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Friday, March 8, 2013

Boys to Men


 
I have learned that making a living is not the same as making a life. Maya Angelou
In my earlier years, as both a college student and a young teacher, to make financial ends meet during summer breaks, I would paint houses. To satisfy my concrete sequential higher order of needs, at the end of a long hot day of toil, I would step back for a full view of my day’s labor. The satisfaction of accomplishment, the sight at dusk of a well painted house, was all the motivation I needed to endure the manual labor of a tedious chore many distain. It was for me, a labor of love.

With my chosen vocation of the last thirty years of a public school educator, that type of instant gratification and validation of one’s work does not manifest itself so easily. Are they listening? Do they really understand? Have my efforts made a difference? This past Sunday I re-visited my past, afforded the opportunity of almost 30 years of elapsed time to finally view my finished product.

From 1984 to 1989 I was the varsity boys ‘basketball coach at Monroe City, MO. From 1980 to 1984 I had interned as an assistant coach at another school. Like a thirsty sponge, as an assistant to the varsity coach, I soaked up every coaching morsel within sight and vision. I learned a lot from those around me, both friend and foe. But I had not played basketball in college and my high school playing experience had been under a successful and seasoned coach who gave the same half time speech for my entire varsity career: “get the tip and remember we shoot at the other basket this half.” He would then step outside to smoke a cigarette as we killed time waiting to retake the court. We won a lot. So how hard could this coaching be, I reasoned while pumping up an insecure ego, preparing for my first interview for the position occupied by the guy who always sat in the front seat of the bus?

The word in the summer of 1984 was the coaching gig at Monroe City was fool’s gold. Tons of talent I was told, but no discipline and a coach’s graveyard. The previous year’s team had finished 9-16 and had graduated their leading scorer. Having all spring and summer butted my head against the proverbial catch 22 faced by every young coach looking for that first head coaching hire: head coaching experience required, I could not afford to be picky, and evidently, neither could Monroe City. They hired me.

On June 11, 1984, the date of my 27thbirthday, I signed a contract for $12,300 to become the head coach of the Panthers. With new wife in tow, I hit the ground at the Northeast Missouri school running. With the zeal of an evangelistic salesman on steroids, I preached confidence and hard work. It was false bravado on my part, but somehow the ruse worked; “all in” was our motto and the players bought my round ball epistle like a frenzied Black Friday mob at a cut rate discount store sale. The town looked past my youthful cocksure swagger, failing to see the reality that was hidden behind my pretentious guise: one scared rookie coach.


If in moving through your life, you find yourself lost, go back to the last place you knew who you were, and start from there. Bernice Johnson Reagon


Those who know me will testify to my aversion to living in the past. I have never been to a high school reunion. My sights will remain, until my personal doomsday, fixed permanently on the horizon of my future. To me, the most inspiring word in the English language is “and,” denotative of mountains still to climb. The 70th birthday celebration for Cliff Talton drew me back to Monroe City for only the second time since 1989; when I vacated my position as head boys’ basketball coach of the local high school team.

 
Two of Cliff’s son’s played on my Panther teams. I coached both for three years, the oldest, Eddie, his sophomore, junior and senior years. If Eddie would have been 6’6 instead of 6’1, he would have played on TV for a lot of years. He was that good. Clay, three years younger, is one of only two freshmen I ever started in a varsity game. I coached him his freshman, sophomore and junior years. The two careers of the brothers overlapped one year, in 1987, when Eddie was a senior and Clay a freshman.

In simple terms, their father, Cliff Talton, is one of the finest men I have ever known. I was honored when Eddie contacted me with an invitation to the event he was organizing to honor his father. Cliff has been in very poor health for a number of years.

The northeast area of Missouri was hit by a major snow storm two days before the party. I live in St. Louis, 100 miles to the south. The day before, my wife asked, “Are you still going?” Are you serious? I would endure a full prostrate exam, broadcast live on national television, performed by a doctor with cold hands before I was going to miss this event. If mustering a dog sled was the only viable option to getting me to Monroe City by 2 pm on that Sunday afternoon, then all I can say is, “mush.”

Cliff Talton is one of the last of a generation born into a Jim Crow segregated society. He attended Washington Elementary school in Monroe City, a town of only 2500, racially segregated by law for the area’s “colored”children. Monroe City is located in an area known as “Little Dixie.” Cutting an east to west swath across the state, 50 miles to the north of the Missouri River, most small towns within the locale have significant African-American populations.

