The memories are a little fuzzy now, those first few months that turned to years after moving from the button-downed DC world of politics to the palm tree bliss of Hawaii. And it’s even harder to remember that transition from button-down east coast schools to the topsy-turvy educational morass facing bleary eyed parents trying to get their kids in some school, somewhere, that might teach them something.
We’re a long way from those days now, some ten years later, five plus years into roadschooling, and almost oblivious to the palm tree bliss that overlays the traffic congestion and inner-island drama of day-to-day life. Then in one bit of news, one Facebook post, it all comes tumbling back.
Uprooting a middle school boy still searching for his tribe is fraught with peril, even in paradise. He’d grown up on all the requisite teams — soccer, Little League, the summer swim and dive teams — and in each, he’d been solid, but not the star. Diving captured his interest most, maybe because it was different. The other sports fell to the wayside, and diving seemed his calling. Then we moved. 5000 miles from his dive team and landed him in a new school with a swim team. And a swimming pool seven feet deep. Schools with pools seven feet deep don’t have a dive team.
The Athletic Director, somehow aware of the disappointment, suggested an alternative. Kamehameha School — a legendary institution for children of Hawaiian heritage — had a dive team, and our school’s AD knew the coach. A phone call later, my son was the dive team of our newly found school, and he was training regularly with the Kamehameha team, in their world class facility, with their rock star coaches. An ever grateful mom cheered at every meet.
My son thrived, focusing more on his AP classes than his athletic interests. Yet our new little school’s athletic department kept a watchful eye on him. When he expressed interest in football — another sport not offered at our new little school — the assistant AD stepped in. “Why not try Pac 5?” he suggested, directing my son to the team supported by a group of private schools too small to have their own teams. Once again, he’d be the first from our little school to go this route, and paperwork and waivers and phone calls were required. The assistant AD persisted. He got it done, and he made sure to follow my son’s progress, cheering him when he made the team, and making sure he didn’t get lost in the shuffle.
Three years of two-a-day practices and our own version of Friday Night Lights in the same stadium that hosts the NFL’s ProBowl every year became our norm. Still not the star, my son thrived. He found his tribe, his place, his confidence through the discipline and ethics of team sports and coaches who care. That assistant AD went on to become the head AD, and still kept tabs on my son. It was in his office my son found refuge from time to time, and it was his encouragement — his ability to instill pride and confidence every time they crossed paths — that guided my son through his high school career and out into the world. Never once in his four years in our tiny new school was that AD my son’s official anything — not his advisor, his teacher, his coach. But he was so much more than that. He was his friend, his mentor, his stable rock in the shifting grounds of high school terror.
Years pass, and my son — now in graduate school back on the east coast — saw it first on Facebook. “Did Coach O pass away?” he texted me. No, it couldn’t be true. I’d seen him around town, smiling, still asking about my son, still part of our life after all these years. But sadly, it was true. This man who’d taken an interest in my kid had succumbed to some evil disease and passed much too early, much too young.
For my son’s generation, Mr. O is one of the first of their mentors to pass, and their grief is raw, painful. They recall through their Facebook comments how it was Mr. O’s office that was their safe haven when the principal was on their trail, and that it was his story of Africa that became their mantra — both in athletics and in academics — long after they’d tossed their graduation caps and headed off into the world.
Every morning in Africa, a gazelle wakes up, it knows it must outrun the fastest cheetah or it will not make it to sunset. Every morning in Africa, a cheetah wakes up. It knows it must run faster than the slowest gazelle, or it will starve. It doesn’t matter whether you’re the cheetah or the gazelle – when the sun comes up, you’d better be running.
This man never sat at the power-broker tables where decisions were made in our tiny little school. He wasn’t the one singled out for excellence. Those places weren’t his calling, his mission. Much like the lost middle-schooler who was my son, he was solid, never the star. He liked it that way. He found his strength — his gift, his calling — in the young lives he mentored, the families he took time to get to know, the kids he sheltered when their worlds were a little overwhelming.
For Mr. O, he made it to sunset, and his star shines bright in heaven now, probably still keeping an eye on his kids.
The national education debate rages on. Core standards, teaching to the test, the value of homework, the limited budgets, our national failings in global rankings. Yet through it all, maybe we’re forgetting what Mr. O knew all along. It’s the students — the kids — who are center stage in this educational conundrum. While the debates rage on, somebody needs to keep an eye on the kids.
Thanks, Mr. O, for the reminder. And for keeping an eye on our kids.
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