R.I.P.(E.)

This is more of a journal entry, a bookmark, than anything else.

Last year I had the best group of students that I will ever teach in a single section. I’m comfortable saying that, although I also dismiss people who make blanket statements like “high school/college (x chapter) is the best time of your life.” I saw this coming, I confronted the truth of it daily, and I acted accordingly. Being aware that all good things end doesn’t make it easier when they do, but it does make it less painful to reflect on.

The class is officially called Advanced Personal Fitness, according to Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills (TEKS, pronounced “teeks”). At our school, we call it “Advanced P.E.” I modeled it after the “Athletics” period many of our opponents have every day, where every sport has an entire period to practice and train with their team, year-round. I created the class and am on record as referring to it as my “baby”.

I’ve taught dozens of sections, hundreds and hundreds of students. I knew what we had. I even told them, as directly as I could. The ones who could understand understood.

“Every day during this class, I think about how special this group is. I intentionally take a moment to appreciate it every single day. I appreciate that this group and our history can never be replicated, and how I feel like a mix of a parent and a friend to you.” It didn’t come out quite like that, but, no I didn’t cry.

I had a good summer. When people ask me what I liked about my summer, I have to lead with one story: D-Day. I was on Omaha Beach on the 75th-anniversary of D-Day. That’s just about the perfect anniversary to be there, then. The veterans who made the trip were in their mid-to-late 90’s. There weren’t many, and the ones who were there weren’t guaranteed to be there the next year. It was an entirely irreplicable experience. As significant as it gets.

Honestly, there were other parts of my trip I enjoyed more in the moment. But the way my mind works and appreciates value, I had to respect that nothing else I did was as significant and unique as June 6th, 2019. I could run with the bulls in Pamplona another year (though I doubt the festival will make it through this century). I could access the Sahara anytime from several different countries. Value is all about scarcity.

Here is why my Advanced P.E. class in 2018-2019 will never be matched.

a. Total time spent together.

The majority of the class I had worked with for four or five years, since the founding of the school. I had coached and taught all of them in some combination of P.E. (6th, 7th, 8th, Foundations, and Advanced), Economics (10th or 12th), History (7th and 8th), Volleyball (MS, 9/10, JV, Varsity), Basketball (9/10, JV, Varsity), Track & Field (MS and HS). Throw in study hall, lunch duty, and Ultimate Frisbee club, and the total time jumps by hundreds more hours. Most of the class were sophomores and juniors who were in 6th and 7th grade when we met.

The first year of the school, I coached middle school volleyball (and 9/10). The next season, 9/10 again, then JV, then one year of Varsity. Last year was the first year I didn’t coach volleyball in some form, indoor or sand, since I started teaching in 2011. No matter how many years I coach, and regardless of whether I ever return to coaching volleyball, I will never follow that trajectory again. The likelihood of working with the same group of athletes as they move through middle school to JV to Varsity is close to zero.

I started weekly basketball open gyms the first year of the school, with the goal of getting our high school boys out to play with bigger, stronger (and high IQ) players, and it’s been crazy to see them grow up through the lens of physically and mentally battling them on the court for a few hours, Saturday after Saturday. One of my original seventh graders who was new to basketball has turned into one of our top high school players, and I have been there at every stage of development. I’ve also seen him play soccer and run track for the school, and this fall he joined cross country while also quarterbacking his tackle football team. Who does that?! I don’t know if I’ve seen anyone have a more impressive trajectory than this kid in a five-year span. Part of that is because he started low; he went from having nearly nothing figured out to (basically) a peer at this point. Earlier this year I needed a truck during a short window of time and my usual truck-friends were unavailable. I reached out to this student and ending up borrowing his truck for an hour or so. It felt so normal that it felt strange, you know?

One of the seniors in the class has family in Guam, and few summers ago I visited and stayed with them there. The family is full of basketball junkies (and open gym regulars), and it was an amazing trip. The best possible way to learn about and experience Guam, and another irreplicable journey within the larger set. That sort of thing doesn’t happen often, if ever, and I’ll always have a connection to that family that wouldn’t have happened any other way.

Basketball is the one thing that has tied my time in Texas together. I coached the high school basketball team the first year, but we had a few 7th and 8th graders on the team since there weren’t any juniors or seniors on campus. So over the next five (going on six) years I ended up coaching several girls for more than four years consecutively on the same team, which is pretty much unheard of. One of my seniors this year was on that first-ever team. Six. years. Earlier this week a college coach called me to talk about recruiting her and I was nearly overwhelmed by the impossibility of communicating how well I know this girl and how great she is.

