|Yearbook pic of the 2 of us during the race|
(we did have colour photography back then!)
The ancient grainy photo to the left captures me during our school's annual "Milk Run". I clearly remember the beginning of the race when I lined up with the massive crowd of restless students behind the starting line. As I waited nervously my basketball coach Mr. Henly came up beside me and asked if we could run together. The two of us often went jogging so I didn't have an issue, but I was aware that it might be a struggle to keep up with him during a competitive race. The starter's gun went off and the two us set off at what I would describe as an uncomfortably quick pace, and I was instantly aware that it would be difficult for me to maintain our speed, even for a race as short as the 3km route. I was a decent athlete in high school, but team sports were my thing and I had never really excelled at track. We were passing all sorts of "runners' though and I knew we were really flying when we passed one of the top female track athletes in the school. About halfway through the run I knew I was in serious trouble. All the usual cliches apply here: my lungs were screaming and my legs were burning. The remainder of the route was basically flat but any runner knows that a kilometer and a half can seem like a thousand when you have pushed your body beyond its limit. Through it all Mr. Henly kept up a steady chatter of encouragement. I was breathing too hard to offer any comments in return.
|Bird's Eye view of the end of the race course|
"I can't," I panted, "I'm done. You keep going."
He wouldn't listen: "Nope, come on, you can make it."
I was now becoming extremely angry. I was furious with myself for not being able to continue. I was embarrassed that I was quitting, and I was especially upset that I was letting him down. I also felt he was making it worse because now I was costing him important seconds on his own finishing time. I begged him to just keep going and to leave me alone, but he continued to stand there. My frustration was overwhelming. What was he doing? Why was he just standing there making an already humiliating situation even more painful? "Come on," he urged again, "you can do this".
No. I couldn't. I was done. And then I did something that embarrasses me to this day. I glared at one of the adults I respected as much as anyone else in my life and spat out, "What the hell does it matter to you anyway?"
At this point I'd given him every possible reason to walk away. I was angry, I was disrespectful, and with my last comment I'd certainly made it personal. He could have left me at that point and no one (including me) would ever have thought he had made the wrong decision, but he didn't. He just looked at the ground and said quietly, "Look Naryn, walk if you have to and I'll walk with you".
Whether I just gave up on the idea of getting him to leave, or whether I had gotten my wind back by this time, I slowly began to walk, and then jog again, and the two of us rounded the parking lot and finished the race. I actually tried to out sprint him over the last 50 metres which he found amusing while finishing the race just slightly in front.
I was confused for a long time about why he didn't just keep running once I had stopped. I had appreciated him running with me during the race but it made no sense for him to stay behind once I had quit. I can honestly say that it wasn't until over a decade later after I became a teacher, and after I became a mother that something dawned on me. I realized that he couldn't have cared less about how well he did in the race. It was never about him. It was always about me. His number one priority was that I finished the race. As a teenager, you really think that everyone views the world the way you do, but now I understand. Now it all makes sense.
So here at the end of another school year I find myself in the shoes of Mr. Henly. I have students that are driving me crazy because they are so close to finishing and yet they have stalled. It's also extremely frustrating that the more I try to encourage them to finish the more angry and confused they are about why it is bothering me so much that they are going to fail. In my mind all I am doing is bending over backwards to help them and all I am getting in return is attitude. In their minds, it would be a heck of a lot easier if their teacher would at least give them the dignity of failing alone, and not add a guilt trip on top of it.
But because of that day so many years ago, I am certain that they aren't quitting right now because they desire failure. I know they are honestly frustrated because they aren't having success and now they feel they are letting me down too. Their anger is created from their own inability to just finish, and it's very possible they won't understand my motivation as their teacher for many years (if ever). Do students have the right to fail? Absolutely. However when I have kids who have hung in all semester (with so many other obstacles in their lives) and who now for whatever reason just can't seem to take those last few steps, I will remember the teacher who stood stubbornly beside me that day and said, "I will not give up on you." I will stay with my own students until they are able to finish the race. I too will stand beside them and say, "Walk if you have to, I'll walk with you".