The smartest student I ever taught was also the dumbest

This is a Micro (life) Lesson.

Micro (life) Lessons are simple, compressed stories (under 250 words) that, like good teachers, continue to teach long after graduation.


If you are the smartest person in the room, then you are in the wrong room. – Confucius

I once taught a student who turned down scholarships from several Ivy League universities.

She chose to attend a small, progressive college that I never heard of.

What a shame, I thought.

I couldn’t understand why such a promising student would decline scholarships from some of the most prestigious universities in the world.

So one day after class I asked her.

She smiled, “Because I want to go a place where its okay fail. Where failure, not success, is the teacher. I want to go where I can be dumb.”

Last time I heard, she was doing exceptionally well.

Be well,

Jay

They Once Called Me Coach

Last Wednesday, after a late afternoon thunderstorm wiped the sky of its dark imperfections,  I stood before the Robbinsville High School graduating class and delivered the commencement address I entitled “Trust Your Change.”

Later the night, while enjoying a well deserved post-graduation beverage, a colleague asked me how long I’d been working on the speech.

I told him I had been brainstorming for a few months.

But the next morning, over a cup of coffee, I realized that the seeds of the speech took root four years prior when members of the graduating class, who were merely freshman, witnessed one of the most difficult admissions of my life.

Here’s what happened.

It was early September. The classroom was warm and bright with afternoon sunshine.

I sat behind my desk. The players sat in the desks before me.

I was quiet. They were quiet. The room was quiet.

In fact, in my world, those days were filled with long quiet stretches, as if everything was waiting for something. As if life was pacing a hospital floor.

They were teenage boys who thought they were in trouble, so they carried themselves with all the intimacies of teenage boys in trouble. Bowed heads, bent eye brows, dropped shoulders.

The day before we lost 8-0. Which, in high school varsity soccer, is a blowout.

They were expecting me to yell. To call them an embarrassment.  To challenge their character and commitment. To level an edict of longer, harder practices. There would be less smiling, less fun. More running. More yelling. Until they learned how to practice and play hard. Until they learned to dig deeper, to break through self-made thresholds and not quit on themselves, on their teammates, on the program they represented.

Initially, I pursued a teaching career because I wanted to coach.

In 2006, when I was hired to teach English at Robbinsville High School, I was appointed the first varsity head coach in program’s history.

In fact, this was a big moment in my history.

At 26 I was handed the responsibility of building a high school soccer program in central New Jersey, an area whose soil was rich in soccer tradition.

In those early years we didn’t win many games. But other coaches complimented me on the way we played. The local paper did a story on the program’s positive development. We were making progress.

I ran a fairly tight ship. My preseason workouts were physically and mentally demanding. I held my players accountable on and off the field.

I wanted the program to be a positive force in the players lives. A program that offered instruction both on and off the field. That taught players to replace entitlement with perseverance. Arrogance with integrity. A program that taught players how to embrace adversity.

A few days before I led my players into my classroom, my doctor told me that the next few months were going to be littered with tests. MRI’s. CAT Scans, blood work and a lot of waiting.

The doctor put his hand on my shoulder, instructed me to spend time with my family, prioritize, and remove as much unnecessary stress from my life.

The classroom was bright and warm.

I remember how quiet it was. How they were looking at me with lowered eyes. Afraid of the scolding that they seemed destined for.

I don’t know how I started but I’m sure it was not as graceful as I would have liked.

At some point I told my team I was resigning as their coach.

I admitted to them that I was sick and physically unable to be the coach they needed. And though I didn’t say it, they knew it– I was scared.

I addressed the freshmen specifically. I apologized for my brevity. I told them that I hope I would be around (meaning alive) in four years to see them graduate high school.

Things were quite for awhile.

Then, not knowing what else to do or say, I looked at the assistant coaches, at the team and said, “Alright boys, time to go to work.”

Last week

Under a high sun and a wide open blue sky, I stood on the same field I had coached for 9 years and told the graduating class of 2017 to trust their change.