When I arrived, almost 30 years ago, there was a tangible and visual racial divide within the town. Blacks lived on two streets; one on each side of the railroad tracks that ran in an east-west direction the width of the community. I found the racial dynamics of the town to be very interesting. Remember, this was 30 years ago and we, as a society, have come a long way from the early 1980’s. Or have we? We are without a doubt more racially sensitive as a society on the surface today than we have ever been. Comments and subjective racial stereotyping opinions given freely and accepted by the mainstream public 30 years ago would bring instant censure to those that spoke them today. Still, we are a nation and a people who are searching for answers to the role race plays in 21st Century America. Or is it beyond even that? Should the issue of race in America be taken even a step further? Should we as a society realize that we cannot answer the questions of racism in our lives until we know the right questions to ask?

The Monroe City of 1984, like most of the town’s in the Little Dixie area, was a very segregated community, both in terms of housing and social institutions. As in many small towns, the church and the school were the two main channels for social interaction. Also, as in many small towns and unfortunately true in Monroe City, the most racial segregated hour of the week was at 11 am on Sunday morning. That left the schools. Monroe City in 1984 had no black educators on staff.

As school leaders we were very quick to pat ourselves on the back for breaking away from the moral burden of past racism that so defined the legacy of the previous generations of educational leaders. In 1984, we knew the politically correct phrases to use and were quick to rise up in self righteous indignation to any inference made that would suggest racism based insensitivity was behind any action we took in regard to the executing of our duties as professional educators. And we no longer segregated the town’s students of color over at Washington School. Racism, as far as we were concerned, in 1984, no longer resided in Monroe City. But as I look back now with 30 years of hindsight, I can say emphatically, we were wrong.

Race played a huge role in my tenure at Monroe City. It was a constant dynamic with every move I made with my basketball team. Once, I placed a lineup on the floor that included five black players. The admonishment I received after the game from a community leader whom I still consider a good man and a good friend was subtle, but crystal clear, “we have never done that here before. It would be a good idea to have at least one white on the floor.” My assistant and I talked about a solution and the next game we took a page out of the book of Abe Lemons; noticing we were set to use a lineup of all black players, I summoned a “White” into the game; Andre White, a talented but little used African-American sophomore, thus meeting the mandate to have at least one "white" on the floor at all times.


As I look back now I am disappointed in my own behavior for not using my standing in the community to address more forcefully outdated racial stereotyping that was so deeply rooted in “Little Dixie.” I had an opportunity to address the issue, and I didn’t. Such a move would have taken a painful introspective audit of my own soul and that would have been just too damn hard. Besides, we were winning, and I knew I was not a racist. I choose not to rock the community boat.

In my classroom, we openly amongst black and white students discussed the developing stories of racial discontent found throughout our nation. Jesse Jackson’s “Rainbow Coalition” was a hot topic of the day. Jackson had even made a visit to a nearby rural farming community to promote his message of economic unity. I threw out daily to my students my liberal racial unity beliefs. But we never discussed the issue of race in Monroe City. I lacked the courage to do so.

We do not risk exposing ourselves to the painful self-introspection that would result from true soul searching of our own personal behavior in regard to racial stereotypes if we focus all of our energies – fueled by a righteous indignation and moral outrage - but intellectually centered upon less personal issues, such as racial injustice found in the far areas away from home.

I never asked my black students, players or their families their perspective views of my own behavior and treatment of them. As white educators, working in the public eye, where the dynamics of race will always be factored in by those judging our actions (or inactions), we are quick to deny that any decision made by us is ever racially motivated or compromised. This knee jerk reaction to show the superior quality of color blindness that we possess, is often done before we even inquire as to the feelings and thoughts from the individual(s) who feels slighted. Racism is taken off of the table of debate before it can even be considered when often the perception of its existence is viewed by at least one party as the primary reason for the conflict in question.

For the progressive and white liberal leaders of our education systems of today, racial bias resulting in unfair and unequal treatment based on simple skin color, would never happen in our enlightened world and on our morally sound watch. Such despicable actions are reserved only for the ignorant and the racists - for the rednecks and uneducated hood wearing bigots found in distant lands like Louisiana and Mississippi, far from the quaint and peaceful Little Dixie of 1984.
 

We wear the mask that grins and lies; it hides our cheeks and shades our eyes. This debt we pay to human guile, with torn and bleeding hearts we smile. Paul L. Dunbar
 


Listening to the tributes paid to Cliff Talton at his 70thbirthday party illuminated in my mind the link his amazing life’s labor provides for all of us, white and black, to a critical time in our nation’s history. Cliff Talton came of age at a time when America’s Civil Rights Movement was barreling unimpeded down an increasingly violent and confrontational path, transitioning from the conciliatory civil disobedience strategy under the leadership of Dr. Martin Luther King to the violent rage that represented a younger generation of Black Power militants who had no hesitation to spill blood in the streets of towns small and large, if needed to bring about total racial equality, NOW. In the summer of 1968 the winds of social change, years in the making, now fanned the flames of the riotous fires of Watts, Harlem and Detroit. Against the backdrop of a bemused society seemingly hell bent on a racial apocalypse and a cultural suicide, Cliff Talton was hired as the first black police officer in the history of Monroe City, MO.
 
