As I thought about what I wrote in that essay, I felt the need to share it here. Not because I wanted to get out of writing something new for my last post, but rather because I felt it needed to be shared. Just as a Slice of Life has impacted me this month, the events described in this essay were defining moments in my life and have helped shape me into the person I am today.
I will warn you...it's a long post. I hope you will stick with it and I hope the message will inspire you to believe in the power of others and the the ability to rise above difficult circumstances.
I believe people can rise above their circumstances and good can come from difficult situations.
I often tell students to enjoy being a kid while you can. “You have the rest of your life to be an adult,” I frequently remind students. Perhaps I make this statement based on my own experiences as a child growing up. I suppose I always knew I was blessed and was thankful for my family, particularly my parents. My childhood, you see, was what some might call extraordinary. I don’t think I realized this until I grew up and recognized that not everyone shared the same experiences. My parents were the ones who attended every game, every school program, and made sure my brother and I were able to share in special experiences with them. I remember going to breakfast each Saturday morning with my dad and nights when my mom drove all over town, serving as a sort of taxi service as she shuttled my brother and me from one game or practice to another, often making multiple stops at the drive through just to make sure we had something for dinner. Even now, my brother and I talk to my dad on the phone every morning as we each drive to work, I talk to my mom each afternoon on my way home, and my parents still find ways to create special events for my brother and me, even as we are both married.
I also was fortunate to have a caring and supportive brother, who to this day is still my best friend. In many ways, he was my cheerleader and my coach. Don’t get me wrong, we fought like brothers and sisters do, and there was even one episode where he tied me to a tree while we were playing. However, more often than not, he was the person who challenged and encouraged me. I remember how he used to set up cones in the driveway and make me dribble through them to practice my basketball skills. He would then make me shoot layups while he intentionally fouled me, reminding me “It will only make you better.” During my high school basketball games, I could count on my brother to make his way to the bottom row of the stands during halftime. He would make a point to provide me with some sort of insight into how I could play better. “Drive to the basket,” or “Shoot more three-pointers,” or sometimes the less encouraging, “You need to make your free throws” would be offered.
I tell you these stories to help you understand how my childhood could have been very different were it not for my dad’s ability to rise above his own circumstances. My grandfather, my dad’s dad, was not very involved in his life. My dad cannot tell stories of his dad attending his games, school programs, or investing quality time with him and his three siblings. My grandpa certainly loved my dad, but found it less important to invest that kind of time with him. My dad persevered and went to college and became a teacher. I’m not sure my grandpa understood my dad’s desire to teach. Nonetheless, my dad went on to earn his master’s, specialist’s, and eventually his doctorate degree. I don’t particularly remember much about my grandpa growing up. My grandma, my dad’s mom, developed Alzheimer’s disease when I was five and spent much of my childhood and teenage years in a nursing home until she passed away twelve years ago. My grandpa died when I was seven, so my memories of both of my dad’s parents are somewhat limited. I do know my grandparents loved my dad, but particularly my grandpa’s way of showing him love was much different than what my dad did to show my brother and me how much he loved us. My dad, you see, decided he would be different. He vowed at a young age to rise above his circumstances and be involved in his children’s lives. My dad kept that vow and perhaps his greatest reward thus far is watching my brother with his own son, Hudson, knowing that he raised my brother to be a loving and involved father.
As I mentioned, I realized I was blessed growing up, but I still was guilty of taking my family for granted. I became very aware of this fact during my freshman year of high school. My family had moved to central Missouri when I was in seventh grade. The move had been difficult, but good for me. During the summer before my freshman year, my dad accepted a job as a professor at Pittsburg State University. My brother was a senior, and given the fact the move had been pretty difficult for him, my parents decided not to move our family until my brother graduated from high school. As a result, for one year, my dad lived in Carthage during the week with my mom’s parents, and then came home on the weekends. Being the involved father that he was, my dad often drove hours to arrive at my basketball or volleyball games on Thursday nights and would then leave early Monday morning to travel back to his job. Given the fact that my family was so close, it was difficult not being together all the time, and my mom took on the challenge of doing everything for my brother and me while my dad was away during the week.
As if this experience wasn’t difficult enough, my world was rocked that December. I can still remember the spaghetti dinner that went uneaten seventeen years ago as my mom told my brother and I that my dad had been diagnosed with cancer. It was as if someone had dropped a bomb right in the middle of my spaghetti. I was in shock, particularly with the uncertainty surrounding whether or not my dad would be okay. The situation was made even more difficult by the fact that my dad wasn’t there with us. Instead, I had to settle for talking to him on the phone, asking questions and hoping everything would be okay. I remember going to sleep that night, staring at my Christmas tree glowing in the corner of my room, thinking the Christmas I had so looked forward to really didn’t seem to matter any more. Presents seemed especially insignificant and the few remaining days of school didn’t seem that important either.
I remember going to school the following morning and sitting in the cafeteria with my brother before school. He sat at one table with his friends while I sat at another. I remember making eye contact with him, both of us reading each other’s expressions. I went to my first hour class and part way through the class the principal came in to speak with my teacher. I didn’t think anything of it, until at the end of the hour, my teacher asked to speak to me. He asked how I was doing and told me he had heard about my dad. What I later learned was that my dad had called the principal and asked if my teachers could check on my brother and me during the day.
I had always been a pretty self-sufficient kid and school had always come naturally for me. I enjoyed my teachers, but I never had to really rely on them. That changed on that particular day in December, as I came to rely on my teachers who were so caring and helpful during one of the most difficult times of my life.
My dad had surgery a few days before Christmas, and we learned the doctor was able to fully remove his tumor. My dad would make a full recovery and was able to celebrate Christmas with our family. What began as the worst Christmas of my life turned out to be the very best, as the best present I ever received was not wrapped under the tree, but the knowledge that my dad would be okay.
People can rise above their circumstances and good can come from difficult situations. My dad has been able to share his experience with others and has helped numerous other individuals who have battled cancer. His cancer has returned twice in the past seventeen years, but each time, he has battled and beaten it. I am proud of his courage, determination, and most of all, his desire to rise above his challenges. While much good came out of this difficult situation, I also learned a valuable lesson that has served me well. I saw the compassion my teachers had for me during a very challenging time in my life. Their compassion has been an inspiration to me. As I have pursued my own career in education, I often think back to this experience and remember how teachers supported me at a time when I felt very much alone. My hope is to help my students rise above their own challenges and realize good can come from situations that often seem hopeless, just as my parents and my teachers helped me learn the same lesson.
People can rise above their circumstances and good can come from difficult situations. This I believe. This I remember. This I teach. This I hope to never forget.