Yeah, she was in that Advanced P.E. class last year.

b. Athletic gifts

Our school has an incredible number of gifted athletes. Over half our student body plays sports for the school in grades 6 through 12, and I am dumbfounded by how many athletes we have who should be outliers. I have nearly driven myself crazy trying to figure this out over the past half decade, honestly. How did they all show up here? What is it about this area, this school, these families?

That’s not even the part that drives me crazy, it’s more so that I’m literally the only person in a position to have the context to appreciate the insane ratio of stellar athletes to student body. I have worked at and been around other small classical liberal arts charter schools for almost a decade. Every private/charter/public school team we face, I get to evaluate the best they have to offer. For additional context, I go and watch the biggest public schools in our area compete in the toughest high school league (UIL) in the United States, ergo the world. I may be biased, but I’m not crazy.

In our first volleyball season ever, we made it to the State Championship match. It was the charter league, and we were playing in the 9/10 division (often better than JV, only underclassmen), but it was our first year as a school! We had like 12 sophomores at the school, total, and three 8th-graders on that roster. With that as the anchor, of course our continuing athletic accomplishments across a wide range of sports have seemed normal.

The charter league doesn’t pay any attention to school size. In their eyes, all charter schools are created equal. That’s not how any other high school league in the area approaches it, but we’re stuck with it for the time being. We regularly compete against schools 3-5x bigger than us by enrollment. Our HSG Track & Field team has finished top three in the state four straight years, including one State Championship. More than half of the scorers (boys and girls) at State last year were in Advanced P.E., and a majority of those had been at the school since year one. We had a sophomore boy win State in the 1600m and was runner-up in the 3200m. Advanced P.E. last year. Here since year one.

Stopping there would be a disservice to the other incredible abilities and accomplishments of the other student-athletes in the class and at our school last year, but I have to respect your attention span. Okay one more. We had a girl show up two years ago who had never played basketball and became a starter on our three-consecutive-league-championship basketball team last season. She also was on the State Championship 4x400m Relay and won the individual charter league Tennis State Championship. If she wanted to, she could have showed up and won the charter league Golf State Championship (I would bet).  Advanced P.E.

c. Smart jocks, better people

Jocks are culture-shapers. At many schools, it’s a sub-culture. At our school, our best athletes are frequently our best students and leaders. Recognizing this, I would occasionally address this topic in Advanced P.E. I told them I thought a disproportionate amount of the most influential students and best leaders in the high school were in this group. I advised them on how to handle that responsibility and how to maximize their positive impact.

We give all-school awards in four different categories. There is one for academic excellence, character excellence, arts excellence, and athletic excellence. At the end of the year, students in Advanced P.E. were in the final stages of discussion in all four categories. The class had the reigning athletic winner (Achilles Award), the end-of-year winner (and four of the top-five candidates, in my humble opinion), and (I would bet) this year’s winner.

The reigning winner, by the way? As a sophomore, he was a captain on cross country and track AND soccer. And he played basketball! I once saw him run a 3200m at a track meet in downtown Austin on a Friday night, drive an hour+ north to play in a soccer game, then drive back down in time for the 1600m. Who. does. that.

I’ve written before (#separateblogpost) about how I credit the students I’ve had for my development as a human since college. When you are working with amazing people, you have to raise your level of performance simply because you can’t deny they deserve the best you have to offer. The same is true for these competitors: I could dedicate my life to creating athletic programs good enough for them, and I don’t know if I would ever feel like I did my job. Of course I created an Advanced P.E. class for them, the real question is how could I not?

Despite everything I can and do say about why I’m still teaching at a classical liberal arts charter school, and why I’m still working at this particular school after five years, there’s a part of me that calls bullshit. That part of me looks at the students I’ve taught and the athletes I’ve coached and says “this is why you’re still here”. If just a key few of these kids weren’t at this school, or weren’t playing for your teams, you would be long gone, looking for a place to call home. I guess we’ll never know for sure.

Isn’t it crazy how I can come off as both an emotional wreck and a calculating mastermind? I agree. Yet I maintain my earlier claim; I’m not crazy.