Last Sunday, Cliff was toasted repeatedly by friends and family as a unifier and a uniter. When he rose slowly from his seat to address the gathering after nearly two hours’ worth of respectful veneration from friends and family for a man whose life’s work had bridged every class and social line of this small town; and despite a body ravished by years of sickness and poor health; I saw not only a trailblazer but a proud man – proud of his family and his place in this community he had served so well for so long. It was a deeply touching and emotional moment in celebration of a life well lived. His voice defied his physical appearance, ringing loud and proud. As the town’s first black police officer, Cliff told the audience, he had felt the burden to be twice as good as any white officer on the force.

I heard this story growing up in the 1960’s from small town whites so often I have lost count of all the towns claiming its authenticity, it is almost a reverse “urban myth,” a type of rural small town badge of honor. It goes something like this: “We treat our coloreds so good here that when the militants from the city came down here to try and stir our coloreds up, (insert here the name of the town’s “good Negro leader”) met them at the city limits and told them ‘go on back where you came from, we happy here and don’t want your kind out here.”’ Call it white guilt, a collective denial by a citizenry desperate to rationalize the discriminatory inequality tolerated for years in their own backyard, behavior that embarrasses their now enlightened sense of justice. If this story has ever been told by Monroe Citian's, I would project Cliff Talton as the name of choice by the town’s white leadership of a respected leader of the local black community. No doubt, Cliff was a man who could reach across the racial lines of this small town, but he was not, I can assure you in the strongest of terms, an Uncle Tom. I always felt Cliff navigated this slippery slope well. He accepted the burden of, due to his race, of “having to be twice as good,” but he never compromised his pride. I once saw him, with fire in his eyes, light into a teacher (and rightful so) who had directed a disparaging remark in class at his son Eddie. When it came to the treatment of his children, I found Cliff to be a fair and reasonable man. The first time I met Cliff, now almost 30 years ago, he told me, in a moment right out of the movie Hoosiers, “If you ever have any trouble out of Eddie or Clay, you call me.” I never had to place that call.


If I need to talk to Cliff in those days, I had to catch him on the run. To provide for his family - a wife and eight children - he worked two full time jobs. He rose at 4:30 am each morning to make the 30 mile trip to the city of Hannibal and a 6 am to 2 pm shift on the factory floor of the Underwood Meat Packing Plant. Rushing home, his wife would have awaiting his arrival both his dinner and his bath water - ready and hot - insuring he had the time to change into his police uniform, then report to his second full time job, protecting his hometown from 4 pm to midnight. After a few hours of sleep, Cliff would again rise before dawn, to find on the horizon another 16 hour work day. His children, in unison, said they never heard him even once complain about his back-breaking 80 hour a week workload. He was, they said, the ultimate family provider.

Last Sunday, all eight children told the audience of their strict upbringing, but also of the unconditional support of a father they all deeply loved and today appreciate beyond words. Memories of growing up in a safe household dominated each of his now grown children’s remarks. His son Clay told of a nightly ritual, a favorite memory of a happy childhood: each night, at bedtime, his dad would drive by the family home and flash his spinning police car’s lights into the darkened bedrooms of his children. It was a father’s unique way of saying good night.


Many men go fishing all of their lives without knowing that it is not the fish they are after. Henry David Thoreau


By design, high school sports are cruel. The vast majority of former high school athletes will remember their final game or contest as a time of defeat. Unless you are a member of a squad that wins the state championship your senior year, your career will end, as it does for over 99% of us, in heartbreak.


Chiseled deep into my coaching consciousness are yearly devastating bus rides home after a crushing playoff defeat. It happened every year I coached but one. On those solemn rides, I mourned for our seniors. For them, it was over, short of our dream of returning as conquering heroes, dismounting the steps of the bus to be overwhelmed by cheering crowds of worshipers. Instead, these young men who had devoted so much and who now cried tears of unfulfilled dreams, slowly walked through a dark and empty parking lot and away forever from the role that until now had so defined their very being. Over the years, I often fantasized of the pure euphoria of a bus ride home with a state championship trophy lodged next to me in the front seat of the team bus. When it finally happened, my assistant, since most of the athletes were traveling home with their parents, offered to supervise the team bus if I would have preferred to ride home with my family. Thanks, but not a chance.

