In my nearly 20 years in the classroom, on the basketball court and around my three high school campuses as an educator, I’ve never once consciously gone to work looking for, or hoping that, a student or students would stop by to tell me how much they appreciated me or were influenced by my teaching, my class or something I said along the way. I assumed, rather hoped in most cases, that somewhere along the journey through each school year, a small group of individuals would enjoy my class or the club I moderated and that years down the road they would realize just as I did in my early 20’s, how much the presence of their high school teachers influenced the person they’d become. Every once in a while, maybe only every few years or so, one of them would return to campus to reconnect with the community and stop by to share their appreciation for what I meant to them…and that was more than enough. Just one thank you every couple years has a way of rejuvenating my passion for a career I have always loved.
But rarely, however, do we teachers take the time to thank the students for the incredible impact they have on us and the many lessons we learn from them. Sure we say thank you at the end of the year, sign a few yearbooks and wish the seniors all the best as they enter the “Real World,” but really, do we ever take enough time to look a few students in the eye and just say a sincere and heartfelt, “Thank you.” Thank you for making me laugh on those days I came to work stressed out, feeling unappreciated and overworked. Thank you for reminding me how powerful it is to have dreams and goals, and to see the world and life as a beautifully blank canvas. Thank you for challenging me as a teacher, for misbehaving and talking out of turn so my integrity and management skills were put to the test. Thank you for listening and working hard because you didn’t want to let yourself or me down, even when you didn’t feel like learning math or didn’t have the energy to. Thank you for teaching me about relationships and that they are always and every day a two-way street. And maybe most important, thank you for teaching me that those relationships are why I am really in this whole gig to begin with.
I learned that last lesson in a big way during the 2003-04 school year while coaching the Freshman B Boys Basketball team at Juniper Serra High School in San Mateo. To be completely blunt, Frosh B basketball is at the bottom of the program list and only one or two of the players on that team typically ever make it to Varsity…but the 13 players on our team that year never let that fact cross their mind at any point of a meeting, practice, or game. They came every day to the dirty, sun-cracked blacktop courts outside and worked their tails off as though they were preparing for the Olympics. They played together, hung out together, went to class together and stayed together through all the ups and downs a basketball season inevitably provides. They gave me everything they had each and every day and their commitment and dedication inspired me to do the same. I worked harder and harder each and every day to help them realize their goals, knowing I would stop at nothing to ensure I would never let them down. After winning the league title on our home floor in the final game of the season that year, I passed out Championship T-shirts and we celebrated by walking outside to those same outdoor courts and cutting down the weathered nets to celebrate our accomplishment. It is truly a moment, and a team, I will never, ever forget.
This week, the story of our team took another turn as a second player from that squad passed away after a long battle with Cancer, an opponent tougher than any we faced during the 03-04 season to be sure. Danny, like each and every one of his teammates from that team, was just the greatest kid and he is no doubt hanging out with another of our teammates, Anthony, who tragically passed away a few years ago. While he was not our leading scorer or rebounder, nor our best defender, Danny’s contributions were as vital as any of the starters who played the majority of the game. A terrific teammate, amazing friend, and giving human being, Danny made you want to be a better, more kind person. And from the stories I have heard over the years from people he met after his time at Serra, that never changed.
I moved from the Bay Area before Danny and his teammates graduated high school, but I kept in touch with a few of them here and there and I knew that Danny attended the University of Arizona, my alma mater and a place I am so passionate about to this day for what it made me during and after my years as a Wildcat Undergrad. It wasn’t until this past week, when I heard from one of Danny’s classmates after his passing, that I was a huge influence on why Danny wanted to go to U of A. Makes you just want to beam with pride and cry like a baby all at the same time. Bear Down, Danny!!!
So while I am sad our team has to battle another tough opponent in the grief of Danny’s passing, I hope they all know I am still to this day, honored to have been their coach. Gary, Steve, Phoenix, Jordan, Cameron, Tobi, Matt, Danny, Aaron, Casey, Andrew, Anthony and Nick…I still wear our Championship T-shirt all the time and will forever treasure the accomplishments we achieved and the memories we shared that season. Celebrate Danny’s life and know that we were all blessed to have him and each other for those memorable times.
So to that Frosh B Basketball Team….THANK YOU!!! Thank you for inspiring me to work harder as a teacher and coach than I ever had before. Thank you for your passion and for rooting each other on each and every day. Thank you for the video from the bachelor party, drinking the wine that never should have been saved for all those 10+ years. Thank you for your dedication, your hard work, your trust and, although you may not have realized you were doing so, thank you for helping me become the teacher, coach and person I am today.