Here’s the inside of my speech binder. To the left, is what I said to myself before I began.

Four years have passed.

Those freshmen are now high school graduates.

I am still sick but very much alive.

There are some days when I miss coaching.

Days when the sun is just right. When in one afternoon, summer folds into fall all at once.

I miss the intensity, the competitiveness.

I miss the halftime speeches.

The victories. The defeats.

But most of all, I miss the players.

The camaraderie. The bond that forms between player and coach.

The candid conversations about how sports and all its trials and tribulations teach us all we need to know about life.

I miss watching my players transform from boys into young men, a massive change that happens as fast and as subtle as a summer thunderstorm, a storm that dawns a perfect afternoon, with a sun that is strong and bright and a sky that is unclouded and forever.

Be well,

Jay

Proudly standing with two former players, Brendan (left) and Ralph (right).

What’s the point of school?

school

As I was packing up my desk on the last day before winter break a former student knocked on my classroom door.

“Mr. Armstrong!”

“M!”
For the next few minutes, M and I did the former teacher/student small talk thing. After we covered such topics as about the weirdness of walking down the old high school halls, college campus food and absurdity of dorm life  M gathered a serious expression on his face and said, “Hey Mr. A., I wanted to talk to you about something.”

“Sure.”

“Well, see… I really didn’t do well this semester. I got three Bs and two Cs. My parents are pretty pissed. But I got all As in high school. Honor Roll, you know.  But now I’m lost. I don’t know how to manage my time. I don’t know how to study.”

M looked down at his shoes then back to me. His eyes had grown deep and serious.

“I don’t know. Maybe I’ll drop out.”

I leaned back in my chair, crossed my arms and kept quiet.

“Mr. A, you’re a teacher right?…”

“On the good days.”

M smiled then looked around the empty classroom.

“So what’s the point of school? Because I always thought it was to get good grades. Follow directions. Get a diploma. A means to an end, you know. That’s what my dad always says. But after twelve and a half years of schooling I’m really confused.  I mean really, what’s the point of school?”

Though I was flattered that M entrusted me with such an important question, I was overwhelmed by both the magnitude of the question and how incredibly heartbreaking it is for a student to endure 12 years of schooling and have no reason why they are enduring.

What’s the point of school?”

M and I held a conversation for almost an hour.

See, M was a “good student”. He was respectful, compliant, met deadlines and studied all his notes. And the system rewarded him for with a diploma for his obedience.

Unfortunately, the system never challenged him how to think on his own, to problem solve beyond rudimentary worksheets or to provide himself the audacity to question.

M was lead to believe that a grade of an A meant perfection. It meant there was nothing else to learn.

M admitted he was scared to death to be wrong, to make a mistake. For years he equated his self-worth with his grades. He believed success in school meant success in life.

M never learned how to fail. He never learned that failure is the first step in learning.

Sure, he was familiar with the old adage, “Nobody’s perfect.” But M, like us, had just enough ego (like we all do) to believe that he was exonerated from such advice.

The system failed to teach M self-reliance and resilience and problem solving. It taught him how to manipulate and work the system.

The system failed to teach M that the questions asked are always more important then answers learned.

“Well, Mr. A I’ve to get going.”

M and I shook hands and parted ways.  As I watched him pass through the threshold, into the hallway and into his young life I felt a sprout of reassurance that M was going to be ok.

Not because of our conversation. Not because I offered him some advice. No, I believe M is going to be ok because he finally has the courage to question.

Be well,

Jay

Passing Through: A Reflection

crowd

Last Thursday night, after I finished the final edits for “The Day I Learned I Couldn’t Jump (or Learning to Fly)” I couldn’t sleep.

While writing that story, I felt like a guest at a reunion of sorts. Bill and Denise and the two chatty Cathys on the treadmill were in attendance. Although brief, it was comforting to have people from my past  back in my life again.

