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One thing death is very good at is teaching us lessons. And some good ones, at that

One of my favorite students of all time was also one of my most challenging. His name was Jay. He was charismatic, full of energy, and enthusiastic. Most of his energy was not applied to academics, however. He much preferred to dedicate his attention to athletics.

He was the star wide receiver on our state championship football team, and a guard on our highly competitive basketball team. In the classroom, though, his endless energy made him the target of many teachers’ thin-ice patience.

For some reason, though, I just adored Jay. He was difficult at times, but he and I had a rapport and a mutual respect between us that caused him to act differently in my classroom than he did in others.

Way back then, early in my teaching career, schools still had academic tracks – college prep and tech prep – one pathway for the college bound and one for the workforce bound. Jay was in my tech prep English class. He was quite vocal about the fact that his only aspiration was to play football for Coach Botts. He looked forward to nothing else beyond that. For him, seeing past his 18th birthday never crossed his mind. He was laser focused on catching footballs and making Coach proud. That was it.

For a teenage boy from the rough side of town, having a man like Coach Botts keeping him in school and out of trouble was definitely a win for young Jay. Coach Botts was renowned in South Carolina high school football. His resume’ of state championships was unparalleled, and he pretty much placed the small town of Abbeville on the athletic map.

A little gruff and a tad stern on the football field, Coach Botts towered above many of his players in both stature and presence. He could simply walk into a room, and everyone stood at attention – an Abbeville Panther or not. His deep voice bellowed, and people stopped to listen. His Midas touch reputation preceded him, and if you were anyone in the state of South Carolina, you knew his name.

So for a boy like Jay – fatherless, hopeless, goal-less – Coach Botts was everything to him. All of the Abbeville Panthers felt this way toward their hard-nosed coach who had an infectious way of balancing discipline and unconditional love for his players.

Until one day, unexpectedly, Coach Botts was gone.

And the little town of Abbeville, South Carolina, was shattered. Especially a young boy named Jay.

I will never forget his eruption of anger in my classroom. Through wails of uncontrolled grief, Jay repeatedly screamed out, “He lied! He’s a liar! Coach lied to me!” My heart wept with the boy’s distraught screams, so I finally did the only thing I knew to do. I grabbed him and bear hugged like a momma would.

Several minutes later, he regained his composure, and we sat on the floor of my classroom and talked. I asked him what he meant by Coach’s deceit, and how he responded shifted something inside me that has impacted every single day of my teaching career.

He said, “Coach promised he would be there to see me walk across the stage. He promised me that when I was in ninth grade. Now he’s not going to be there. No one is going to be there to see me graduate.” And the floodgates reopened.

I put my arm around him and let him cry for a bit. Then I simply said, “Jay, I’ll be there.”

Now, I was certainly no Coach Botts for Jay. No one could ever replace the Impact-Maker for Jay or any of the Panther football players. But as I’ve grown and matured as a teacher and a coach, I have kept Jay and his relationship with his coach in the back of my mind. I find myself, quite often, drawing upon that impressionable partnership when I am faced with a challenging student, a lost athlete, a flailing child. I want to be as impactful as Coach Botts was to a kid like Jay. I’m certainly not there yet, but with Jay’s tear-soaked face in my mind’s eye, I have something to aspire to.

I know Jay was grieving as he knew how. Filled with anger and disappointment, he saw Coach’s death as just another tick mark in the abandonment and disappointment column. That was and is sad to me, and ever since then, I want to be a Coach Botts for someone.

So, I encourage you: today and every day, make it a mission to ease the disappointments of the people around you. Thank the thankless. Smile at the joyless. Love the loveless.

I don’t know what became of Jay, but I do know one thing – he walked across the stage. And I know this because I was there. I hope you find a Jay today, and I hope you become his Coach Botts.

Sheryl Green is a secondary educator in Columbus. Email her at sherylgreen14@yahoo.com.

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