February 27, 2010

Charlene* & I

I want to tell you about our Thursday- our first middle school track meet. To fully understand why I was so thrilled, you need to have background information about Charlene* (not her real name, but I want to protect the privacy of my students/athletes).

My first year teaching 3rd grade, I got a new student from the other side of the county- Charlene. Charlene was a beautiful little girl- tall, nice skin, silky hair, but she was teased mercilessly, despite EVERYTHING I did to punish the other students. See, Charlene is biracial, and unfortunately, in this town/area, ignorant racism runs rampant. Charlene cried daily, and it was at that point that I took her under my wing. I did everything a good teacher should do to raise her self-esteem. Nothing seemed to work. See, as if being teased racially wasn't bad enough, her family was also quite poor. Regardless of that teasing, Charlene was special. She wrote a book in 3rd grade, and she also loved reading. Her 'book' was 13 pages of college ruled paper. When she finished, she left it on my desk in a little envelope with a note, "Dear Mrs. J, will you read my book and tell me what you think? I love you, Charlene." So, I did just that. Then I bought her some art supplies and fancy paper to make her 'final' copy. Now that you know about Charlene, let's fast forward 4 years.

When I had the first track meeting, I was excited beyond belief to see Charlene show up. She had become even taller- almost as tall as me! Something had changed, though. She had spark in her eyes, the spark of self-confidence. She came out to practice, always in her uniform and old school shoes. She ran pretty well, could keep up with a few high schoolers. One day her mom didn't show up to pick her up, so I took her home. Fate would have it that her family lives in the most gawdawful place in this county. Just when I thought my heart was completely dead and broken, I felt something again. It was a feeling of extreme guilt. Why is fair for this young girl to live in this DUMP, absolute DUMP? Here I am feeling sorry for myself over life situations, yet this GIRL is happy and she lives THERE. It just put everything into so much perspective for me. It also made me extremely angry- angry at things I couldn't control.

Alright- so Thursday night. The kids were so scared. We went to FL again (different school), but it was a really nice situation. The school was pretty small, like ours, and their coaches were super nice. They were really good about showing our athletes what to do, where to stand, etc, since for most of them it was their very first track meet. All the kids did really well, but I mostly want to talk about the 400 and 800.

See, Charlene and I are very close. She talks to me about boys, family, and school stuff. She had talked to me about the track meet, and I'd given her my jacket and gloves to wear. She was REALLY nervous, but I told her for the 400 to just run as hard as she could. (You can't get TOO technical with beginning runners. haha) So, the gun sounded and she was already a few yards ahead of the pack. Oh, crap, I thought, she's going to hit the wall. But, no, that gap got bigger and bigger and bigger... I think I lost control b/c she was all out winning this race. Like, beating the PANTS off her competitors. I threw my clipboard down; I was jumping and screaming, and I think I might've cried a little. The other coaches were asking me questions about her like, "who is this girl and why haven't we seen her before?" I couldn't answer, I just kept screaming and jumping and cheering. The she finished- FIFTEEN seconds ahead of the other girls. Wowzers. She wasn't even breathing that hard. I was completely, utterly amazed. Afterwards, she had this huge grin on her fact and said, "That's the loudest I've ever heard you. Why are you so excited? You told me to try to win." Ha- from the mouths of babes.

Next was the 800 (poor planning, yeah), and Charlene was running that, too. I told her since she was probably a little tired, to tuck in with the pack (about the middle) and run with them for the first lap. Then whatever she could do, try to pass on the 2nd lap. Well, they were off again, and she positioned herself perfectly- exactly where I told her to be, about 9th in 18 girls. First lap went by and I told her to start clipping people off, if she could. Next thing I know, she up in 3rd place and passing on the straight-away, JUST like I taught her. We get to the final 100 and she passing the 2nd place girl, cruising into 2nd place in her 2nd ever track event, following her 1st track event that she all out WON.

