Even though state lawmakers insist on pretending as if a child’s future success is determined by whether or not he or she can pass a state approved test, I think most intelligent people would agree that many factors other than our academic prowess determine our future. That explains why college dropouts like Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, and Paul Allen can become the most influential people in history, while being a straight A student doesn’t guarantee success any more than being a C student ensures mediocrity.
Schools can certainly play a major role in the development of children, particularly academically. Most parents don’t have the expertise to prepare their children for careers in medicine, engineering, finance, and any one of a number of other fields that require academic expertise. That is where schools shine.
But, many of our lessons occur in our daily life outside the classroom, and our life experiences can shape who we become from a very young age. Two such lessons occurred for me nearly 60 years ago.
Both lessons occurred as a result of my experience with basketball, as many of my lessons have. I have enjoyed a love affair with that sport beginning in the late 1950s when my father was the head basketball coach for Covington High School. I was the typical little kid who idolized the players on his team, and I wanted to be just like them some day. I particularly looked up to a guy by the name of Gene Laughman, who remains one of the best athletes to ever attend Covington High School. I just idolized him.
After finishing high school, Gene went on to become a stellar quarterback at Wittenberg University, a fact that I’m sure played some role in my decision to attend Wittenberg to play basketball. My first introduction to the school came when Dad and I would watch Gene lead the Tigers on Saturdays.
But, more important than his athletic prowess was what a great person he was. Despite his athletic skills, he was humble and polite and never treated this snot-nosed little kid with anything other than respect. He was the perfect role model for me, since I hoped to someday be a “Gene Laughman” for other elementary students when I became a Covington High School varsity basketball player, which I just knew I would do.
Just a couple of years later a second life experience occurred that further solidified for me who I wanted to become when I grew up.
When I was young, the state athletic rules dictated that school gyms were locked once the season ended, so if you wanted to improve your skills, you did so on outdoor courts. I cannot count the number of hours I spent playing basketball on asphalt courts, come rain (or snow) or shine, blazing hot or freezing cold.
My second valuable lesson occurred during one of my outdoor sessions on the basketball court that sat behind the recently demolished Covington Middle School.
I was no more than 8 years old at the time, and I was shooting baskets by myself when a group of high school players arrived to play a pick-up game. One of them ordered me off the court, because they were taking over. I remember responding that I was there first and that I wasn’t going anywhere. I still believed in the first-come, first-served mantra. I soon learned I was mistaken in my belief.
When I didn’t immediately leave, the player who ordered me off the court grabbed my basketball and punted it down the long parking lot towards the churches that sat a block away. Had it been a football, it would have been a beautiful spiral. I’m sure it was a thing of beauty to him, but it crushed me.
I remember chasing after it, sobbing. When I finally caught up to it, I tucked it under my arm and ran home with tears still flowing. And, no, mommy and daddy didn’t come to the rescue. There was a lesson to be learned, one that I needed to figure out on my own. And, I did.
I’m sure the player who kicked that ball has no memory of this event. But, I do.
I clearly remember the raw emotions of that day, and I also remember thinking as that little kid that if I ever “made it,” I would never treat anyone who looked up to me so callously. Instead, I would emulate Gene.
I certainly hope that during four years of playing varsity basketball at Covington and four more at Wittenberg University that there was never a kid, or adult, for that matter, who felt anything other than I treated them with kindness and respect. I hope the thousands of kids I worked with as an educator and coach feel the same way. At least that was my goal, a goal shaped by two very different life experiences.
One other lesson I took from the ball kicking incident was how to respond to a bully. While I ran home that day with my tail tucked between my legs, that’s the last time I remember reacting that way.
Which explains why my war with the folks in Columbus regarding their ridiculous and intrusive education policies rages on. They’re bullies; the same kind as that young man who punted my ball a country mile; perfectly happy to control the lives of those less powerful than them; content with forcing others to do what they’re told whether they like it or not.
I continue to fight them, because I don’t run from bullies anymore.
Tom Dunn is the former superintendent of the Miami County Educational Service Center.