Wednesday, February 3, 2016

The Power of Perseverance

Over the last few days, my facebook feed has been filled with messages and obituary articles about a beloved figure at my high school, Coach Z. He was a social studies teacher and a track coach, and he passed away leaving a tremendous legacy of students and runners and co-workers who loved him and remember him fondly. Everyone, EVERYONE has stories about Coach EZ.

I didn't have him as a teacher, but he was my coach for a time. And while to call myself an athlete would be an incredible overstatement, he was an amazing leader and motivator and I learned so much from the way that he coached.

Particularly because I sucked.

I didn't join track because I loved running. I joined track my sophomore year of high school because one of my best friends convinced me that we needed to join a sport -- "Colleges like well-rounded applicants and we don't play a sport--we need to play a sport." I felt pretty well-rounded -- I sang in the choir, I played violin in the orchestra and occasional quartets, I was getting involved in musical theater both in the Pit and on the stage... but she was right. There was no sport, and everything was arts, and so I had more of a lopsided shape than a round one.

"But I'm not coordinated! I hate sports with balls! I won't make the team, no matter what we pick," I wailed, knowing that my only athletic experience was P.E. And in P.E, my experience was primarily getting hit with balls: getting hit in the head with a basketball even when I was sitting against the wall and not playing, getting hit in the head with foul softballs, getting a direct hit in the gut with a soccerball.

"We'll do track! It's a team, but it's not a team like basketball or soccer. It'll be perfect."

Oy. We went, and we did our warm up and stretches, and then everyone (including myself) quickly realized just how much I sucked.

As in, I couldn't even make it once around the track without stopping. I was skinny at the time, but woefully out of shape and fairly recently diagnosed with asthma. I had terrible joints. It did not bode well.

But did I get kicked off the team? NO. Coach Zem encouraged me to work harder, to make it all the way around the track and to get my muscles into shape. He knew I was not going to be a star. But I didn't have to be a dud, either.

When we started races, I ran the 1500m and the 800m. Although to be fair, to say that I ran is not quite accurate. I shuffled the 1500m and the 800m. I came in last, EVERY SINGLE TIME, and not by a little bit. By as much as an entire lap. Which meant I was often "running" by myself for a painfully long time.

But I was determined to get this, if not to be some miracle track star breakout then to prove that I COULD DO IT. And I didn't feel ignored or like my coach was aggravated by my incredible lack of talent. I felt encouraged to try to make my body do this running thing better each time, to run those stairs and hills faster and faster, to run around the track without stopping until I at least didn't utterly suck.

It was hard. In the beginning (and actually, even later when I wasn't so sucktastic), people were mean. I had a girl approach me in the cafeteria and say, "Why don't you just quit? You're not only embarrassing yourself, you're embarrassing THE SCHOOL. Ugh." What she didn't know was that that kind of comment just made me want to stay in it more, and prove her wrong. There were boys who loved to stand at the sidelines, at about the 300m mark on the track, and clap sarcastically as I went by. Nice, right? But again, I didn't really give a shit. I didn't quit. I wouldn't quit. If I had to run a whole lap by myself, SO BE IT. (And it was so.)

At one point that first year, Coach pulled me aside and asked, "Maybe you'd like to try the speed walking... we haven't had anyone on that event in a while and it might be a good one for you!" I thanked him for his thoughts and said no. I'm sure he went home a little exasperated, why won't this poor uncoordinated, wheezy, slow girl just throw in the towel, but he never showed that to me. He pushed me to work harder. He celebrated when I started to do better. And that meant so much to me. He believed in me, even though I wasn't a medal-winner.

In that first year, I would line up at the starting line for the dead last heat, and overhear things like, "Oh good, Jessica H. is in my heat. That means I won't come in last." Ouch. But, true.

Until it wasn't.

I did the weights. I did the wind sprints. I ran the godawful hill from the track up to the soccer fields (or whatever tiered field was at the top, my high school was at the top of a ginormous hill and when you went sledding in the winter it was called Killer Hill, and we ran about halfway up the crazy hilled driveway that led to the field house behind the track). I ran up the stairs with the bleachers, the Rocky theme in my head all the time. I made friends. I survived teasing about my knock-knees. And I got faster.

A setback to my confidence and newfound not-suckiness was when we went to West Point for the NY State Championships. You could enter one runner in every race, but they had to qualify once you had two or more. We had no one for the 3200m, a terribly grueling race to run on a track. Especially one that's only 200m instead of 400m. 16 laps around a short track. Guess who got put into the 3200m, because she was finally not unable to run, and no one else wanted to do it? ME. Except everyone else from other teams actually qualified. I wouldn't have qualified, not even remotely. So when the gun went off, I was immediately far behind the pack. And then I got lapped. And then lapped again. And then again. The officials tried to get me to get off the track. But I was counting, and I was determined to finish. I was not going to just slink off the track at West Point! No siree! I was going to FINISH, even if it was horribly embarrassing. Would you call running almost 4 full laps by yourself embarrassing? I may have held up some events, and people were not happy with me, but I did it. I finished a race at West Point. Just way, way later than everyone else.

