One of the most enjoyable moments of my teaching career happened when my principal asked for volunteers to coach a group of students who would participate in an Academic Pentathlon. Unlike the ten event contests in which high school students compete this was a scaled down version of events centering on an historical theme, a particular book, writing, mathematics and science. I joined a team of teachers tasked with training the students and in the process I learned a great deal about myself, my fellow teachers and the kids that we guided through the process.
Our first year was a bit of a disaster. We were a ragtag group that lacked cohesion and a clear vision of teamwork. The rules demanded that we have an assembly of students who represented a cross section of those earning A, B and C grades. While their enthusiasm was initially high, we learned soon enough that they had very little background information on which they might rely. It was almost like forming a competitive basketball team with athletes who had never even seen the game being played. Our defeats during the initial trials were so brutal that our team wanted to quit and never think about competition again. It took a gathering at a swimming party hosted by one of the coaches to convince the students that we all needed to stick together and push to get better and better.
The following year we convinced the principal to purchase team shirts for everyone. We insisted that the shirts have collars and included the names of the students embroidered in classic script on the front. We created a dress code for contests that included wearing the shirts with khaki pants, belts and clean shoes. We understood that out kids had previously felt anxious when they encountered students from wealthier schools than ours. They would hang their heads and be overcome by negative feelings as they scanned the groups who appeared to be exuding the kind of confidence that they struggled to find.
In the meantime we worked harder than ever on preparing the students for the tests of their academic skills that were to come. We realized that we had to shore up the knowledge and skills of our students with practice, practice and more practice. We left no stone unturned, teaching them how to write essays that included their own stories and voices. We played games of trivia and problem solving that helped them to understand the strategies for quickly uncovering the answers to questions. We trained like Olympians and widened their horizons beyond the insular sameness of the community from which they came.
They were mostly Hispanic boys and girls whose families spoke Spanish at home. They were generally economically disadvantaged and lived in houses devoid of print material or discussions about literature and history. What they did have was grit and pride in who they were. We used those qualities to convince them that no matter how things had turned out the previous year they could be contenders for the prize.
I remember riding the bus to the final competition on a spring day. The students looked fabulous in their team shirts. They were impeccably groomed by their proud parents. Some even had brand new shoes for the event. All of us were as excited as a football team about to play for the national championship. As the bus took us past beautiful homes the likes of which few of our students had ever seen we could feel their confidence fading.
When we arrived at a school building worthy of a college campus the mood inside the bus was somber. We had to rally our team even before walking into the meeting area were other teams were already assembled. Each coach reiterated how prepared they were and how confident we were they would excel. Then we insisted that they walk inside with their heads held high. We told them to imagine being the team that everyone else would have to beat. We saw the lights in their eyes return.
As we led the team to their assigned gathering place we heard whispers that soon became audible as one group after another wondered aloud who these titans were. “Could they be from a prep school? Were they some elite team that would take them all down?” I felt a smile creeping across my face and when I turned to view my team I saw that they had remained serious and had the look of academic warriors who somehow knew that they were going to win. They were literally staring down their competition with a confident air.
Soon the games began. Our coaching duties were done and we could only wait while our students participated in the various contests. When they finally returned each of them was excited. They felt victory on the horizon. They had not wavered and they knew that their prospects were good.
While the scores were tallied we enjoyed a celebratory lunch. We congratulated our team on making us proud with their hard work, enthusiasm and discipline. We insisted that they were winners no matter how the scores panned out. We went to the awards ceremony feeling a sense of great accomplishment.
We listened with bated breath as the winners for each category were announced. We managed to place in the top three in mathematics and science. Our team had been second in the historical competition. Then came the biggest boost of the day as we learned that one of our students had come in second in the writing portion and another had written the first place essay. We went wild with joy.
We did not win the overall contest but we did place second, a feat that none of us might have imagined only one year before when our ragtag team barely showed in any category. I saw the glow of victory in our teams’ eyes and the realization that together they had accomplished something bigger than any one person. It was my proudest moment as a coach, not just because we had been victorious, but because our students had been profoundly changed. David had met Goliath and been victorious. The moment altered the trajectory of life for us all.