Yard line, that is. But that's not where this story starts. Find a way back to 1986. No computers. No Internet. No cell phones. How much of what were you doing that year do you really remember? I’d just been hired to teach Spanish and do some coaching at Friendswood High School. It's my third job in three years so I really want it to work out! I’m coaching freshman volleyball before school, teaching six sections of Spanish during the day, and sponsoring the Speech and Debate team in the afternoons, so I’m pretty busy. But it’s going really, really well, even better than I had hoped. I've made some new friends, my VB team is winning, and I like my classes. In fact, it’d almost be perfect, except for that one student whom I’ll call D.
Everything I know about what doesn't work with kids, I learned from D. He was
difficult disrespectful challenging rude obnoxious. I tried everything. I tried being nice to him, well, kind of, as best I knew how. I tried incentives. I tried wishing him out of my class. I tried getting him a schedule change. Nothing worked. I called my dad one night a few days weeks into the school year, and found myself complaining about D. When I told him in no uncertain terms that my classes would be perfect if not for D, my father told me that that even if D were to drop my class, there’d always be another D. He surmised that someone else would likely become my least favorite student and suggested that I find something to like about him. Again, I tried. His sister was on my freshman volleyball team and I like her – does that count? I liked his mom when I met her at Open House – is that good? Sadly, I never found a way to make peace with, to get along with, or even to remotely like that student. It was a long year for both of us.
If you’ve heard me speak, then you may already know what's about to happen. As I reflect on 25 years as an educator, I realize that if I could have one do-over, it would be to find a way to make it work with D. It’d probably be as simple as simply being nicer to him. If I’ve told this story once, I’ve told it a hundred times. The point? Find a way to like your students, to make each one of them your favorite. Individualize. Differentiate. Make. It. Work. Because there are no do-overs, not in school, not in life. So, to get back to the fifty-yard line in my story’s title, we have to flash forward twenty years.
Now that my daughter's in high school, I've returned to FHS as a Band Mom. It’s been 15 years since I’ve even been to Mustang stadium, way back when I taught Spanish there, before I became a counselor. I was attending the Friday night football game during Kaitlyn's freshman year that just happened to be Homecoming. At halftime, we hear over the loud speaker that those of us who were working at FHS in 1988 are invited to meet the graduates who came home for the reunion on the fifty-yard line for a photo op. My husband elbows me and encourages me to go down onto the field. I hesitate, because I can’t even remember who was in that class, but with prodding, I reluctantly head that way. I see a few friendly faces, students who actually live here as adults and whose children attend my school, but mostly I don’t recognize very many of these now thirty-eight-year-olds.
As I float from circle to circle, I do see a group of
boys men that I know. One of them only looks vaguely familiar, and all I can come up with is Hector. Since I always called my students by their chosen Spanish name, that’s what I called him as I said hello to this very tall man. Hector. He laughed and said, “It’s me, D!” There. He. Was. A million things went through my mind at warp speed. I'd said over and over again that I'd regretted how I treated D. After all these years, this was my chance to make it right. So right there, on the fifty-yard line, before I could talk myself out of it, I extended my hand to shake his and heard myself say this: "Oh, D, I think I owe you an apology. I wasn’t very nice to you when you were in my class.” He interrupted. “Dude, it was my bad. I was a s**t back then.” Be that as it may, (wink, wink) I continued. “I should have found a way to make it work. Please forgive me.”
It was awkwardly amazing to finally apologize. I’d been regretting how I treated him for more than twenty years and it felt great to make amends. It was unbelievably liberating to be able to ask that
kid student for forgiveness on the fifty; in a weird way, it may have even been better than that elusive do-over I knew I could never get.