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Joltin' Joe And The Blonde

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According to baseball lore, Joe DiMaggio was asked late in his career why he still played so hard in every inning of every game. After all, his fearsome hitting and graceful fielding had already secured his place in both baseball history and Americana. He was Joltin' Joe, the Yankee Clipper, one of the game's greatest players; surely, he had nothing left to prove. But DiMaggio, it is said, saw things differently. "There might be someone in the stands today who has never seen me play," he explained.

DiMaggio's legendary career is a story about giving your best effort even when you can get by with less. It is about seizing every possible opportunity to connect with someone because that opportunity might be your only one. And it is an example that helped me connect recently with a pretty young blonde.

Like DiMaggio, I knew I had to give my all, I had to find a way to connect with Shannon.

DiMaggio, of course, will be forever linked with the archetypical blond bombshell, Marilyn Monroe, his one-time wife. But this blonde, 13-year-old Shannon, is too young to have seen DiMaggio either in the ballpark or in his Mr. Coffee commercials. Still, I would never have gotten to know that she was so remarkable if not for DiMaggio.

By the time Shannon was in 8th grade, many of her teachers had given up on her. She was not a "good student." She came to school to better her social life, certainly not to accomplish anything intellectually, and she was by all accounts dangerously close to becoming just another pretty face.

I easily could have avoided putting in extra effort with Shannon; nobody would have been the wiser. If her skills were no better in June than in September, it would have been said that she was more interested in boys than books. But something would not let me do that. Like DiMaggio, I knew I had to give my all, I had to find a way to connect with Shannon.

During one class, I asked her to play the role of the title character in a reading of The Diary of Anne Frank. She had not spoken much in class before that day--perhaps feeling she had nothing to offer--and her classmates, most of them honor students, were caught off guard by the clarity, sensitivity, and emotion of her delivery. After her reading, Shannon shrugged off the praise she received, seeming to feel unworthy of it. And when I suggested that her voice could land her in the communications field someday, she acted as though I wasn't serious.

Later in the year, I asked the class to write articles for the school newspaper. She was convinced she could not do it. But when I pushed her to focus on something--anything--that she had feelings about, she turned to the story of the 7-year-old girl who had died the previous year in an attempt to fly an airplane across the country. She wrote a draft of a column in less than a class period. It needed almost no revisions, and it appeared on the front page of the next issue. Readers no doubt realized that there was more to this girl than they had ever imagined.

Teachers regularly have the chance to change lives—not always in big, noticeable ways, but in little things that can often seem trivial.

Given such an assignment a year earlier, Shannon likely would have done nothing in class and then spent the night before the due date in tears at the dining room table, waiting for her mom to take over. But as the school year progressed and students embarked on long-range, independent projects, she flourished. Eventually, it was Shannon who set the best example of self-direction and focus in a class where she easily might have been considered the least likely to contribute.

Teachers regularly have the chance to change lives—not always in big, noticeable ways, but in the little things that can often seem trivial. Sometimes, though, the chance for that change slips by us. If I'm preoccupied with something that diverts my attention from even one student, or if a harried schedule means I turn down a request for after-school help just once, I may miss a golden opportunity.

Can a single moment in a 181-day school calendar really be so significant as we try to forge long-term relationships of trust, learning, and discovery with students? I cannot be sure, but Joe DiMaggio demanded the best of himself for every inning of the 1,736 games in his career. And like DiMaggio, we as teachers must work as if every chance to connect with someone is the only chance we'll get.

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