That night, Charlene's mom was the last to pick up. We sat in the car for a few minutes and I told her how proud of her I was and I hoped she knew that her parents and other teachers were proud of her, too. She looked me straight in the face, and said, "No one else is proud of me. My parents don't even ask me how I'm doing." What do you say to that? I've met her parents. They do love her, but they, like many poor people, work hard at low paying jobs. Her dad is disabled, and her mom works a LOT to support 3 kids. I told her that her mom was proud, just busy working, working to help her have food and clothes.

I know this has been a novel, but I've come to a major point in my life where my own running isn't really important right now. I think I'm even at peace with this little injury. I am running every other day, slight pain afterwards, but it's going away. I am doing my stretching and icing. Mostly, I just want to run with no pressure. I want to be grateful for being able to get out there again. As I learned from Charlene, life isn't fair, but we do the best we can. Aren't the number of lives we touch so much more important than the number of miles we run? I'm not just saying I have touched lives, I'm saying these athletes are touching MY life. They remind me of what's important. They bring joy to my heart that has been lost.

When you feel like life is crappy, and you aren't running well, think about Charlene. There's a race that's bigger than a 400M track out there for you. That race is called LIFE.


  1. Thank you for this post! I certainly need to remember the race called LIFE. I had goosebumps reading about Charlene's performance. What a talented young lady! Kudos to you for making a difference in her life!!

  2. this was a beautiful and inspiring post! thank you for sharing this :) congrats to 'charlene'!! i wish her the best, and i love your support and caring for her (and your other students/athletes i'm sure).

    (sorry, long-time lurker, first-time commenter)

  3. Anonymous2/27/2010

    congrats to charlene. it is amazing what she was able to accomplish. thanks for sharing because there definitely have been moments recently where i've been feeling sorry for myself. i totally need to remember "a race bigger that a 400m track"

  4. This is beautiful...Charlene is so lucky to have a teacher/coach like you!

  5. Anonymous2/27/2010

    So I just got back here to catch up on your track life and girl, I am SO SO impressed! I am very impressed with the kids' progress and performance, but I want to make sure you know something too - you are responsible for that improvement! Which basically means you are an AMAZING coach (not like I thought you would be anything but amazing). =)

    Love the Charlene story. She sounds like such gem. Tell her that you have runner-friends who are super impressed with her performance! :)

  6. What a great story! I'm an education major, student teaching in the fall, and I would LOVE to coach cross country or track for my school someday. It's stories like this that make me want to be a part of that. Thanks for sharing!

  7. Anonymous2/27/2010

    That was a wonderful story! Thanks for sharing!

  8. Awesome post. Thanks for sharing this with us. Congratulations to Charlene. Maybe you helped her find her ticket out of there...

  9. beautiful story and written so perfectly. thank you for sharing! coaching and teaching have taught me a lot too. little miracles in everyday life...

  10. Absolutely beautiful, R! After reading this, I am certain that God put you on this earth as a gifted runner so that you could pass on your love for running to others... with LOVE. I think that's your purpose. Thank you for being there for Charlene, and also for backing up her parents, despite their shortcomings. I hope that over time she will see that they love her as much as (if not more than) you do. But right now, she needs you. She will never forget you. And now I'm crying.

  11. Great post. Children in situations like Charlene's really need an outside support group to make it in this world. You may be one of those pivotal people in her life that help her leave behind the world she grew up in and create a new life for herself. What an amazing job you have:>

  12. The post about the high school meet was nice, but this is a great story, well told. I cried. Had to stop and blow my nose at "wowsers."
    Way to go, coach.

  13. If you need some money and want to write a book, this could work. Disney could make a movie out of this story. You are amazing R!

  14. Excellent insights. Despite the many noble aspects of running, we're all-too-keen on self-absorption. Be it a girl from tough circumstances or people rebuilding from devastating earthquakes, we can all benefit from having some perspective.

    Heal quickly and keep caring and feeling as deeply as you do.

    Best, ESG/Ron