Over my 47 years in education, I have seen students at their best and students at their worst. Parents provide a launch point from which a child gathers about them their strategies for life. Pouting, for instance, if successful becomes a lifelong strategy. Another strategy comes by being comfortable with one’s self. Add empathy and the need to make things better is the essence of leadership, a lifetime strategy. Here is a story of that strategy.
We had a good team this particular year. The practices had yet to begin, but we knew. These girls were mostly homegrown, going to the same summer camps and playing together up through the ranks. Two of the three newcomers fit right in, young and athletic.
The third player arrived just two days before practice began. A junior with whom we knew nothing about other than her name was Sara. We had a family that lived just outside of town, religious folks who took in emergency foster children, those that no one wanted. I didn’t even know that when she came out on the floor in shorts and a t-shirt. Mexican or Native American or a combination of both, she warmed up by herself and was pretty good. She was definitely good enough to be on our team.
After two days of practice I noticed that the team was staying away from Sara, avoiding her, sending side-glances to one another. After practice, two of the girls approached me as I put away the basketballs.
“Coach , we have a problem.”
“Wow,” I said. “This looks serious”
“We don’t want to play with Sara,” they kind of whispered. ” She has terrible acne, big purple and red sores all over her back.” They were locked in somewhere between sympathy and fear. “When she is sweaty, it’s just gross.”
After practice, I had Sara stay and we sat in the bleachers.
‘The girls are worried about you.” I said being more positive than the girls. “They are worried about those sores on your back.” For the first time I noticed a purple boil-looking sore on her jawline.
“This is the way it always ends,” Sara with tears rolling down her cheeks. “Every year no matter where I live, they stare and talk behind my back. I always quit because both will get worse, my acne and how I will be treated.”
“Is there some kind of medicine?”
“Yes, but social services won’t pay for it.”
The next day I called a doctor and also spoke with the foster mother. There was no fast plan-of-action that would fix the situation quickly.
Sara missed practice the next day.
The following day was team picture day. The girls had been given their white uniforms for pictures. Not only was Sara missing , but so was Jody, the senior captain and by far our best player. ‘Great,’ I thought sarcastically, ‘Our star player won’t be in the team picture’.
The double-door entrance blew open, Jody never made an entrance quietly. Next to her was the smiling face of Sara also dressed out in the team’s white uniform.
“Had to wait for my girl Sara.” Jody threw her arm around Sara and pulled her in to her. as they approached the group. Sara’s terrible acne was more than evident, several dark blotches were on her shoulders and back. All the girls stared at Jody’s physical contact with Sara. “My mom’s a nurse and she said that Sara’s acne is not catching. In fact, mom said Sara should shower really good because our dirty bodies could make it worse.”
“I thought all night how much Sara was sacrificing to just be one of us. To be embarrassed by us and treated so badly just to be one of us!”
Jody looked at me as if to say, ‘don’t step on my stage.’ At times during games, Jody would put the team on her back and will us to win. At this moment she was actively changing the culture of the team about Sara.
Jody again hugged Sara and then said, ” Sara is my friend, I am going to work very hard to deserve to be her friend.
As I looked at Jody, I remembered a quote that said, ” leadership is to help those who are doing poorly to do well and to help those who are doing well to do even better.”