As I laid in bed, working my head into the pillow, watching the ceiling fan spin, I wondered what Denise thought about the Giants chances this season. I imagined how her eyes would light up when she talked about Odell Beckham’s athleticism.  What she would say about Carson Wentz? Does she believe he’s destined to bring the Eagles their first Superbowl title?

Though physical therapy was hard, humbling, ego-shattering work I miss the camaraderie,  the challenge, the little triumphs. Like on the afternoon when I learned I didn’t have Huntington’s Disease, how Denise high-fived me and how later that same afternoon, I successfully walked heel-toed along a 10 foot length of blue tape without using a handrail.

I remember, on the second to last rehab session at St. Lawrence, I entered the activity room and the chatty Cathys were chatting and walking on the treadmills. Denise wasn’t around. Neither was Bill.

It was January. Everything was in deep freeze. From the sky to my bones, the entire universe seemed to be low on light, low on energy.  I dragged myself to the elliptical machine and set my feet on the oversized pedals.  My legs were tight and heavy and with Denise not around, I worked the pedals with little enthusiasm.

After a few uninspired minutes, Denise entered the activity room and I straightened up, like a kid caught misbehaving and pedaled faster. She walked toward me holding her clipboard close to her chest.

“Hey Denise, Eagles-Giants this weekend. Hope you’re ready lose?

She offered a curt little nod and looked as if she wanted to say something but simply couldn’t find the words.

“Denise are you ok?”

Her eyes filled as she spoke, “Bill fell last night.”

I stopped pedaling.

“Is he ok?”

“Last I heard, no.”

Bill’s brother found Bill lying in a pool of blood on the bathroom floor. Fracture skull. Doctors gave him a 50% chance. Denise, the forever optimist, was 100% certain he would survive.

On my last day at St. Lawrence,  Denise and I walked out into the cold ache of a January afternoon exchanged a final barb, hugged, and went back to our lives.

A few months ago, a student told me she was going to miss class because she had to drive her father to physical therapy. He had a hip replacement and was rehabbing at St. Lawrence. The student said at first her father resisted physical therapy, but now he actually enjoys it. Looks forward to it even. She tells me her father’s therapist is really nice.

“Is her name Denise?”

“Yeah! How did you know?”

“Long story.”

“She’s awesome.”

“I know. Do me a favor. Tell her Jay say hi and that the Giants stink.”

It was reassuring to know Denise was still doing her thing. Still telling bad jokes, still smiling, still inspiring.

Unfortunately, I don’t know whatever happened to Bill.

“The Day I Learned I Couldn’t Jump” is a hard story to put to rest. Maybe that’s why I’m still writing about it this week.  Writing the story made me think about how we’re all just passing through each others lives. Of course, some pass slower then others yet nevertheless, it’s impossible to understand the depth of the impressions we leave on each other..

Some people pass through us like medicine. Like magic waters. They heal us, strengthen us, fix us.

Others are hurricanes. They break our windows, unhinge our doors and crumble our foundations. Forcing us to rebuild, rehab, or quit.

It’s nearing midnight.

Cindy just stole the comforter, the ceiling fan is spinning and though I’m sure he’s a page and spine man, I imagine Bill alive, somewhere, reading this post. His steely eyes tracing my words, his mouth remaining straight and strict even when he realizes that he, just a traveler just passing through, inspires me to write on, to fight on.

Be well,

Jay

 

When Your Child Says the “F” Word

 

I wasn’t ready for it. Not yet. I mean, I knew it would come one day like something in the mail, like something I sent away for.

But I just didn’t think it would happen on a nondescript morning like this. But parenthood is funny like that.

One moment you’re cruising along, one hand on the wheel, window down, sunglasses on and then, like a sucker punch to the temple, you’re reminded that you’re not in control, and probably never have been. So with a pair of mangled sunglasses dangling off an ear, you straighten up and attempt to piece together what just happened.

Sunday morning.

I wake the coffee maker, the laptop and move to the kitchen sink and watch slivers of morning light break the dark veil of day and think about you. I think about what I want to say to you this week.