Being as it is now the first week of March, 2013; every night in towns large and small all over this great nation, with each post season playoff defeat, childhoods are ending and dreams are dying. A young athlete has such a small window of opportunity to be the “hero,” to capture a slice of the March Madness. A few do and they become legends, a favored son who in the eyes of the hometown fans will remain forever young; perpetually enshrined on the top shelf of local lore as a champion. The opposite is also true. The President of the local Bank may on the surface appear as the successful businessman, a pillar of the community who serves on all the important committees, owning membership to all the influential clubs. But to the true partisans of the local hoop scene, he will be forever the teenager who missed a wide open jumper at the buzzer of the one point Regional loss back in ‘81, a year the hometown team finally had the talent to win it all. It is a burdenous civic label to be carried to the grave.

Current players live in the present, not realizing that they are in reality creating their past. Colored by both time and perspective, the hurt will lessen in years to come, but for the true believer, whose heart and soul was committed to this noble cause – a one-time chance for the ultimate every player dreams of, a state championship, the “what if” will always be there, as will the painful memory of disappointment. I recently heard from a former player from my 1985 team, a now pushing 50 year old man who has had a very successful adult life. “It still stings to this day,” without prompting from me, he shared, “I would have liked one more shot at Mr. Church and Palmyra,” an opportunity denied by falling one game short on a fateful winter night almost 30 years ago. Don’t tell me it doesn’t matter.

From 1985 to 1989, we had some great basketball teams at Monroe City, MO High School; winning 117 games and losing 36. The stars in the cosmos must have somehow been aligned correctly, for I never imagined that kind of success in the summer of 1984, when I took a job that several others had turned down. The first year, 1985, we were picked to finish last in the conference. We clawed our way to second place in the Clarence Cannon Conference, while winning 20 games. Just a quirk, most thought, since the next year, 1986, we were picked 4th in the same pre-season conference poll of coaches. We proceeded to win 28 games, the conference title and finished 3rd in the state. 

 We were good and we knew it. We had swag before the term was coined. There are men now in their 40’s who to this day wake in the middle of the night in a cold nightmarish sweat, with memories of crossing paths on the high school basketball court with us. We had talent and a young cocky coach not smart enough to know any better. We took no prisoners and showed no mercy. We reveled in the distain other teams and their fans heaped upon us. I was booed in every gym in Northeast Missouri. Once, I walked into a gym to scout a game and the fans for both participating teams, in unison and ignoring the game action, stood and booed me. I blew them kisses.

If today I had the hindsight of a do over, my methods would be much different. With maturity, I have become much more concerned with the journey and less focused on the destination. The change has been for the better of myself and those around me. Back in the 80’s, for me, it was simple: just win, baby. For my players, I took a lot of the fun out of their high school basketball experience and I regret it every day. Still, the players who made up those teams were special and wove, for me, memories of a special time and a special place. I count 36 players who suited up for a varsity basketball game over this five year stretch and there is not a one I would not give the shirt off my back to, if they asked for it. Those years are an indelible part of who I am. But winning basketball games is not what I am currently reflecting back on. My intent for returning to Monroe City last Sunday was two-fold: to honor a great man on his 70th birthday and to see what kind of men my boys had grown into.

 If you mess up, fess up. Unknown

 
It was the not the Monroe City I remembered. When I arrived in 1984, the local economy was booming. The new Clarence Cannon Dam, 10 miles south of town on Route J, built to spawn the creation of Mark Twain Lake, was to be the town’s economic savoir. No one was to be left out, all you had to do was borrow a little money, maybe mortgage the family farm, then sit back and wait for the riches to pour in. Tourists, hunters and fisherman with deep pockets would soon descend on the area in droves, the smooth talking salesmen promised.

The local civic and commercial leaders worked hard in transforming the area to a downhome, country music loving paradise. It always seemed a little awkward to me. This was farm country, home to plain people who liked glitz no more than they liked change. But every development needs a theme, I was once told by a local banker - soon to be real estate mogul who hated my match-up zone defense.

In the beginning there had even been some loosely organized opposition to the construction of the Dam and the formation of the Lake. Several small farming enclaves, homesteaded by the ancestors of those who still worked the land, would need to be displaced; their heritage soon to be submerged under 50 feet of fresh water. But when is there not opposition to progress, the commercial salesmen asked? You can’t stand in the way of progress, the few were told.

In the mid-80’s, local investors could not build restaurants, motels, and country music palaces fast enough. Up and down Route J, construction was booming. Jobs were plentiful and on Friday and Saturday nights, the old town was hopping. Then in the 1990’s, interest rates rose, land and housing prices crashed and the tourists found a more desirable vacation destination to the south in an authentic hillbilly haven called Branson.

