Friday, April 25, 2014

Do Unto Others

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.)  

Sunday, April 6, 2014

Just Fix It!

We’ve had a lot of interesting conversations and comments as a result of the last post about Jack and his football game in the park.  A few people didn’t like the direction they thought I was heading but the overwhelming majority agreed with the point I was trying to make.  Almost everyone reflected back on a time in their own childhood when they had to rely on themselves to get out of a tight spot.  That was my very point: what if you look in the personal resource cupboard and it’s empty?

This dilemma was made clear to us a while back as we deal daily with college students and together, found ourselves struggling through a cold and prolonged winter season.  Typically in Colorado, once it snows you find ways to enjoy it, and then wait a day or two until it is sunny and melted.  This year, however, reminds me of my ten winters in Chicago when the snow turns black and stays with you until April.  Some of our students from the South struggle with the realities of winter more than the natives.  A few weeks back, when one particular student found that his car did not want to run in -11 degree temperature, he decided to shut it down for the day.  Only problem was, the rest of the city and University continued to function, almost normally, just slightly delayed.  Once that first decision was made to shut it down, a number of other decisions occurred de facto.  Tutoring sessions failed to occur, assignments were delayed, appointments with coaches and trainers went unattended and classes were missed.  All in all, a huge waste of a day.

The following morning when the student was forced to face the decision which triggered so many others, he responded that his car would not start and assumed that all affected would simply shake their heads and immediately understand.  Not the case! His life just became infinitely more complicated.  Unlike Jack, this student either found nothing in his cupboard or chose not to use other resources at his disposal.  Why?  I don’t know.  He struggled to convince others with his explanation but it did not stand up as scores of his fellow students had figured out how to navigate through a particularly nasty day.  Did he stumble on the first obstacle that appeared in his path?  Was he a little short on the resiliency trait?  Had others always problem-solved for him?  Was it difficult for him to identify alternative options that would let him still get from point A to point B?  Is he perhaps a grown-up Jack who wasn’t given the opportunity to figure out how to get his football back?