knew that my duty with my most reluctant students would be to take them back to the fundamentals and build their confidence enough that they would be willing to try more difficult things. I showed them how all of the the basic skills of math came so beautifully together to lift up into an understanding of what all of those formulas and numbers actually do. I gave them my time and my patience and my encouragement until they found the belief in themselves that had been so lacking.
I never became a jock nor did I run marathons, but I felt better about myself in realizing that I was not just some hopelessly gawky loser who was born without the ability to make my body work like an athlete. I understood that we each have talents that seem to come to us without much effort and difficulties that require extra help. Teaching became my mental and spiritual marathon and my goal was always to be watchful for the souls who had convinced themselves as I once had that they were losers. I would become their coach who stayed with them until they understood that they were not always going to be bad in math or anything else. I saw that real teaching is more than just scoring the points or getting the right answers. It is about reaching both the minds and the hearts. I was not just a purveyor of facts. I became a coach.