Wednesday, July 1, 2015


A conversation over lunch this week reminded me of the very reason that I have chosen the field that I have chosen in life and inspired me to participate in the #oklaed challenge thrown down by @MrsDsings. Many of us could have picked much different paths in our careers and probably be making more money in another market, but I’m convinced that we are truly making a living at what we do as educators. I could give you inspirational quotes and sayings about how much of a difference we make each and every day in the lives of our students. Instead, I am going to tell you two stories, unlike many of you have hundreds, that stick out as prime examples as to answer the question of #whyteach. I think stories can bring forth the real-life examples we have lived and be powerful messages to others. Plus, I just like to tell stories.

My second year of teaching I was charged with instructing six sections of Freshman English in small-town central Oklahoma. If you have ever attempted to edify the nuances of Shakespeare to a bunch of 14 year-old's, you understand the plight of my existence as a “literature” teacher. However, I will say that those days were some of the most rewarding of my career and stick with me to this very day. Teaching young minds to be more aware of the world around them through different lenses and discussing what they see was always enjoyable and enlightening to me. One particular story that comes to mind that I often tell to colleagues about the power of relationships is the story of Neil.

I will admit that names are not really my thing. I often joke with my wife that if I ever greet you and say “hey, big guy” or “what’s up man”, I admittedly do not remember your name. For that, I will simply apologize to some of you now. I have gotten better over the years out of sheer willpower and demand, but names were always something that I tried to get down before the first week or two after the start of each school year. I felt it was important and a powerful gesture for my students to be “somebody” in my classroom.

The first few days of school, as Harry Wong taught us all, I went over procedures and expectations and made sure to get introduced to my new students and let them know some things about me. Stuck in the proverbial crowd that year was Neil, an admittedly forgettable young man that was a little awkward and was most assuredly matched by his lack of popularity with the other kids. He was always a great young man and was zero trouble to have in class, but he wasn’t one of those that out of human tendency we naturally gravitate toward.

I’ll never forget the second class period of the second day of school that year. Neil was the first to enter my room, as he was throughout most of that school year. Whether that was because he liked to be prompt or he didn’t have anyone to hang out with, I’ll never really know and I don’t know that it matters. When he entered the room that day I simply said “Hey Neil, you doing alright today?” He stopped dead in his tracks like he had just spotted a live Copperhead in the Oklahoma grass. He turned to me and merely replied, “You know my name?”

Of course I knew his name. To me, it was part of my ‘job’. But for Neil, it was much bigger than that. To him, I had taken so much interest in him that I knew his name on the second day of school, and that was huge. To him, I was someone that he could immediately trust; someone that he knew cared for him as a person, not just a student.

From that day forward, Neil might as well have been attached to my hip during passing time or outside of the classroom. He opened up and would tell me stories about what he did over the summer or over the weekend. He would participate in discussions and didn’t shy away from being an active part of the class. Neil was truly an enjoyable young man to have as a student.

Now, I’m not certain whether or not that story would even register with him today. What I do know though, is that brief 20-second exchange has stuck with me for years and is a powerful example of what even the tiniest gesture can do for our most needy of students. 

This particular story hearkens back to my very first teaching and coaching job of my career that was in a 5A school district. We had nearly 1000 students in grades 6-8 and that was a shock for me as a small-town kid growing up. The assignment I landed my first year out of college was teaching 8th grade English and coaching nearly every sport known to man. The life of the first year guy with no kids, got to love it.

One of the sports I was fortunate enough to get to coach was high school basketball, of which I have always loved. We had a fledgling program under the guidance of a new head coach and I will acknowledge that we were not very good at the time. Being the new guy, I got the privilege of taking the JV guys during regular practice hours. They were, you know, the JV guys and weren’t very good. They were a rag-tag group of kids that were either playing because they simply loved to or were trying to find a place to fit.  They were sometimes hard to handle to say the least.

One of the young men I had was quite a mouth around the other guys. His name was Jermaine. He was older than most of them and sometimes unrealistic about his basketball abilities. Coaches of any sport will understand what I mean by that. He was also normally one of the last guys out of the gym each evening, for whatever reason. Jermaine and I used to sit and talk with the other coaches as he waited for his ride or waited to simply walk several miles to his home. We talked about his plans after high school or the big dreams he had for his life.

Jermaine was one of those kids that you sometimes just listened to and thought that he was having pipe-dreams about his future. He didn’t come from the most glowing part of town, as I know from the many times I gave him a ride home from practice or games when it got late. A year later I moved onto another district and somewhat forgot about Jermaine. Until we had a chance meeting two years ago.

One hot May afternoon I attended an all-city youth track meet to watch my students participate in various events. As I was making my way through the crowd after watching one of our students run a race someone grabbed me by the arm and said, “hey Coach Bridges.” It was Jermaine. He had his fiancĂ© with him and immediately began to go on and on about all of the things he was doing with his life. He had gone to barber school and had his own chair in a shop. The money he was earning helped him buy an engagement ring and was also going toward his tuition at one of the small colleges down the road. He was glowing about what all he was doing, and he was truly proud. As was I.

We had a great chat and reminisced a little about what we had experienced together nearly 10 years prior. After about 15 minutes Jermaine and I said our goodbyes and 'good to see you’s' and I began to walk away. He yelled my name and I stopped and turned around in the middle of the crowd of people around us. Although, in that moment it seemed like no one else was around. Jermaine looked me straight in the eye and said “Coach, you may not even remember, but I’ll never forget what you did for me.”

Wow. Chills to this day to even think about it. And honestly, tears in my eyes.

I just thought I was showing interest and giving a ride to a kid after basketball practice. I thought I was being the kind of coach that I had growing up that positively impacted my life. He thought I cared for him as a human being, and he was right. Just the gesture of spending a few extra minutes to talk about him and not at him, and listen to his interests, may have changed the trajectory of his life forever. I know that it changed mine.

That folks, is why I teach. Need I say more?