However, by the time I was in my last year of track, before my embarrassing knee injury that was 100% not athleticism-related, I was in the FIRST HEAT for the 800 and the 1500. I got to be on relay teams. And while I never "broke 3," ran an 800m in less than 3 minutes, I did hit 3:04 for my fastest time. Which is pretty freaking amazing considering just a short time earlier I couldn't make it around the track without stopping. I even won a couple medals, although not fancy ones and I certainly didn't qualify for anything, I MEDALED WHEN I PRACTICALLY COULD NOT EVEN RUN BEFORE.

It was a glorious feeling. And I owed a lot of it to a coach who never gave up on me, who never encouraged me to perhaps put my energies 100% into my violin and give this running thing a rest, who cheered me on as I improved, even though no college scouts would ever look at me other than to say, "How'd SHE get on the team?"

This knack for perseverance followed me throughout my life. It helped me to realize my dream of becoming a teacher, even when I had very little support from my ex-husband to go back to school and my divorce landed right in the middle of my field experience and student teaching days. And it certainly helped me to keep on going through the worst discouragement of my life -- realizing that it was going to be an all-out battle to have a family, that nothing was going to come easy and I was going to experience loss and feelings of utter failure. That I was going to feel lapped, reproductively. And yet I didn't stop. I didn't quit the team. I am trying a new event, and I realized that medically we weren't going to ever become parents. Which is hard, but not the same as giving up. I read a book recently, Counting by Sevens by Holly Goldberg Sloan, and the main character who deals with grief of her own says, "Giving in is not the same as giving up." I gave in and realized that biological parenthood was not for me, that I was being lapped and no hills-and-stairs regimen was going to fix it. But I didn't let go of parenthood, and we are pursuing adoption--and even though it requires a fair amount of perseverance and sometimes that feeling of being lapped...I know we'll cross that finish line. We might be running several laps by ourselves and wondering if we should just gracefully get off the track, but we're STAYING ON THAT TRACK, dammit.

That's a lesson that I learned from running track, with Coach Z at the helm. Keep going. Work hard, and you'll see results, even if those results aren't exactly what you originally envisioned. Go after your dream and don't let people tell you you can't. I didn't know Coach Z as much as many people who ran all 4 years or were actually terrific athletes, but I feel he made an impact on me and my attitude towards perseverance, and I am sad he's gone early from this world. He'll live on though, in the memories of all the many students he motivated, and in my memories of those foundational experiences that later helped me get through some of the hardest moments of my life.


  1. What a beautiful tribute, Jess. I remember your struggles, and I remember that you would collapse, crying from your all-out exertion, at the end of your cross-country races. And I know that you earned several medals for track, which I lovingly saved for you along with your orchestra trophies and English awards. You are - and always have been - a winner. And you will win again.

    1. Thanks, Mom! I just found the box with all those award thingamajigs in it... Fun stuff. Thanks for the cheering and the memories!

    2. Awww, what an awesome mom! She obviously learned a lot from you!

  2. This is just a terrific post. First, it's a great story!! Second, what an amazing coach and role model you had in Coach Z. And wow, does it ever apply to your journey to Mystery Baby. I love how strong you are, and have always been apparently! Everyone deserves to have someone like Coach Z in their cheering section at some point in their life. May he rest in peace.

    1. Thank you so much. Those were hard times, but special times... as today is, too! So wonderful to have such great people in those important teen years.

  3. I am sorry to hear about the loss of what sounds like a great man & coach, but I love this post... what a great tribute to him! Your analogy is perfect & your story sounds like one you'd read in a great novel or see in a movie. I've always been impressed by your perseverance & perspective and will continue to cheer you on as you make your way to that finish line!

  4. I really like this post. It really shows your character and mettle. It also shows the importance of good, supportive role models and how they can teach us life lessons as adolescents that will carry into adulthood. Beautiful way to honor this man's memory.

  5. While reading this, I imagined Coach looking over your shoulder and smiling. What a beautiful tribute to someone who made such a difference. And a great life lesson.

    While dealing with infertility, we often encounter "don't give up." And so many interpret it as meaning keep doing the same thing over and over, even if it's killing you. You bring up a perfect point that "not giving up" can and should mean something else. It can mean quitting one road to pursue another, all the while choosing to fight for happiness.

  6. What a great post! I love that you had such a supportive figure in your life that taught you an amazing life lesson. Now I know where you get your great attitude from! :-)

  7. I love this story. You're such a positive person I always enjoy reading what you write (although I don't often comment)

  8. "Work hard, and you'll see results, even if those results aren't exactly what you originally envisioned." This is such a great lesson to carry forward with life. I can identify with a lot of what you write here, especially since I always pursued arts more than sports, and team sports in particular always bewildered me on a fundamental level and probably always will. It takes a lot of courage to pursue something you are not naturally good at, but you learn a lot about yourself and life by making the effort. I love that you didn't give up and that you (and your readers) can look back and cheer for your teenage self, even if others were rolling their eyes and asking "why doesn't she give up." And what a wonderful tribute to Coach Z. There are some teachers who never leaves us; they stay in our hearts and continue to guide our lives long after we've left behind whatever educational program it was, maybe forgotten whatever the official curriculum was. He is obviously one of them.

  9. Beautiful tribute to an amazing coach. It's a wonderful look at what can be accomplished with both support and perseverance in partnership. He sounds like a truly special guy. And you...all that work and determined sticking with it - very, very impressive!

    I love how you point out that hard work isn't wasted - it may not always turn out as planned, but it's worth it and giving in/giving up are not the same thing. Thank you for sharing Coach Z's legacy with all of us!