I’m not sure why, but lately I’ve been thinking about lessons. I’ve been coaching for close to ten years now, which is a bit longer than some and a lot less than many others, but it’s only recently that I’ve really started to parse the difference between coaching and teaching. Perhaps it’s splitting hairs and I claim no great insight, but I think the former concerns itself primarily with management and the latter with lessons. (We’ll save a discussion of good management, which surely includes a healthy dollop of teaching, for another day.)
Today I’m thinking of an old math teacher who granted me an enormous kindness at a difficult moment. In seventh grade, I moved from your standard 8:15-2:05 grammar school routine to a junior high several towns over. My dad would drop me off at school on his way to work (actually it was not really on his way so this was pretty early, like an hour before school started) and I played football after classes, so most days I was there from 7ish to 5:30 or 6. Couple that time change with a threefold increase in homework and this felt like the end of the world to me. I remember coming home one night and just bursting into tears, telling my parents that I felt like I never saw my family anymore.
At school, the seventh graders had temporary advisors to get us started. Every student made a list of faculty members he wanted for his advisor, but in seventh grade you received a temp right off the bat while your more permanent one was in the process of assignation. My TA was my math teacher, Mr. Carroll. I was never sure that he really liked me because I think he thought I didn’t try hard enough in class, but he was solicitous and kind nonetheless.
One day we met right after school had gotten out and before practice started. We sat in an empty classroom–I think it belonged to one of the history teachers–and we went through a pretty standard give and take. Keeping up with my homework, making friends, enjoying football. And then, almost in passing, he asked if there was anything else I’d like to share.
So I told him that I was having a hard time adjusting to the time away from home. I probably wouldn’t have told my history teacher or my Latin teacher, both of whom I adored. But Mr. Carroll was a small dude, the height of most of the kids in my grade if that, and I wasn’t sure exactly what I thought of him yet so I thought why not? Maybe it felt like I’d be telling some kid whose opinion didn’t really matter.
He smiled. “You know,” he said, “my wife sometimes tells me she feels like she never sees me during the school year.” The thing is, Mr. Carroll lived in the gate house at the entry to our school itself. So he was never more than a two minute walk from home. “It’s a hard adjustment every year, after the summer.”
And in that moment, I felt so much better. My sadness hadn’t immediately passed and he hadn’t said anything remarkable or profound. But you know what? He showed up for me in that moment. And that, to me, is one of the greatest lessons I’ve ever been taught. We may not always have the right words, the right facial expression, or know how to handle a tough situation. But we can always show up for someone. And sometimes, shit, most times, that’s the very best thing.