Last Sunday, driving Route J from the south was my entry path to Monroe City. As I crossed the Clarence Cannon Dam Bridge, rolling over the silent and cold late winter waters of an eerily quiet Mark Twain Lake, it was obvious things had not gone as the all soon to be rich 1980’s entrepreneurs had planned. Most of the tourist attractions, built with such grandiose optimism and no expense spared 30 years prior were now boarded shut. I saw few for sale signs. From a road view, curb appeal seemed to be no longer a concern of the absentee owners. It was if one afternoon everyone loaded up the lawnmowers, the paint brushes and the weed eaters, and just said, “The hell with it.”


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It got no better when I crossed into the city limits. I found only a shell of what my mind’s eye had recalled - and I now expected to reemerge. As I drove through residential areas that in the 1980’s were home to neat and tidy middle class residencies, the type most of my players lived in, I viewed many domiciles crumbling from neglect, most appearing to not have seen a fresh coat of paint since I left in the summer of 1989. It was if a storm had hit and no one had bothered with the after the fact cleanup.

I was apprehensive as I pulled into the parking lot at Monroe City High School. Several of my former players, I knew, would be in attendance at Mr. Talton’s party. I had not seen most for nearly 25 years. The hesitant vibes that had overtaken me were due to concerns of how I would be, after a quarter century of passed time, accepted. I left when these men - some now even grandfathers -were mere teenagers. My coaching style had been energetic, but brisk; motivated, but high handed. Anyone or anything that stood in my path to victory, I ran not around, but over.

I made a lot of mistakes in regard to the treatment of my players at Monroe City. Today, I attribute my mistakes to inexperience, youthful insecurity and just plain ignorance. It took a while, but I finally figured it out: in my own playing days, the coaches who I respected the most were also the coaches I performed the best for. The commonality between my favorites was that none were sarcastic task masters constantly lobbing verbal assaults to degrade me as a player and as a person. Fear did not motivate me. I did not like to be screamed at and I finally realized that this was also probably true for my players. As a coach, in those days, I was often a jerk.

I believe this epiphany of approach turned me into a better coach. I know it made coaching, for me, much more enjoyable. I just wished this wisdom had not taken so long to manifest itself. Youth is wasted on the young, as my Grandmother use to say.

But none of the Monroe City players knew this more humane side of me. I had not seen most for over 25 years and would in several minutes free fall into the fast forwarding of over one generation of time, my boys now men. The root of my apprehension was that the same time warp would be reciprocated by my former players, as I also, in their perception, would be stepping out of a 25 year shadow. To the players, would I was still be that ass hole from 1989 who was always in my face about defense and floor balance and other such type crap that took all the fun out of the game?

I eased my way down the hallway to the Cafeteria and the gathering. The landmarks were still the same, in the order I recalled: Teacher’s Lounge, Principal’s Office, Gym Entrance, and to the right the Cafeteria. The noise level told me there was a big crowd already assembled. I will just ease in, I told myself. I pulled opened one of the double doors and bumped square into Michael Washington, leaving as I was entering. In 25 years, he had changed not one iota.


 The object of teaching a child is to enable him to get along without his teacher."    Elbert Hubbard

 
 



Michael Washington was a man-child; standing as a high school student 6’2 and packing 225 pounds of solid muscle on a frame that would carry him to all-state standards as a long jumper and hurdler in track and field. Seldom in the world of small town high school athletics is this combination of power, size and speed found. To finish off this nightmarish and freakish formula, hand crafted for athletic dominance, Michael also possessed a mean streak.   


Having left Monroe City after his junior year in high school, I had followed through the media Michael’s subsequent collegiate career. Having gone to the University of Missouri on a football scholarship, the plan was to redshirt him his first fall on the Columbia, MO campus; the coaching staff’s thoughts being it is a big step from backwater Monroe City High School to the battle fields of the Big 12.



Living in the Wichita, KS area at the time, I read in the paper of then Tiger coach Bob Stull telling the press, “coming from a small high school, we thought Michael would need a redshirt year, but we had him running with the scout team to open pre-season camp and our first team defense could not tackle him, he just ran over them, so we said ‘forget about the redshirt.’” Michael led the Tigers in rushing for four years, despite a serious knee injury his junior year, a setback that forced him into an 18 month rehab to allow him to finally get back on the field as a fifth year senior. After college, he bounced around the fringes of pro football for a few years, with several training camp look-sees, but the knee injury in all probability cost Michael a career in the National Football League.

