When I was a middle schooler, I went out for track. Because my dad thought it would improve what he labelled as my athletic deficiencies, I laced up my already well-worn KMart shoes and headed out to the field one spring day. I practiced a variety of events and improved my general cardio fitness throughout the season. Each practice started out with a short run and then we practiced our individual events. I wasn’t the first runner back from each run, but I wasn’t the last either. Even in middle school I ran just ahead of the turtles. It mattered a bit to me that I wasn’t fast, but I liked the act of running more. I liked being outside in the sun, the feel of the sun on my skin, the sound of my shoes and my breath in a smooth cadence of motion. However, it was clear to all that I was no “runner” like some of the other kids.
Over time I became enamored with the field events and finally got up the courage to throw the shot put. I surprised everyone with the distance of my inaugural throw. And so, a shot-putter was born. Or I should say forged. Because two important things happened the first time I stepped into that circle. Firstly, my coach handed me a “men’s” shot put which weighs 16 pounds. Secondly, he explained that the school did not actually have a women’s shot put (which weighs 8.8 pounds) and then put his hands on my shoulders and said this, “It will be hard for you to throw a men’s shot put, but I believe in you. I wouldn’t ask you to do something I didn’t think you could do.” So my 13 year-old arm and rest of me strained and practiced. I straightened my shoulders and told myself that I was tough enough to do what all my high school team mates thought was crazy. I worked hard to prove to my coach, my team mates and myself that I could do it.
I slided and glided my way across the shot put ring and the season, eventually going to the county level play-offs. Me. I was 5’2″ and probably weighed 105 pounds soaking wet, but stubborn as hell. After all these years, only my weight has changed.
But the shot put wasn’t my only event. I was also a relay-racer (the 800 and 400) and then my coach put me in the 400 meter. If you haven’t run the 400, it is basically a 400 meter sprint. To say it was a bad fit for my skills would be to put it mildly. The first time I ran it, my coach called me over. “Kristi, I need someone to fill this event. Get out there!” After the race my coach patted my shoulder and said, “It was fine. We just needed someone to compete. Good try.” I came in last at every track meet until I finally refused to run the 400 ever again.
My coach wasn’t a bad man. In fact, I adored him as a teacher and as a coach. But he did one thing wrong–at least for training me. He forgot to believe in me as a runner. And so, I didn’t either.
Today I run but I do not shot-put. Shot-putting isn’t much of a practical pursuit, especially for someone living in a city. But running can be done any where. And so I run.
I often say I’m going out for a run in hopes of losing my demons, as exercise is a huge part of keeping my depression in check. I’m still only slightly ahead of the turtles but it feels right. It is the only time these days I have to just myself and it is my form of meditation. Currently I’m training for the Hood to Coast relay at the end of August and I told my coach that I’d be one of his slowest runners. He said, “It doesn’t matter. I’m just proud of you for running. I know you’re going to do great.”
I was running the other night and something reminded me of my track team years. I’ve been adding the mileage and while keeping injuries at bay, I am struggling to find my running mojo. Every run I do is as much for me as it is for the race. Every run I manage to do better makes me feel like I’m making real strides in my skills as a runner. Because a lot of being a runner is running through the pain, the bad weather and the challenges. As I labored up a hill and tried to ignore the beast tempting me to walk, the words “I believe in you” filled my thoughts. I thought about my old middle school track coach. As adults in young people’s lives, we never fully know how our words and deeds will impact young people. In my case, he had no idea that I desperately wanted someone, anyone, to believe in me. That for those words alone I would struggle against odds. That his belief in me would make my skills eventually match my heart.
Many years ago I was a high school teacher. Every spring when the National Honor Society inducted its new members, the teens would identify someone they felt had mentored them. The mentors were invited to attend the ceremony and were recognized for how they had mentored each teen. One young man whom I’d had as a junior asked if I would come that night. Of course I agreed. This was the kind of young man that every adult loves to work with…hard working, kind, humble. He was a strong math and science student but had done very well in my class. At no time in class had I ever felt he was struggling or over-whelmed by the assignments, although I did know he put effort in writing his well-analyzed essays.
That night, he and I both stood when our names were called. His eyes met mine as his words were read aloud. “Thank you Mrs. Martin for believing in me when I didn’t.”
That young man went on to be all kinds of awesome. I am so glad my belief in him carried him through until he saw what I did. And I am so glad that while I never said those words, he somehow knew that I’d believed in him all along.
Looking back, I wish I’d told more students that I believed in them. Because sometimes it isn’t enough to guess. Sometimes we must be told in order to really hear it.
I believe in you.