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“Things will get better.”
I shrugged and looked down, unconvinced. “And you really believe that?”
She merely looked back down at me with some degree of concern and care, despite the fact that her vantage point was nearly comical. I avoided her eyes, training my gaze instead on the chair she stood on. She turned away from me to stick something else to the wall, as the reason why she was standing on the chair was so she could reach high enough to tape paper letters to the cinderblocks, as she continued to speak, “Of course I think so. You’ve just got to stay positive.”
I shook my head, sighing heavily. “Yeah, well, I wish I had your talent then. To stay so positive all the time.”
She turned to face me again. Before I could look away, she trapped me into eye contact. Without really meaning to, I managed to see something new, different, and somehow a little sad in her eyes as she spoke.
“But you’ve got to.” She said in a much quieter voice, “It’s how you keep going.”
I couldn’t even muster up a sarcastic retort as I stared dumbly back up at her for a moment before she turned away.
Coach might just be the only person in the world who could say something so simple and yet so profound to me that it makes something as mundane as a two-minute conversation in the middle of a noisy school hallway practically unforgettable.
She has always been like that to me, in a way, ever since I first met her on the first day of my sophomore year. I was a much different person then; quiet, withdrawn, introverted, and possibly worst of all, hopelessly shy. Coach wouldn’t accept that. She set up her classroom in such a way that the desks were in groups, not in rows, making it impossible for me to hide in a back corner of the room as I had always done in years before. Sitting in groups made me open up socially and actually talk to my classmates. Coach was pretty talkative herself, sauntering around the room as she gave notes instead of standing stoically behind a lectern, as so many history teachers have a tendency to do. Almost everything she taught stuck, at least with me. I did well on her tests and mowed through any class work she gave out. She swore that I did well because of my own intelligence, but I know that I couldn’t have done as well as I did if I’d had any other teacher.
Coach was a kind of teacher I had never encountered before. She was a very professional educator. Some teachers engage in constant casual back-and-forth banter with their students. These teachers feel comfortable divulging all kinds of information about their personal lives. There is nothing inherently wrong with this approach if that is how the teacher can most effectively connect with their students. But Coach was not like that. To this day, after knowing her for almost three years, almost everything I know about her life outside of school is drawn only from the pictures of her family that she kept on her desk. Even after all of this time, she does not favor me by handing me information about herself. If it hadn’t been for the fact that her first name had been printed on my class schedule, I probably wouldn’t even know that.
The fact that she does manage to connect with her students and that she is well liked despite keeping almost every conversation she has with us strictly on curriculum is something that has always mystified me a bit. In the beginning, her unwillingness to allow me to know practically anything about her really kept me from even liking her very much.
It wasn’t until near the end of that first school year that I really began to recognize, and look up to, Coach as an entire person and not just as an educator.
On a whim, and probably influenced more by impulse than by reason, I asked her for a favor one day. I asked if I could come in before school the next day to show her an assignment that I was working on for another class. I wanted some input on it. The only trouble was the topic I had chosen for the assignment; the treatment of homosexuals during World War II in Nazi Germany. In the very inwards and outwards way in which I live my life, I was bold enough to choose that topic, but was nervous about showing it to people, being a not-quite-open-about-it, young and timid homosexual myself.
Because opinions about homosexuality are still considered highly personal and political, and because Coach is a very professional educator and would therefore never share her opinion on such a subject in class, I had absolutely no idea how she would react to it. But she surprised me. Without a millisecond of hesitation, she supported both my assignment and, more importantly, me.
I had never had complete support like that before. Everyone else had always had a “but” somewhere in their acceptance. They would say something like, “I still like you, but…” or “We’re still friends, but…”. There was always something that they would not compromise on. Coach offered me a totally new kind of statement. She could not have cared less about the topic of my assignment or about my being gay. She saw a good assignment and a good student. Anything else was just meaningless surplus.
I have always thought it to be presumptuous and rude for a student to assume that they are actually friends with a teacher, for the teacher will probably seldom want to be friends with the student. So I do not consider myself to be friends with Coach. At the same time, I have felt that since the morning when I showed her that assignment, the way that she and I have interacted that been markedly different. Through that, I know for a fact that she has had a huge effect on who I am now and in what I am choosing to do with my life from here on out.
Her faith in me has helped me find confidence within myself to stand up for things that I believe in. When I look at the world I suddenly conclude that I shouldn’t just accept that ridiculous things happen just because they happen; I should challenge them and fight for what is right. Simply by recognizing this, I have to face that I am not the same person I was when I first walked into Coach’s classroom. I am no longer an introverted, shy girl; I am a stronger, secure young woman who knows that she has something to offer the world, something that Coach saw before almost anyone else.
When I look at Coach, I see a woman who is successful professionally, who is intelligent and well spoken, who is very caring towards others, and who does a great job in practically everything I’ve ever seen her do. She’s like a summary of everything I want to be when I’m an adult.
I feel that I know enough about how she will react to me that I sometimes don’t even have to ask her about things anymore. Just recently, in a moment of doubt, I thought about going to her for advice about something, but I think I already know exactly what she would say to me.
I can just see it. I would walk into her office and say, “You know, Coach, there’s this college in Georgia that I really want to go to. It’s amazing and totally perfect for me. But it’s a private college, it’s crazy selective, and it’s really expensive.”
I know that she would size me up with this knowing look that she always gives me when she knows that I’m wrong, and say, “So what exactly is stopping you from applying?”
And as usual, I wouldn’t have any answer at all.