It’s What You Do When You Think No One Is Watching
As I stood in the double door leading into the student section of the gym, I couldn’t hear myself say, “How’s it going?” to Mr. Lingen who was leaning against the yellow pads beneath the basket.
Every student was on their feet, clapping along to the school song. With the final chants of “Mighty, mighty, Prowlers, mighty!” echoing, coach Bittner grabbed the mic from Mr. Biermaier addressed the student body about her volleyball team which, in just a few hours, would be playing in the section championship for the third straight year with a chance to return to state.
I leaned over and asked Mr. Lingen how he was doing designing the Western Civ curriculum which would be offered for college credit next semester.
He rolled his eyes and said that it was a slow process but that he was looking forward to it.
Then coach Bittner began introducing the varsity players. As each girl ran to the center of the gym, I began counting the pairs of Crocs I saw. Luckily for them, there were none. Wow, I thought. That’s impressive. At least they weren’t wearing baseball caps like some of the other supposed student-athletes in our other programs.
My thought process was broken when Shelby was introduced. She hopped up from the front row of bleachers and bounded toward the row of volleyball players. She then gave each girl a high five as she ran down the line and took her place at the head. In Crocs.
Shelby had black Crocs on. Oh lord, I thought, and fished my phone out of my pocket. I searched for Shelby’s last text. Then I typed the phrase #weretryingtohaveasociety and hit send.
Shelby and Hannah said a few words to the cheering crowd about how they hoped everyone comes to the game, how much the fans meant to them, and how, hopefully, they would see them all down at state next week.
And just like that, the band stood in the upper deck and began pounding out the school song to end the pep fest.
The volleyball players fled the gym, for the buses that would take them to the game in Moorehead were waiting to be boarded.
I pressed my back against the hallway to avoid the stampede. I waited for the steady stream of players, students, parents, and faculty to subside.
Then I stepped back in the gym looking for someone to harass. What I noticed stopped me in my tracks.
Nate, one of our special needs students, sat in his wheelchair not five feet from me at the edge of the bleachers. As a diehard Prowler sports fan, he was decked out in a Prowler jersey and had streaks of blue and gold across each cheek.
Shelby knelt down beside him with a huge grin on her face. She asked him how he was doing and if he was going to the game.
Nate grinned broadly and shook his head. Then he pointed at something on his iPad.
I backed away but continued to watch.
Shelby talked and smiled and nodded her head. She was in no hurry. It’s like she doesn’t even know she will be playing in one of the biggest games of her volleyball career in just a few hours, I thought. In fact, it looks like she could care less. This kid is a born teacher. I just hope she gets done with her degree in time to come back to Challenger so she can teach Cash.
“Well, Nate,” she said, putting her hand on his shoulder, “if you can’t make it tonight, listen to us on the radio! I’ll see you on Monday!”
With that Shelby gave Nate a high five, and she was gone.
Right then a thought popped into my head, I hope Kenzie grows up to be just like Shelby.
I am a noticer.
You may not notice, but odds are I will.
What does that mean?
Just this morning in my first block, I have, supposedly, our top students in College Comp 2. These are the kids who, supposedly, have never got a B and will do whatever it takes to keep their precious little 4.0s.
Yet I notice how when given time to work - they’re completing an infograph instead of an essay on the first book they read, Cal Newport’s So Good They Can’t Ignore You, and they have a take home essay exam to complete by Tuesday - I still see a few students constantly on their phones.
I notice this. And then I think, let me observe any class, and I bet I can accurately predict not only the students’ grades but what their teachers’ comments will be on their report cards by how often they are on their cell phones.
I’ve noticed this over the years. My least inspiring and successful students are constantly on their phones. They simply don’t develop the ability to tune out the distractions and devote themselves to the real work that college demands.
This is but one reason 70% of students will leave college without a degree.
At the same time, though, I notice another student right now sitting at the table in front of me, her hand on her head massaging her temples and she designs her own infograph. I see another staring intently at the screen. She scribbles something on a yellow Sticky-Note, peels it from the stack, and slaps it in her book.
They haven’t picked up their phones once.
You see, dear reader, what I notice when you don’t think anyone is watching is the most important ‘tell’ of the type of person you are and how much you will succeed. Plus, this is that type of information I put into the letters of recommendation you ask me for, especially the ones that you will have to agree to only let the university or scholarship committee see. That means your eyes will never read what I notice about you.
And for some that is a really good thing.
Here is a real paragraph from a letter of recommendation I was asked to write. Now, let me preface that with this: I informed the student ahead of time that I would not be the wisest of choice for a reference. However, the student confessed that he had no other options.
