By Brad Oestreich
It was another hot and humid August day in the South as I drove into the familiar coaches' parking lot. The hard work that was put in this summer at the school was obvious as new paint covered the graffiti on the walls, new glass panes replaced broken windows and trash had been removed. On the way to my classroom, familiar teenage faces greeted me with hugs, high fives and "what's up coach." I greeted fellow teachers with a handshake and a "good morning, happy you're back" as the teacher turnover rate at this school was more than 50 percent. This large (2,000 students) urban school, described by many as tough and "ghetto," was going to be home away from home again for the next nine months as it had been for the past 5 years. IS IT WORTH IT?
The first day proceeded as usual in math class until the fifth period of the day. As I was greeting my next class of students, an athletic-looking African-American male who I didn't recognize entered the room. I said, "good afternoon," asked for his name, and being the coach that I am, asked "do you play ball?" He responded with a "yes sir" and made his way to a desk. I quickly asked one of my players who was also in my fifth period to come up to my desk. He already knew what I was going to ask as he responded before ever being asked, "He can play coach." Another quality sophomore transfer, just what the program needed. IS IT WORTH IT?
The year proceeded as usual. There were daily trials and tribulations, but nothing out of the ordinary for a teacher who had been at this school for several years. The team had another successful season and the transfer student quickly become the transfer player and my title in his mind went from teacher to coach. He was a good player who seemed to have it all together as his GPA was around 3.0. As summer break arrived, I said my traditional good-byes and let my players know when summer workouts were going to be. I felt strongly about keeping in touch with the players during break to build the trust that was required to succeed at this school. IS IT WORTH IT?
It was a Wednesday night in July and my wife and I were at the softball field. At that time, I still thought I was an athlete and softball was one of my sports. During the game, my wife yelled at me that I had a phone call. Being a coach's wife for many years, she knew not to interrupt an athlete during a game unless it was an emergency, so I knew when she yelled that it must be important.
"It's one of your players and they say they need you," my wife said I grabbed the phone and began the conversation. It was the transfer player on the other end and he said he was hungry and hadn't eaten for some time. He wondered if I could come by his apartment and get him something to eat. I ended the conversation with, "I'll be right over, be outside when I get there."
I knew before going to his apartment complex that at this time of night, in that neighborhood, not everyone was welcomed, especially not a "white family," but most of the people knew my vehicle as coach and with my player standing outside, I would be fine. On the drive to his apartment, the conversation with my wife dealt with my responsibilities as a teacher and coach, but my wife had made the decision to have him pack a bag and spend the night with us.
As the transfer player entered his apartment to pack, my wife and I followed. Entering the apartment was an eye-opener. The living room had a white plastic lawn chair and a small television on the floor. Curiously snooping through the kitchen while he packed in the bedroom, we found one bowl, one spoon, an empty cereal box, an empty refrigerator and nothing else. We stopped at a fast-food restaurant to fill his stomach as we made our way to our suburban house. As the midnight hours approached, I sat with the transfer player on our porch swing and discussed his situation. I never thought that this phone call would change my life forever. IS IT WORTH IT?
That night on the porch swing became days, then weeks, then months and eventually years. Without getting into specific details, the transfer student's father had never been a part of his life and his mother had left a month ago and he was doing whatever necessary to survive. He was at a crossroads that particular night, and fortunately for me, he chose to call the one person he could trust to help him make the right decision – his coach.
The late-night conversations on the porch swing were educational for both of us. I tried to help him understand his mom's decisions, and he helped me understand what it was like to be a poor, abandoned, African American male living in the "hood." There were many heated conversations as I was trying to instill the morals that my family lived by, and he was trying to adjust to living in a slow-paced suburban community. Needless to say, school for us didn't end when the final bell rang, it really began. As the years passed, the titles of coach and miss faded into dad, mom, little sister and little brother, and the title of transfer player faded into son. Upon graduating high school with a 3.0 GPA, my son signed a college scholarship to play basketball. IS IT WORTH IT?
It's now been more than 10 years since that phone call, and my son is now a man. He has a beautiful little girl of his own and has made dad a grandpa. He graduated from college with a bachelor's degree in recreation management and now is a manager at a local recreational center running a youth summer program, as well as being his dad's assistant basketball coach. When asked, "Why did you choose coaching," he will answer with no hesitation, "Where would I be without my coach?"
IS IT WORTH IT? Every second!
About the Author: Brad Oestreich is a teacher and coach at Raytown (Missouri) South High School.