For the past three weeks I wrote about my son Chase, choking to death in my arms. Over that time, through the vehicles of imagination and memory, I’ve been traversing into the heart of my most unnerving experience.

Frankly, I needed a break.

I wanted to lighten the mood around here. And plus, with this Killer Clown Craze and the Presidential Election ( two unrelated yet often confused headlines) dominating our nightly news, we could use it.

The coffee maker burps, grunts and  beeps. I pour a cup and move to the living room.

I park myself on the couch, sip, stare into the glowing face of the laptop and wait. I wait for the barrel-chested ghost of Ernest Hemingway to appear and inspire me, remind me that all I have to do is “write one true sentence” but instead of Ernie H., Chase turns the corner sporting glassy eyes, a spiky tuft of bedhead and his faded green Ninja Turtle pajamas. Pajamas that have been machine-washed too many times. Pajamas that fit him nicely in June but are now thread-stretched to its limits, forcing the brave Donatello to beg for mercy.

Chase curls next to me. He rests his head on my shoulder.

The TV is off yet we watch it like its on. The sun is rising behind me, filling the windows, warming my back.

“Hey dad, do I have a soccer game today?”

“Yes you do buddy.”

“Hey dad, do you think when I’m older I could be a soccer player? Like the kind that plays on TV.”

I tussled his bedhead. Smile and in a hearty dad voice offer my son the most unoriginal dad response I could, “Son, you can be anything you want to be.”

Things were perfectly quit between us. Just a father and his son enjoying the company of each other in the slow of a Sunday morning.

“Hey dad?”

“Yes, buddy?’

Do you know the “f” word?”

Pow! Sucker punch to the temple. Chew on that dad.

“Uh, um, uh…yeah? What? I mean, do you?”

“Yeah. Fuck.”

I cocked my head like a little dog when he hears his name and held that angled position for some time wondering– wondering why my temple hurt so bad.

“Bud, where did you learn that?”

“School.”

“That’s a bad word. We don’t say that word.”

“Ok Dad I won’t say it.”

But I know he will. I can’t expect him to unlearn the word. I didn’t. You didn’t.  The word is now forever buzzing about his brain, waiting for its chance to shoot out his mouth, accentuating simple thoughts, simple sentences constructed by a child who still can’t tie his shoes.

Fuck me these pajamas are tight!

The sun warmed the windows and my coffee cooled and I held Chase close feeling that weird mix of hilarity and sadness that is parenthood.

Hearing my son, with aggressive bedhead and tight Ninja Turtle pajamas, drop the “f” bomb was– funny. But I understand its significance. It’s gravity and weight. It’s a sad indication that the world has sunk its grimy fangs into him. And there is nothing I can do.

Look, Cindy and I police our language around the kids. We save the four letter words for truck-stops and for the occasional blog post.  But here’s the scary parental truth– we can only protect, shelter our children for so long. Sooner or later their little bodies will be at the mercy of the world. And yet, as parents we know that we must send our children off into that tumult — to learn, to discover, to get hurt.  Like us, they will be damaged and they will return home gaunt-eyed and talking dirty. It’s just the price we all must pay.

So what do we do when our children learn the “f” word?

Cut out their tongues?

Of course not.

Reinforce that it’s a bad word? That’s what I did. And if he says it again I will correct him again.

But I can’t be naive. By identifying words as “bad” I’m only planting seeds of curiosity. Chase will surely lie in bed at night, further stretching out the Turtles, and wonder what other bad words loom out in the darkness, where the killer clowns and presidential candidates reside.

Things were quiet. With Chase’s head still on my shoulder I thought about how growing up, losing innocence, vilifying your vocabulary are as natural and normal as the rising sun.

Hey Dad?

Yeah?

“What do you call a skunk driving a helicopter?”

“What?”

” A smell-a-copter.”

I smiled, tussled his bedhead again and felt the warm reassurance that I still have plenty more quiet mornings with my little boy.

Be well,

Jay