Saturday, 23 June 2012

To The Finish

Yearbook pic of the 2 of us during the race
(we did have colour photography back then!)
This is the time of year when everyone is truly exhausted. The end is in sight and yet it seems particularly difficult to make it those last few steps. I currently have two students who are missing work or failing units and putting my course (and thus their graduation) at risk.  I am seriously frustrated with these two at the moment. Marks are due on Monday and it would be a pretty easy argument to say that my work with them is finished. I have done my part. However, whenever I get to the end of my rope (which is usually near the end of June) I think back to a defining moment during my own Grade 12  year. 

The ancient grainy photo to the left captures me during our school's annual "Milk Run".   I clearly remember the beginning of the race when I lined up with the massive crowd of restless students behind the starting line. As I waited nervously my basketball coach Mr. Henly came up beside me and asked if we could run together. The two of us often went jogging so I didn't have an issue, but I was aware that it might be a struggle to keep up with him during a competitive race. The starter's gun went off and the two us set off at what I would describe as an uncomfortably quick pace, and I was instantly aware that it would be difficult for me to maintain our speed, even for a race as short as the 3km route.  I was a decent athlete in high school, but team sports were my thing and I had never really excelled at track. We were passing all sorts of "runners' though and I knew we were really flying when we passed one of the top female track athletes in the school. About halfway through the run I knew I was in serious trouble. All the usual cliches apply here: my lungs were screaming and my legs were burning. The remainder of the route was basically flat but any runner knows that a kilometer and a half can seem like a thousand when you have pushed your body beyond its limit. Through it all Mr. Henly kept up a steady chatter of encouragement. I was breathing too hard to offer any comments in return. 

Bird's Eye view of the end of the race course
We kept running, and I kept suffering. Finally we came in sight of the school and were within about 200 m of the finish line when disaster struck. My body simply gave out. My legs stopped moving and I came to an absolute standstill. Never before or since that day have I actually stopped moving forward during a run. My collapse was especially unlikely because I could see the finish line across the parking lot.  There is no way I wouldn't have mentally powered myself forward if it was physically possible.  Mr. Henly ran a few steps and then turned around when he realized I had stopped. He said, "Come on kid, let's go! We're almost there."
 "I can't," I panted, "I'm done. You keep going."
 He wouldn't listen: "Nope, come on, you can make it."  

 I was now becoming extremely angry. I was furious with myself for not being able to continue. I was  embarrassed that I was quitting, and I was especially upset that I was letting him down. I also felt he was making it worse because now I was costing him important seconds on his own finishing time.   I begged him to just keep going and to leave me alone, but he continued to stand there. My frustration was overwhelming. What was he doing? Why was he just standing there making an already humiliating situation even more painful?  "Come on," he urged again, "you can do this". 

No. I couldn't. I was done. And then I did something that embarrasses me to this day. I glared at one of the adults I respected as much as anyone else in my life and spat out, "What the hell does it matter to you anyway?"

At this point I'd given him every possible reason to walk away. I was angry, I was disrespectful, and with my last comment I'd certainly made it personal. He could have left me at that point and no one (including me) would ever have thought he had made the wrong decision, but he didn't. He just looked at the ground and said quietly, "Look Naryn, walk if you have to and I'll walk with you". 

Whether I just gave up on the idea of getting him to leave, or whether I had gotten my wind back by this time,  I slowly began to walk, and then jog again, and the two of us rounded the parking lot and finished the race.  I actually tried to out sprint him over the last 50 metres which he found amusing while finishing the race just slightly in front.  

I was confused for a long time about why he didn't just keep running once I had stopped. I had appreciated him running with me during the race but it made no sense for him to stay behind once I had quit. I can honestly say that it wasn't until over a decade later after I became a teacher, and after I became a mother that something dawned on me. I realized that he couldn't have cared less about how well he did in the race. It was never about him. It was always about me. His number one priority was that I finished the race. As a teenager, you really think that everyone views the world the way you do, but now I understand. Now it all makes sense. 

So here at the end of another school year I find myself in the shoes of Mr. Henly.  I have students that are driving me crazy because they are so close to finishing and yet they have stalled. It's also extremely frustrating that the more I try to encourage them to finish the more angry and confused they are about why it is bothering me so much that they are going to fail. In my mind all I am doing is bending over backwards to help them and all I am getting in return is attitude. In their minds, it would be a heck of a lot easier if their teacher would at least give them the dignity of failing alone, and not add a guilt trip on top of it. 

But because of that day so many years ago, I am certain that they aren't quitting right now because they desire failure. I  know they are honestly frustrated because they aren't having success and now they feel they are letting me down too. Their anger is created from their own inability to just finish, and it's very possible they won't understand my motivation as their teacher for many years (if ever). Do students have the right to fail? Absolutely. However when I have kids who have hung in all semester (with so many other obstacles in their lives) and who now for whatever reason just can't seem to take those last few steps, I will remember the teacher who stood stubbornly beside me that day and said, "I will not give up on you." I will stay with my own students until they are able to finish the race. I too will stand beside them and say, "Walk if you have to, I'll walk with you". 


  1. I really enjoyed your anecdote; it was very true and inspiring. Kids sometimes just lose steam at the end, and our job is to keep pushing them to 'cross that finish line.'It is always so frustrating that we have to do this at the end of the year, but I remind myself that the effort isn't much when it gives them a better chance for the future. This year I was reminded not to get too judgmental, when it was my own son who powered out at the end of grad year!

  2. Each time I read your blog I am more in awe of you. I was also running that same race on the same day and I all could think about was "How do I catch up to Naryn?" because that is what I was always saying-in math, in gym, in Mr. Perrin's class on the days he made us write out all those notes.

    I have a similar quote that I repeat to my students:

    Success is not measured by what a man accomplishes, but by the opposition he has encountered and the courage with which he has maintained the struggle against overwhelming odds. ~Charles Lindbergh

    Keep on writing!

  3. Great story, Naryn. Reminds me of a marathon I run a few years ago with two friends. 50 metres from the finish line, one of my friend's legs gave out and my other friend and me waited a couple of minutes for him to recover, then helped him to his feet and crossed the finish line together. I never heard a crowd cheer louder than when we crossed the finish line, as everyone saw the dramatic collapse and finish. And I knew they were cheering for my friend who collapsed and recovered, but also for his his two running buddies who helped him finish the race.