Tuesday, January 21, 2014

A Single Garment: The Teacher’s Relationship

I’ll never forget my first day of high school as a ninth grader in 1982. It was a lesson on relationships. My first class was Physical Education. Our teacher called attendance. On hollering my name, she paused, cringed, and asked if I was of the “infamous Haas family.” To make a long story short, my family was a lower-middle class family staking a claim in a neighborhood where we may not have initially fit. We were what we used to call “blue collar” and made do without a lot of the resources or priorities that our neighbors had.

            My PE teacher was just the first to scratch me from her roll. Two other teachers had me removed from their classes later that day based on familiarity with my family and the challenges of previous years with other Haases. I don’t blame them, but at the time, I certainly felt expendable as a student.

            One person seemed to want me that day: Herb Conaway, a Social Studies Teacher and the Track and Cross Country Running Coach. He caught me in the hall on my way to the cafeteria for lunch. I didn’t know then that Coach Conaway graduated from this same high school with my mom in 1952. I didn’t know that he had joined the service and was a national-class sprinter for the Army and in college in his youth.  I didn’t know he would become my best-friend and mentor.

All I knew was that he was the first adult to smile at me all day.

“I missed you at pre-conditioning for Cross Country at the beginning of August, Matt.”

This brought silence from me. I knew about pre-conditioning from the school’s summer newsletter, but I didn’t want to participate.

“No matter, you can get in shape before the first meet.”

I was staring at my shoes to avoid his eyes, “I’m not running, Coach Conaway.”

“Why not?” He now positioned his hand on my shoulder.

“I don’t know.” It was hard to shrug my shoulder with his hand kindly gripping me. I tried.

“Well, if you don’t know why not, then I’ll tell you why.” He was grinning, “Because I say so. Here is your permission slip. You can miss practice today, but you miss another, and you will do extra work.”

Suddenly I didn’t want to disappoint Coach Conaway. We had met only one time a few years before when he showed up at an elementary and middle school track meet sponsored by the local track club. I had signed up without training because some of my friends were running in the meet. I placed second in the mile. Pleased with myself, I walked off the track smiling. Coach Conaway hopped over the infield fence surrounding the football field and track. He was smiling too. He told me he was Herb Conaway and asked me if I was Jim and Joan Haas’s son Matt.

“Yeah,” I replied. If had known that Coach Conaway was going to become one of the most important people in my life, I would have answered with a little more enthusiasm.

“Well, you sure had a good race,” he said.

“Thank you.”

“You could have won, though Matt. You were back 10 seconds or so at the half-mile. You just relaxed on that, as complacent as can be.”
I didn’t know what the word “complacent” meant at the time, so I thanked him and ran off to find my friends. Little did I know that he would use that word to test me and shape my character in the years to come. Coach Conaway built my work ethic; he built my confidence in myself and what I could do on the track and in school.

Yesterday, January 20, 2014, as I reflected on Martin Luther King Junior’s birthday, I thought about his words during “A Christmas Sermon on Peace” in 1967, a year before I was born and when Coach Conaway would have been the age I am now. He said…

It really boils down to this: that all life is interrelated. We are all caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied into a single garment of destiny. 
Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. We are made to live together because of the interrelated structure of reality.

Beside my father, Coach Conaway was by far the most important man in my life. He knew about my family and the struggles we had. He gave me a chance. When I spent time with him, I felt smart and supported. He asked me tough questions. He told me stories about his childhood. He let me know when he was proud of me and when he was disappointed, and I always came back for more.  He got the best out of me. He helped me go on to college, and when I became an English teacher and wrestling and track coach with my first job, I emulated his approach. Later, as an assistant principal and principal, I tried to be like Coach Conaway in building relationships and striving to help students and teachers find the best in themselves. As an assistant superintendent, I am always looking for Herb Conaway in the teachers we hire and develop. I seek him out when I walk through schools, observing teachers as they build caring relationships with students.

Whether they know it or not, teachers who take time to build relationships with students and invest in them are giving and receiving a precious gift. They fortify the young people they teach and coach, and they strengthen themselves as well. In fact, as we are all connected, we are all enhanced and made greater as one garment. I picture that garment as new school clothes, an athletic uniform, a dream coat, a graduation gown.