I have a lot of stories I could relate about my three years of coaching Michael, as we butted heads several times, once resulting in one of the few suspensions I ever delved out, but my favorite Michael Washington story has to do with his legendary voracious appetite, so huge that Michael‘s mother kept a pad lock on the home’s refrigerator to keep him from pillaging the family food stock when she was not home.
 

On a Saturday morning during Michael’s junior year, the Clarence Cannon Conference music teachers had convened their annual meeting in the teacher’s lounge at Monroe City High School. At the same time, I was holding a pre-season basketball practice. To get to the gym we had to walk past the open door to the teacher’s lounge. Sitting in the middle of the meeting table was a huge tray holding at least four dozen jelly donuts. Michael sniffed out this treasure immediately after walking through the front door. For him, it was a temptation of biblical proportions. He begged me to go into the meeting and bring him out a donut. Forget it, I told him, we need to practice and I am in no mood to hear about any jelly donuts.

By the end of a good practice, that had improved my mood immensely, Michael was on his knees pleading with me for just one donut. I finally told him, “Michael, if you want a donut that bad, then go get you one.”I watched from the lobby as he entered the still in process meeting, walked to the table without saying a word, picked up the whole tray of 4 dozen jelly donuts and with a bounce in his step and not a care in the world, walked out. The approximately 20 assembled music teachers stared with mouths open, but no one said a challenging word to this obvious donut heist. I thought to myself, “If they don’t have enough guts to even say one word to him, then it is not my problem.” As I departed practice for my drive home, turning south on School Street, in my sight came ½ my varsity roster: Michael, Clay, Jason, Chad, Tommy and Andre; walking down the street devouring Michel’s windfall.

Due to memories like the above, I view the Monroe City of my years as a great place for a kid to grow up. It was a “Huck Finn” type of childhood; no worries just play ball and have fun, a place where a kid could still be a kid. In the inner city environments I have worked in, a child is forced to adopt adult behaviors much too fast, often with little or no adult supervision. That was not a problem in the Monroe City of the late 1980’s, where a few dozen pilfered jelly donuts could set spinning  in greased grooves the world of small town teenage boys.

I have always felt grateful that my own two children were born within my five year tenure in Monroe City. It put them on solid footing for a good start in life.

I told Michael he looked good, that he still would have no problem answering the bell on “third and short.” He laughed and then filled me in on where his life had taken him over the last 25 years. I was impressed. Stories of children, now in college, successful on both the athletic field and in the academic classroom (hope they got their mom’s looks, I kidded him); a current job as an assistant football coach at powerhouse Jefferson City High School and a full time position as the head of the school’s In-School Suspension Program. I told Michael that I would have liked to have been a fly on the wall the first time some juvenile delinquent tried to give Big Mike any lip.

It was a good start to what would turn into a very enjoyable three hours of memories and an afternoon of validations of the successful transition of five of my boys to men.

As a teacher, I was vigilant in my attempt to remain always cognizant that one can never know when the simplest and what may seem at the moment the most mundane of actions can have a life changing impact upon a student. Over the course of 30 years, I developed an understanding and empathy for what many kids endure everyday: low expectations, often originating with and from the very adults entrusted with facilitating a child’s education.

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In 1971, when I was a freshman in high school, I chose to write for, an English class assignment, a review of that fall’s Attica Prison Riots in upstate New York. I discussed the overcrowding, the despair and brutality brought on by the forced dehumanized conditions that the inmates lived in. I tended then, as I do now, to root for the underdog. My insights were deep felt, punctuated with the idealism of an impressionable 14 year old coming of age in an impressionable time.

I hoped for a good grade on my writing assignment. Instead, I received an F - and a scolding - along with a warning from my teacher: “if you ever plagiarize a paper in this class again, you will be removed from class, placed in Study Hall for the remainder of the year and forced to retake freshman English over again as a sophomore.”

As a child, I liked to read; therefore I also like to write, two hobbies rather strange for someone of my age and background. In the hindsight of an adult who spent nearly 30 years laboring in public schools, I now have a professional understanding of the rigid caste system - both socially and academically - that develops in American high schools. I see now that I was viewed by many of my teachers as “a nobody”; - one of the legions of invisible kids who for four years float through high schools across this nation, bothering no one and learning little. My English teacher had me academically pigeon holed, with the appropriate label assigned: “No Future”.

I did not plagiarize that paper, or any other assignment I ever wrote for my freshman English class. I remember the after-class dressing down from my teacher that I received as clear today as I did at the time of its occurrence 40 years ago. Distinctly, I remember one phrase hurled at me: “This reads like something you would find in Time Magazine.” In a different context, this could have been the ultimate inspiring compliment to a young and aspiring writer, but the intent of this teacher’s stinging comment (made with obvious sarcasm) was very clear to me, and it was not meant to elicit aspirations of future writing successes. The conclusion drawn from the admonishment was simple and clear: there was no way someone like me could write something that good and“don’t think for a minute you have me fooled.”