[Disclaimer: it may appear I’m saying I only like athletes, or worse, that I only like the athletes in this particular class. That is not the case. My single most-defining character trait is my competitiveness, therefore, although I naturally form connections with students in all sorts of ways, I tend to appreciate competitiveness the most. Advanced P.E. is the equivalent of a Bat-Signal for competitive students, so the effect was to draw a high percentage of the most serious athletes into one small group that I happened to spend the last half-decade teaching and coaching. This post is a tribute to that group, not a condemnation of any other group.]

Time to wrap this journal entry up, I have a first period class, after all.

d. There are two things that forced my hand to type up these thoughts. The more recent trigger was the first day of Advanced P.E. this year, when we met in the gym. I had 6 students register who were in the class (of 22) last year, knowing they couldn’t get credit for repeating. As they walked in and sat down and looked around at the other students, now 36 strong, I watched their reaction.

“This is way different than last year”.

Yeah, I tried to tell you. This too shall pass. Appreciate good things while you have them. That’s not to say this year’s class is bad, just that it’s not the same as it was last year and never will be.

@(%^)#$

On to the next one.

The real reason why we’re both here? This is a pseudo-eulogy. I lost another student-athlete, too soon (her family moved). My apologies for the theatrics, but she would appreciate it.. I figure I can only reiterate this topic once every two years or so; has it been long enough?

How can I make you feel what I feel?

The first year of the school, my middle school volleyball “B” team lost in the first round of the playoffs, and this girl had a mid-game breakdown and was an emotional wreck afterward. Her mom apologized to me (“she’s not usually like this”), and I didn’t know how to tell her it had actually made me like her more. This girl reacted the same way I would have reacted in that situation in that age. If you care that much and give your best, is there anything I couldn’t forgive?

I have this memory from middle school of sobbing in the corner of a locker room after missing a game-winning shot attempt, and my coach pointing at me during the post-game speech. He was trying to use me as a good example, or something, but I was just embarrassed. I didn’t know why I reacted that way, and I would have chosen not to, if I could have. Yet, that is who I was, and am.

Seeing that one instance where her will to win took the bit and ran wild connected me to this student five years ago, and I only grew more attached. History, Foundations P.E., Economics. Two years ago, the last year I coached volleyball, she was a freshman and a promising outside hitter on Varsity. We played in this pre-season tournament and weren’t ready. Our first match, we lost in straight sets and didn’t score more than five points in any set against a school we considered our rival. I was shell-shocked. It may have been the most demoralizing loss I’ve ever coached (that one soccer match I was just an assistant, so it goes on a different list). I knew we had potential and the performance wasn’t indicative of our ability, but I wondered if this would set the tone for our season. After that match, I was at a loss. I had no idea what the next move was.

A few minutes later I happened to look over at an open court. I saw this girl bumping a volleyball with her friend (6th-grade Volleyball, History, Varsity Volleyball, Foundations P.E., Economics, Varsity Basketball, and, you guessed it – Advanced P.E.). That friend had just had a breakdown during her first match as a Varsity setter, and cried on the bench when I subbed her out. Sound familiar? Maybe that’s why they’re friends.. (do you want to read the story about the time I cried on the bench after I was subbed out? No? There are already enough parallels here for you? Fine.)

They were totally enveloped in bumping a volleyball. Back-and-forth. Forth-and-back. You can’t love a sport more than that, in my professional opinion. Ten minutes after a devastating loss, and you’re back at it. Again, say it with me, who even does that?

The answer to that question is the reason I’m writing this, probably the reason I have a blog called Just Physical Education. I would do that. Each of those moments perfectly encapsulates an all-consuming drive to play and compete and win at the purest, deepest level. There are coaches who work with hundreds of kids in any number of sports and don’t see that in one of them, one time. Yet, here I am working with a small section at a small school, and I see “it” everywhere I look.

Advanced P.E. ’18-’19: they loved to compete, and I loved them for it.

Four graduated, six returned to the class, three returned from two years prior, and twenty are new. I’m still excited for the class every day, but I’m also going to volleyball matches and getting frequent reminders that someone is missing.

The last few days of the year, when the main activities are class parties and cleaning out lockers, I carry a yearbook and when students ask me to sign theirs, I hand them mine. I don’t read any entries until at least the next week, often when I need inspiration to keep writing comments… but I digress. Last year, one of my students, the “friend” in the volleyball-bumping story above, didn’t have a yearbook, but she asked me what I would write if she did. I didn’t answer, but I thought about it. The next day she showed up with one, and I was prepared. Later, when I read what she wrote in mine, I saw we had composed nearly identical entries — three thoughts on three matching subjects, ending the same way.

RIP Abby.

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