The week in April that contains the twentieth day is frequently approached with some apprehension. Those of us in Colorado are automatically reminded of the tragedy bestowed on the student body, staff and parents of Columbine High School in 1999. Oklahoma residents recall April 20th as the day of horror following the bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in 1995. Perpetrators of both atrocities referenced Adolph Hitler’s birthday, also April 20th. This particular April 20th was additionally unique because our populace had to make a decision to attend Easter services or a 4/20 celebration.
I would like to counter those dark memories and images with another one that takes place two days later on April 22nd. This year on that date we were able to recognize the tenth anniversary of the death of U.S. Army Specialist Pat Tillman. A few years ago, Jan and I had the opportunity to work with a group of students at Leland High School in San Jose, CA, Pat Tillman’s alma mater. I learned about April 22nd, 2004, when Specialist Tillman was killed by friendly fire while on patrol in Afghanistan. Readers likely remember his decision to serve our country when he walked away from a seven figure pay check from the NFL Arizona Cardinals and volunteered to serve in the Army. Tillman’s enlistment was directly related to the Nov. 11th attack on the twin towers in NYC and, while he avoided the limelight for his decision, he did make clear the connection between the attack and his intention to aid his country.
So it is the example of Specialist Tillman that brings me to this realization: service to others is something we all have the capacity to perform if we look around and make the commitment to offset the too-many examples of disservice we witness all around us. Many of you know I have one of the most rewarding jobs on earth because I get to work in a supportive role with college students who are also Division 1 athletes. I have been able to build a special bond with one of my students who confided in me that he feels he has had to struggle every day of his life. He grew up in a tough inner city neighborhood, one of several children raised by a single mother. He attended under-funded schools, spent years in foster care and experienced the juvenile justice system. His desire to belong and fit in led him to run with a gang. He acknowledges that he caused more than his share of trouble and that there were days that he didn’t think he would live as long as he has. He never dreamed of attending college on an athletic scholarship.
I have to laugh when he tells me how and when life started to turn around for him; “There I was, sitting in detention study hall when this teacher came up to me and said she needed to see me in the hall. Oh Lord, what did I do now?” he recalls. Turns out this teacher had attended a freshman football game in which he played and had taken several photographs of him in action. She simply wanted to give the photos to him and let him know she had come to watch him play. My young friend recalls, with a tear in his eye and a catch in his voice, that he can absolutely point to that day and that measure of acknowledgement shown by that teacher through the simple act of giving a few photos, life changed for him. She said through her action that I recognize you, I value you enough to do this for you, and others care about you. Her service to her students did not end at the classroom door. It was not limited to handing out assignments, reading tests and term papers and recording grades. She served him, and I’m sure other students as well, by conveying a clear message that you are not invisible, I see you! Today my student is nearing a degree in social work with plans to return to his neighborhood following graduation and return service to others. To do unto others……
The apprehension with which we approach the third week in April doesn’t have to continue, not if we replace it with images and examples of service demonstrated by Mr. Tillman, an anonymous high school teacher and countless others who everyday add another layer of positiveness to someone we encounter.(Details of student’s experiences used with permission.)