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Between The Lines

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IT WAS A GOOD MOMENT. THE SCHOOL WAS quiet, the gym dark and still, as I ran from one end to the other, sprinting "lines,'' capping the evening with a brief workout.

My teaching day had gone well. The term papers I'd stayed late to correct had been good, occasionally great. But it had also been a long day. And even the best school days can leave residues of tension and worry. Now, as I ran, pivoting hard at the baseline, the foul line, the top of the key, I could feel the stress slip away, as if washed out with the sweat from my pores.

Then the deja vu hit me. I was certain I'd experienced this very moment before. But when? Where?

I exercise a lot after school, so I thought I must be remembering a similar evening in the same gym. That seemed plausible at first, but then it didn't feel right.

I hit the baseline and turned again, still thinking. Somehow it wasn't the feel of the experience that I remembered but the image: a teacher in an empty gym, in an empty school, running lines late at night.

I replayed that image in my mind until the memory became clear--it wasn't me but Ron Waara, a former coach and teacher of mine, running the floor. I could see him, his fingers brushing the court as he turned and ran up and back. My mind switched back and forth from the memory of him running to the image of me in the gym, from my coach to me. My coach. Myself.

It had been nearly 20 years since I last saw Ron Waara; he coached and taught PE at my junior high school. And yet his voice and gestures, his walk and laughter, came back to me clearly, as if I had just seen him walk down the hall.

Coach Waara played, ran, dribbled, and hit alongside of us. I remember him pitching batting practice and laughing so hard he fell off the mound. His office was always full of kids, unathletic, chubby kids as often as the jocks, our faces glistening from showers and the warmth of his attention. He had a special rapport with us, a sense of common experience and empathy.

And there was something else. Adults I knew sometimes mentioned that the coach had once played professional baseball. They spoke of this in low tones, as if it were somehow sad: the story of a man who had almost "made it'' and who--as if in penance--was destined to spend the remainder of his days teaching junior high school. I could never understand why they felt that way. To those of us who played under Coach Waara, this story was the source of awe and respect: the legend of a man who had made it to the pros. And that, of course, made a person golden for life.

But what impressed me most was that the coach didn't live in the past. He proved to us, by the way he enjoyed his work, that he was golden every day. I never knew him as a friend or colleague; I never visited his home or met his family. I knew him only as my coach and teacher. But when he threw batting practice, took me aside for a pep talk, or tossed the balls out for class, I knew that he cared about me and liked what he did. Small wonder that, in my eyes, he held the greatest job in the world. For two long years, I wanted to grow up to be just like him.

I now see that, in many ways, I have.

This is not to say that I have thought much about Coach Waara over the years. I didn't have him in mind when I earned my teaching certificate or took my first job. Nor do I teach the subjects he taught. I'm not even a coach; I spend far more time with books than baseballs. But the mark of Coach Waara on my life is unmistakable. As I ran lines in the gym, I began to realize that he helped create my sense of what it would mean to be a teacher.

Thanks, in part, to my years with him, I entered teaching with the assumption that it was supposed to be fun, and largely I've found that to be true. My days are not all good days, of course. But, as the coach himself taught, perseverance and humor go a long way toward turning problems into successes and making difficult moments bearable.

And, like the coach, I try to participate in the activities I assign my students. In fact, when research in literacy began to point to the value of teachers' reading and writing with their classes, I had to laugh. I'd always taught that way. As I ran that evening, I knew the coach had always been lurking in the back of my mind.

Finally, the images of Coach Waara and me running in a gym 20 years apart let me see that I had yet another reason to teach well and enjoy my work: There might be a student watching me the same way I watched him.

I pivoted once more at the baseline and slowed to a jog, circling the gym as I cooled down. Picking up a towel, I dried my face and tossed it over my shoulder. As I did so, I smiled; that gesture, too, was the coach's.

I showered and dressed alone in the gym. I am alone now as I write this and will be alone later as I contemplate tomorrow's classes. But behind my love for teaching and sense of self-worth is another man: a teacher, my coach. Ron Waara taught by being a good model, a model powerful enough to lodge itself in my subconscious, where it stayed until that night I ran the lines the way he used to.

Thanks, coach, for your pedagogy and the enjoyment you found in your work. Your teaching had a greater impact than either of us may have realized.

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