Last month, I was lucky enough to watch my older brother’s high school basketball jersey retirement ceremony. I remember going to his games when I was in middle school. I would watch him score point after point, juke past defenders, drive the lane, and make what seemed to me an incalculable number of baskets. He accumulated an average of more than 30 points per game for 3 years, leading the CCS in scoring. Often times, he would draw an opponent’s best defenders and was double-teamed most of the time. That did not stop him from scoring over 1,600 points as a varsity basketball player.
At the time, I did not realize, and neither did he, what his experience as a high school athlete truly meant. In his speech, he recounted the most important moment of his high school athletic career…
My junior year, as the basketball season was winding down, I set an individual goal for myself of scoring 600 points. In the final game of the season against Menlo, I was just one point away as I came down the floor on a fast break in the 4th quarter. I jumped and was about to release the ball and lay it in, when I saw my teammate Jason sprinting down the floor out of the corner of my eye. Jason had never scored before. This was perhaps his last opportunity. I turned and fired the ball at his chest. He paused for a second, which felt a lot longer, put up the shot and nailed it. His dad started sprinting up and down the sideline like the coach of a Cinderella NCAA tournament team that has just pulled off a thrilling victory. And that was my single favorite moment as an athlete. I ended up getting my 600th point, but I don’t even remember how. It was so meaningless compared to the joy of my favorite assist.
Now, I’m sure my brother did not realize at the time how special that assist was. Many of our students do not realize in the moment the opportunities they have and the choices they make. However, I find it enlightening and encouraging that looking back, as a grown man, my brother humbly recognized that sports is about something larger. It’s about teamwork, leadership, commitment, community, and, perhaps most importantly, feeling like a part of something larger.
Many of our students lack that feeling. They feel isolated, lost in a sea of students. Too many times have I heard “My teacher doesn’t like me,” or “They don’t care about me,” or “School just isn’t my thing,” or simply, “I don’t like school.” These students do not participate in extra curricular activities. They are more prone to getting D’s and F’s. They internalize that failure and judge themselves as “bad” students. I have my Latino Literature class do a research project, and many of them choose to discuss why many students, especially our students of color, lack motivation. One answer they consistently come to is that they often do not have a connection to school.
But it’s not just sports. It’s any connection. We need our students to feel safe, comforted, cared for, and loved. They need to feel special and important. School is where they should find themselves, and they should be encouraged to be who they want to be. It can be painting, choir, band, drama, digital photography, filmmaking, yearbook, newspaper, psychology, physics, literature, mathematics, engineering, robotics, Civil War reconstructionism (I don’t know if that’s a real activity), anything at all.
As we think about redesigning our education system, I wonder what it would be like if all of those options were on the table. What if you really could be whoever you wanted? What if school was not just a place to learn what you need to learn to go to college or be a citizen of the 21st century, but a place to learn to be you? More importantly, what if our students believed this?
Maybe someday we can plant the seeds for our students to see that their greatest successes often arise not from personal goals and accolades but subtler achievements of something greater. Maybe we can teach them that there is something better out there for them, something meaningful and intrinsic. What if we could truly motivate our students to have a desire to learn and watch them make those connections and realizations? What if all of our students went for the assist for the future rather than the immediate gratification of the points in the present? That would be a welcome change.