Today, with anti-plagiarism software programs that uncover academic deceit so widely available, it is much easier to police student writing. In 1971, it took a lot of legwork and tedious research to substantiate a charge of plagiarism. The punishment for my “crime” was not more severe for the simple reason that my teacher was too lazy to prove that I had, indeed, been dishonest. I should have been outraged (today I am), but in 1971 I was just another skinny white kid with a bad haircut who just wanted to be left alone. Come third hour every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday morning, I had to strip buck naked after PE class and take a shower with 75 other boys, some of them seniors. I had bigger worries than the total disrespect and arrogant put down I had received from my ass of an English teacher. Instead of anger, I choose survival.

To not have to repeat freshman English my sophomore year, I intentionally “dumbed down” every paper I turned in to this teacher for the remainder of that school year. I made sure that the composition of my work was of the low level expected from someone of my lowly status. As I look back nearly 40 years later, I think only; “how sad.”
 
It takes a special teacher and a special person to nurture and mentor a student and propel him or her to break the cycle of self-fulfilling prophecies of failure that many kids, especially males, face on a frequent and daily basis. Fortunately, I can look back on my own student experiences and be thankful that as my education progressed, I found teachers who were there to encourage and enrich; prod and challenge; and in the end, congratulate and celebrate student achievement. I am proud to say as a retired educator, teaching is indeed, the noblest of professions.


By my senior year of high school, I had become fascinated with the process of recording and composing my thoughts on paper. When alone and out of sight of a disbelieving world, I would write thoughts in a notebook I kept hidden. Amazement would sweep over me as I would construct my abstract thoughts into a tangible product recorded in my journal. Adjusting, tweaking, paraphrasing and editing, I would shake my head in wonderment when reading my finished work. Like a painter, I would step back to admire my creations. I had, by the time I reached the age of 17, gathered the self-confidence, brought on by several years of maturity, to display my writing efforts at the finest level I could produce, no longer feeling a need to “dumb down” my work to fit some societal mode of expectations.

Early in my senior year of high school, once again during English class, we were was given an assignment to take a selected paragraph and rewrite it twice: once from a formal stand point- with the appropriate rigid use of the language, and from an informal angle- incorporating the use of current cultural slang. During the following day’s class period, when asked for volunteers to share their work, I raised my hand, a first in many a year. As I completed my reading, and to the audible (to me at least) comments from fellow students of“did he really write that,” I have a crystal clear recall of my teacher’s comment: “David, that is really good.” Five little words I doubt this teacher has any recollection of uttering today; but five little words that changed my life. “You know what”, I thought,“‘maybe I can achieve. Maybe I do have a future.”’ All it took was a small amount of encouragement and praise from a teacher.


I'm not scared of dyin', and I don't really care if it's peace you find in dyin'. Well then let the time be near. And when I die and when I gone, there'll be one child born in this old world to carry on.     Laura Nyro
 

Once, a long time ago, when we were all young; it just seemed so darn important. Our whole existence, our collective moods, and those of our many fans, rode on the fortuitous bounce of a round leather ball and its pertinacity to find its way through an iron hoop at the most opportune of times. To be honest, today, nearly 30 years later, to me, it still seems darn important. Those successes of those long ago winter nights are still as sweet, while the seatbacks still sting with bitter disappointment, not tempered by the years. It is just the way I am wired.






The community of Monroe City, for a five years period, entrusted me with the best sons they had to offer. I took this responsibility to heart, wearing my emotional stability on my sleeve. I look back now in wonderment at how lucky I was; for the chance and random circumstances that lead me to this small town. What if I would have taken that job at Marceline, which I almost did, before stalling my suitors to buy enough time to make a hurriedly arranged trip to some place called Monroe City, for a quick look-see before committing elsewhere?  As a young and in many ways unprepared and na├»ve coach, I for certain stumbled blindly in the right direction.  Ignorance is bliss, and as I look back now at how many downward turns that could have occurred in those initial years, and didn’t, for reasons I know not why, it is clear I was a very lucky man. That is the only plausible explanation I can offer up, for five wonderful years I now view with a dreamlike nostalgia.

So what about the 36 young men (including managers) who played for me between the seasons of 1985 and 1989? A few, I have lost track of completely. Many, I have reconnected with the past few years through the miracle of the internet and social media. I have become adept at reading between the lines (bullshit) of Facebook to decipher out the spin and the hype. Most are doing very well. I know of none who are not gainfully employed. Several are bankers, four I count as members of law enforcement agencies, another is an accountant, a handful are involved in technology and a couple make at least a portion of their living as farmers. Many are actively engaged in leading roles within their respected churches. It is an impressive collective resume.

