If You Can’t See Me, You Can’t Reach Me
How many have I missed? How many students, with big dreams locked away inside of them, did I just not see. Screaming out to me, “Coach, if you can’t see me, you can’t reach me”. Did I overlook them because I thought they were an inconvenience? As a teacher and coach did “those students” just make me too uncomfortable? Or was I just selfish, full of pride, and unwilling to roll up my sleeves and get messy?
Whatever the reason now is irrelevant. Because my own life experiences became eerily similar to those kids I looked right past. Becoming homeless and battling alcoholism, I also was screaming for help. I understood what it felt like when no one could see me. Life had a funny way of teaching me a lesson that a classroom could never teach me. If we don’t want to be inconvenienced, uncomfortable, and are too proud to get messy then, as educators, we are in the wrong profession.
“Those students”, they are our WHY.
What is it that you see when you look out at your class, your team? Is it a sight that makes you throw up in your mouth a little, be honest? Or do you see a gold mine of unrealized potential and purpose? I know we all love to teach and coach those “high fliers”, they are easy and make us look good. But what about that one who you would rather throat punch than hug? The student who is always disruptive and doesn’t try, therefore, making your test score data not so pretty. That student-athlete who constantly flies the finger in the face of your program’s culture. What do we really see when we look at them?
More often than I would care to admit I see damaged goods. The kind placed in the discount bin with a sign saying, free to a good home. Recently, a kid taught me there is more than meets the eye. Beneath the damage lies a heart searching for dreams and a purpose. “Those students”, they are our WHY. But we cannot reach them if we cannot see them. And I almost missed one this past year, let me tell you about him.
My program just didn’t take on “those students”.
One morning, as I was on hall duty, a teacher came up and asked me if I would consider taking on a project. I take great pride in my program, I hold high standards, and my team consists of exceptional young men who are learning to be champions on and off the field. Did I really want to go backwards and take on some kid whose pedigree just didn’t fit our mold? Or, was she asking me because soccer is not a major sport in high school athletics so surely I would take just about anyone?
I felt some sort of obligation so I responded with “why don’t you send him to my classroom so I can visit with him and send me an email with information on his grades and background if there is any”. With that response I looked like I cared but, on the other hand, I had no intention of taking this young man. My program just didn’t take on “those students”.
A few class periods later I got a knock on my door. As I opened it, here is this young man who just looked lost. Literally, like he had no idea if he was coming or going. He had these puppy dog eyes and instantly I heard Sarah McLachlan singing in the background as I felt transported into a rescue the animals commercial. His eyes said volumes that I did not want to hear but my soul felt the vibration of his desperate need to belong.
I asked a few of the usual questions. What’s your name? How are your grades? Have you ever played before? The answer to the last one, as a coach, is usually a deal maker or breaker. The young man answered, “Yes, but not since the third grade”. Now I love to help people, and I love puppies, but my team has standards and if you haven’t played since the third grade then what are you worth to me as a member of my team. I tried to ignore it, avoid it, but I caught just a glimpse of something other than talent.
Stevie Wonder had better vision than I did…
I set a time for him to come try out and I could tell he was not quite sure what that even meant. What was I doing taking on another charity case? My pride was there on my shoulder shaking its head, there needs to be an emoji for that. As he walked away I was not quite sure if the young man had even a sliver of a clue of what was expected of him. Yet, through his inexperienced and raw exterior I saw his heart. And his heart had this undeniable cry, “Please coach, see me”.
But here was my mistake and where the lesson began. I saw his heart. His cry I heard. I caught a glimpse of this young man and responded with an empty gesture. It gave him false hope and made me feel good about myself. If it is about me, my getting a gold star, me putting on a mask of kindness, then I never really saw him at all. If we can’t see them, we will never reach them. Stevie Wonder has better vision than I did and I was about to be made aware of just how blind I had become.
He made it out for the tryout and I admit I was surprised at his raw potential. He had speed, he was agile, he was physically strong but did he have the time and grit to develop into a player that would benefit the team. His knowledge of the game was lacking and I didn’t see him making an impact but, I took him anyway. I am a sucker for an underdog story.
Being on a team was foreign to him I could tell. The walls of protection he had in place made it difficult for him to acclimate in with the other boys. However, he was persistent with his desire to belong. Like that pest you just can’t seem to get rid of that is constantly buzzing around your ears. To tell you the truth though, he was more of a nuisance to me at first and I had no intention of keeping him after the season was over.
…maybe it was me who was lost.
