I played basketball in junior high, that tumultuous bridge between childhood and adulthood. We had a two hour practice scheduled late on Halloween evening. I was twelve years old and not ready to give up my childhood joys for a single basketball practice that, quite frankly, would have little impact on my life. I skipped practice, and my friends and I stormed the neighborhoods, trying to get that one last bag of candy from our childhood. We dressed up, went to our favorite decorated homes, organized the candy when we got home, watched It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown, and stayed up way too late for a school night. I still remember the laughter and the sugar highs. The next day I went to basketball practice, and the coach said, “Hey, pussy. Yeah, I’m talking to you pussy. Pussy boy is too good to join us for practice because he needs his pussy candy. Suicide runs for everyone.” I’ll never forget how much fun I had that Halloween night and how much I despised that 7th grade coach who thought his job was much more important than our childhood. I’ll never forget those poisonous words that no adult should ever say to a child.
My freshman year in high school I wrote a poem about my mother for an English class assignment. The teacher gave me an A+ and a great big smiley face. I don’t think I had ever written something creatively that earned an A+. I’ll never forget her for that. This was a regular level English class, and when it was time to register for sophomore year, I asked her if she would sign me into the honors English class. I wanted to try it. She smiled and said, “If you think you can do it, you can. It all starts right here,” she pointed at her head. “Good luck, Joe and don’t stop writing.” With the simple confidence I earned from an A+, I decided I was good enough to be with the best of the best. My love for English—literature and writing—started with that A+ and would later influence my decision to want to teach the same subject. The most brilliant teachers recognize passion, and even if we’re not all that talented, sometimes an A+ and a smiley face go a long way into making someone feel like they can conquer the world.
During my senior year in high school, I was stuck with the most demonic teacher I have experienced. He didn’t like teenagers, and he reminded us of that all the time. “My wife makes the money in our house. I don’t get paid enough to work with any of you, so don’t expect any favors.” He was sour, each and every day. I remember one assignment where we had to create an artistic model of the human knee. Never much of the artist, I stayed up late at night for over a week trying to create a model of the human knee. When I handed the project in to him, he laughed at me. “Did you put this piece of shit together this morning, Joe? Way to take the assignment seriously. What a waste of my time.” I bit my lip through the rest of his class, and then faked a stomach ache and went home. I faked a lot of stomach aches that year. I hated his class, hated the way he treated us, and dreaded each morning. I missed exactly 30 days that school year. THIRTY. My mom—bless her soul—understood. I was smart and earned high grades in every class but his. But I owe him one incredible compliment: It was during that year that I—the kid who skipped school a day a week—decided I was going to be a teacher. I wanted to make sure to keep people like him out of the classroom, and I was now determined to shape my passion into creating a classroom atmosphere where students would not only learn but enjoy themselves in the process, and if nothing else, at least know that someone was rooting for them.
In college, I met a dozen inspirational professors, and I have a dozen stories about each professor. Each of them—the professors and the individual stories—deserve their own post. I’ll get to all of them in time. I worked with one of my favorite professors for two years. She taught me new ways to write, new ways to read deeply. She observed my student-teaching and wrote a letter that would earn me my first teaching award, our college’s Golden Apple for best student-teacher. She attended my graduation party and gave me a gift, a glass ornament that says “Endless Possibilities,” which hung in my high school classroom for ten years and now is a permanent part of my college office. These are details and not stories, but it’s a place for me to start reflecting, and the stories will be told.
Here’s the thing: Heroes build us up; villains tear us down. This is a post I will have to return to occasionally (hence the title of part I). There are too many stories for one post. There are heroes and villains from my childhood, my classmates, my peers, my coaches, my martial arts world, my teaching world, and my fitness world. They say you can’t have good without evil, and I believe that to be so very true. There are those who don’t understand you, and those who will be jealous of you. They will say things that aren’t true, and they will try to distort your image to others because on some illogical level they must think it makes them stronger. But the strongest people I know, the heroes in our everyday lives, support you and build you up. They see your talents, they encourage them, and they want you to succeed. The best teachers, I would argue, are those who want you to be more successful than they ever were. The same is true of our friends. When we cheer for one another, we all get better.
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