Let me tell you about two of my students.
He’s a fun guy with a lot of friends. He doesn’t make a great effort in math but usually pulls it together by test time and does ok. He’s the kind who is hard to get mad at and push even though I know I should. He’ll be fine in high school. It’d be fair to judge him as a perfectly average student and typical teenager. That was my opinion until I saw him play basketball, and then I realized everything I knew about him was wrong.
He’s tall and floppy with a big head of curly hair. When he runs up the court, his feet slap against the floor and you can hear it throughout the gym. He doesn’t put up big numbers of points, rebounds, or assists. His opponents tend to write him off as a non-factor, and they regret it. That’s because he has the skill you only see every once in awhile of making the other team work their asses off for everything little tiny thing they get. At the end of a game whoever has been covering him or whoever he’s covered must be exhausted.
In consecutive possessions I once saw him first fight off four opponents trying to get an offensive rebound after they had missed a shot. It was a brawl with three players going to the floor before my student finally got the ball. Then, on our end of the court, in another rebound free for all, it again took four of their players to get the ball away from him after we missed our shot.
He’s got another skill, too, and that’s that he has so much fun in a game. He laughs and smiles more than any other player on the court. Once, in a close game, I saw him shoot and miss three times in a row, each time fighting for and getting his own rebound. He was laughing the whole time.
She’s an alright student who mostly earns so so grades. In math she socializes a bit much, struggles, and lacks confidence as well as motivation. She can be surly, but she can be nice. She’ll comply one moment and defy the next. She’ll get through the rest of the year fine and do ok in high school. And this may sound familiar, but it’d be fair to judge her as a perfectly average student and typical teenager. And again, that was my opinion until I saw her play basketball and realized everything I thought I knew about her was wrong, too.
I didn’t mention that she’s short – easily the shortest player (by a good eight inches) on any team I’ve seen. But she plays huge. From the first possession to the final horn she leads our offensive attack aggressively with spot on passes, drives for lay-ups, jump shots, and rebounds. It’s something to watch as she drives for the basket. Staring at the free throw line, she’ll disappear among the taller girls before coming into view under the basket for her shot.
She’s got the gift of making all her teammates better, too. In the handful of games I’ve seen, we’re always playing better at the end of the game than at the beginning, whether we win or lose, and I think that’s largely because of her on-court leadership by example.
In one recent game we fell behind early and took a timeout after a frustrating possession. I heard my student tell the coach that she couldn’t get anything done against their defense. But her frustration didn’t dampen her effort, and late in the game when it was clear we were going to lose and the other team was piling on, she made what might be my favorite play ever in any sport at any level.
My student brought the ball up court and at the top of the key, a taller, stronger opponent stole the ball from her and headed down court for what should have been an easy lay-up. But starting a full three steps behind, my student went full tilt until she caught up and from behind started swatting at the ball first from the left side then the right. By the time they got to the free throw line the other girl knew an easy lay up wasn’t going to happen. So, she pulled up for a jump shot, but my student grabbed the ball. They fought for a couple of seconds before my girl ripped the ball away and headed all the way down court weaving between all the defenders for her own layup. I don’t remember, nor do I care if she made the shot.
But I do remember that play everyday in her math class, just as I do the fearless, egoless, fun-filled play of the boy, and it makes me happy that they’re in my life.