The season arrived with an exaggerated expectation. We were set to play our first home game. In my normal game day routine, I sat out the uniforms in the lockers of those who were playing. When he made his way into the locker room he saw that he was one of the few without a uniform. It didn’t dawn on me that he had no idea of where to find the game day roster, nor did he understand the eligibility requirements.
I was in the equipment room and I heard a knock on the door. In a confident voice he said, “Coach, I will take number 7”. I am sure the look I gave him was one I wish I could take back. My response was cold and my eyes blind. “Son, when you are failing classes I don’t even consider you for a uniform.” With all this soccer wisdom from the third grade he should have known, right. I flunked at what could have been a perfect teaching and coaching moment. I failed because I still did not see him. Maybe I was the one with all the elementary level wisdom, maybe it was me who didn’t know if I was coming or going. We lost that night and I had more to deal with than worrying about this kid and his need for me to see him.
It was the week after Spring Break 2020 and we were snake bit by the Covid-19 pandemic. Our season was cancelled, school went to total distance learning and I would not officially see my team until the end of August 2020. I cannot begin to describe how difficult losing last season was. I had 13 seniors who had worked so hard for 4 years. There moment to shine was poof, just gone. My heart broke for them and seeing “my good deed project” was not high on my priority list. Heck, he didn’t even make the list.
With masks, social distancing and safety measures in place school began and a brand new team greeted me on our first day. I felt like a bewildered first time daddy looking at my babies through the glass in my office as they sat in their lockers that looked like the warming trays in the hospital. I scanned all the new faces, thinking how difficult the year was going to be with the senior backbone of the team removed by graduation. As my eyes moved from locker to locker, they froze when I spotted him in his locker. He was back, big smile and all, and all I could do was turn to my assistant and say, “he’s your project now”.
…his desire to connect with someone, anyone…
It was going to be what we call in the business a rebuilding year. As the head coach, I didn’t have time to babysit. Yet, this young man would begin to remind me daily of one of our main culture points. Big WE and little me. I think I had held out hope that he just wouldn’t show back up. After all I had done my part and received my gold star for being so gracious. Who was I trying to fool anyway. I was acting like it was all about me and there was no we.
But show up he did, every day. Eager, happy, and trying so hard to fit in. As we progressed through the fall a transformation was at work. The player that I had no place for on my team, was forcing his way into my heart. I began to see him, finally. Each week he became less of an irritant and more of a prospect of hope. All this young man wanted was to belong, to be in a family such as our program was. I was ashamed that for the first six months I knew him all I saw was what he could not do for my team. But his desire to connect with someone, anyone, was infectious. He infected me, masks, social distancing and all. His persistence was paying off for all of us.
He was waving his arms, flagging us down, screaming, “See Me”. The family that we had created, the culture of champions on and off the field, attracted him. He saw us even if I had failed to see him. What I initially saw was his imperfect exterior. A young man who didn’t look the part. He was raised in the foster care system. His parents had substance abuse issues. He saw the justice system up close, seeing his parents behind bars. His behavior aligned with the environment that he was raised in.
If you can’t see me, you can’t reach me.
However, this kid was different. When I took the time to look beyond his past and who that had made him to be I quickly saw who he could become. That was a game changer. See me, that is all he asked. His desperation to just connect and belong opened my eyes to his heart. It’s the heart they want us to see, not the damaged outside. They are saying to us in schools, classrooms, and locker rooms all over our country, “if you can’t see me, you can’t reach me”.
This young man’s story isn’t over. His senior season, well his only season, is about to begin. A year ago, I would have bet my house and the rest of each paycheck I would ever earn against what is about to occur. My wife would have killed me, literally. But this young man is set to be a starter for my varsity team. I am still in disbelief I even wrote that, but I did. Each day there he is, a big smile across his face, just happy to be walking into the locker room with the boys. Tell you what else, his grades have shot up. There are no longer any disciplinary issues. He is thriving because he found a place to fit, he finally feels like he belongs.
Our young people are acting out in ways that make us question if we entered the right profession. But, they just want the same thing. They want to belong. These kids want to know they matter to someone and hold more value than what their circumstances tell them. We are surrounded by young people crying out to anyone who will hear them, “See Me”. It all starts with an intentional choice to look past the brokenness and into their souls. It’s messy. It’s complicated. You probably will feel the pain right along with them. But if we fail to make that choice they stay lost. They say hindsight is 2020, and boy is that never more true than today. So open your heart and look. Because if you can’t see me, you can’t reach me.