I have to look no farther than in the mirror to know that a teenager boy can surprise as he grows into an adult. I made it through those teenage years of trecherous rough waters, for one simple reason; I never got caught.  I learned long ago to never give up on a young man because of the stupidity that percolates in so many of us during the teenage years.


One of the more colorful characters from out teams in MC, was a young man who always worried me at the time, and I told him so on several occasions, as I questioned his sometimes reckless judgment. What made him so likeable were the same qualities that made him, in my eyes, high risk. He had guts and he had moxie, often times a little too much of both. He was either a charmer or a con artist, depending upon one's view. When we renewed contact a couple of years ago, after nearly a quarter century, he told me through Facebook he was "doing real well.” Knowing him as an adolescent, if he was “doing real well,” then my prognosis was he must own a whore house somewhere, or some other risky venture on the dark side of legal. I was very wrong. He is a nurse, raising a family as a well-respected leader of both his church and his community. That news made my day, but I still hold on to the colorful memories of past times.

I know of only one of the 36 who has passed from this life, sadly, by his own hand. I was shocked when I first was made aware of this terrible, wasteful and tragic occurrence. I would have never pegged him for self-destruction. We never know the demons that reside within the souls of those in our lives. What could make a young man with so much to live for do something so horrible? Was there something I could have said or done, had I known of his depths of despair? Sadly, I will never know.

Most of the remaining 35 have made the transition to adulthood successfully, even if not seamlessly. It is mind boggling for me to see them as they are now, when for so many years they have been suspended timelessly, locked into my conscious memory as 16 to 18 year olds. Some are now, like me, grandparents.

After visiting with Michael Washington, I caught up with Jayson Stark. Always a quiet, responsible and intelligent young man, I was not surprised that he is now the lead IT person at the local telephone company. He proudly introduced me to his wife and children. Jason’s physical appearance had changed little over the last ¼ century. Known in high school for his superb leaping ability, his current trim shape led me to believe, if so inclined, we could walk down the hallway to the gymnasium and Mr. Stark could once again execute all of the ferocious dunks I fondly remember him for.

Ed and Clay Talton, I am proud to say, are their dad reincarnated. I do not recall Clay ever, in the three years he was my point guard, string more than 10 words together. Yet, when his turn came last Sunday to toast his dad, he gave a 10 minute speech that was touching, succinct and poignant. I was very impressed. Clay is also involved with computers and raising his family two hours away in Kirksville, MO. Ed, an officer at the local bank, has been a member of the local school board. He is very involved in his church. Ed is raising his family in Monroe City, following the example his dad has set as a well-respected leader in the local black community. At the testimonial that Ed organized as a surprise for his dad he recognized me to the audience as “a mentor” to him. That is a nice word and alone made me glad I had made the trip.

Nathan Chitwood was the fifth team member I had the pleasure of visiting with last Sunday. Nathan is the former player I have had the most contact with since leaving Monroe City in 1989. That is just the way Nathan is; always the organizer, always the leader. He works for the Federal Government in the area of rural development and in his travels over the state, when he is in my area; we have often been able to visit in person. Nathan is also a well-respected college basketball official and high school football official. Today he lives in the rival Clarence Cannon Conference town of Centralia, raising his son and daughter in an environment he considers, he told me, similar to the Monroe City of his youth. He is a an elected member of the local school board. Nathan is the kind of native son that small rural towns like Monroe City cannot afford to lose, but often, for lack of economic opportunity, do.

I hope that in some small way, I made a difference in their lives. Regardless, it was gratifying to see the finished product from those hardwood trials and tribulations forged on those long ago cold winter nights: fun-loving and athletically talented boys who have now grown into self-sufficient men, responsibly raising sons and daughters of their own.  

When I sat down a few nights ago, it was my intention to write a few sentences of sentimental reminiscing for my blog, about a pleasurable afternoon that allowed me to step back into what for me was a magical time in a special place.  Instead, as you can see, if you have read this far, I have written almost 10,000 words, testament and graditude to the important role this community played in my life and to the deep appreciation for what Monroe City, MO both gave to me and allowed me to experience.

dave@lickingcamps.com
 

 
 

 

 

 

1 comment:

  1. Wow! I just read "Boys to Men" and was very impressed with the authenticity (I graduated a few years before Almany came to Monroe City) and the poignancy of his portrayal. But I'm even more intrigued by the insightful musings and life lessons that he lays out within the context of reality, not a storybook.

    I will be back to get the book and read more.

    Jim Hagan

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