So, this is what I wrote - *(&^ is like so many other high schoolers I see. That is, he is unremarkable. He shows up to my class, usually on time. He often turns in his work, usually a day late. He does not actively engage in any discussions or conversations. In fact, the only thing he actively engages with is his phone. Now, I’m not strict on cell phones in my class, so when I notice he has a problem with it, then he really, really has a problem with it. So unless you are looking for someone who will flunk or drop out after a semester, I would not give this student a scholarship. Perhaps I am wrong. Please see his other letters of recommendation, though.
I put that final line in giving him a second chance, but I also knew that he did not actually have any other recommendations.
Before you think I am completely nefarious, let me show you another paragraph from a letter of recommendation I am currently writing for Shelby, who is now majoring in education at Concordia - One thing I will always remember about Shelby was her kindness. The fall of her senior year, I saw her do something amazing. It touched my heart and really illustrates what kind of wonderful young lady Shelby is. In late October, the school put on a pep fest for the volleyball team as they were, hopefully, about to return to the state playoffs. Shelby was announced and said a few words to the roaring crowd. Then when the students were released to leave for the day, I saw Shelby take time out and stop and talk to Nate, one of our special needs students who is confined to a wheelchair who also happens to be a diehard Prowler sports fan. She knelt by Nate as he sat by the exit. Everyone else was pouring out of the gym to get home or to practice. Shelby, however, talked with Nate. She interacted with him for at least 5 minutes before giving him a hug before leaving. I was speechless. She didn’t have to do that. In fact, most of her teammates were so caught up in the moment that they were oblivious to anything else. Again, not Shelby. I believe this illustrates perfectly her kindness and empathy. In fact, I’d be proud if my daughter, Kenzie, grew up to be just like her.
When did I start noticing the stuff that many people do not even think twice about?
I’m not sure, but I do know the moment when it became clear to me that it is vital to remember the little things because they can have the most profound effect: parent/teacher conferences the fall of 2010.
Two of my very favorite people in the world were about to walk into my room: Steve and Jennifer Olson. I first met them when I had their oldest son, Ben, as a freshman football player three years ago. They stopped by my room then to say hello and talk about how much Ben was enjoying football. It was then that I thought, wow. These parents show up for conferences even when I don’t have their son in class! Impressive.
But this year I actually had the privilege of having Ben, now a junior, in my College Composition I course.
Jennifer said, “Hello, Mr. Reynolds,” with a smile and shook my hand.
Steve gripped my hand next and shook if vigorously at least half a dozen times before pulling me close and saying, “Thanks for all you’ve done for Ben this year.”
“Well, you’re welcome. He’s a great kid.”
“. . . And Sam,” he said before releasing my hand and taking a seat at the desk next to the one his wife was already seated in.
“Yes, Sam,” I said, thinking about their middle son, who I didn’t have in class, but who was on the ninth grade football team I coached.
Unfortunately, Sam had gotten a nasty concussion and wasn’t able to play beyond the first few weeks. He approached me to tell me that he was thinking of quitting. I balked at such talk and told him to stick around. Afterall, we only had 13 kids out for football. We couldn’t afford to lose one, even if he wasn’t able to play! I told Sam that he could be my assistant offensive coordinator.
Sam agreed and stayed on to help me and to work as a team manager as well.
“Well, I’m enjoying Ben in class immensely, “ I said, pushing a copy of his grades over to Steve and Jennifer. “His writing is well developed and very thoughtful. I just wish he spoke up more in class.”
Steve laughed and said, “Well, Ben isn’t the talkative one . . .”
“That would be Sam,” Jennifer finished her husband’s sentence for him.
“Ah, Sam,” I chuckled. “My assistant offensive coordinator.”
It was odd, I thought that we ended up talking more about Sam at Ben’s conference than we did about Ben.
It was then that Steve and Jennifer leaned in close to me and said, “We just want to thank you for what you did for Sam last week.”
I was shocked. I stared at them both. I even frowned.
“I’m not sure what you mean,” I said. The truth was I had no clue what they were talking about.
“Sam came home on Monday,” Jennifer began, “and told us how you actually threw him a touchdown pass at the end of practice.” The smile again spread across her face. I saw her eyes tear up just a little.
“Oh, yeah . . .” I chuckled, finally recalling the incident, which I had completely forgotten about.
When a team is comprised of 11 players on offense and 11 players on defense, it’s difficult when you only have 13 players. Total.
So to improvise, we had half of our offense practice against half of our defense. We had so few kids out, that I actually had to step in and play quarterback on offense so our starting quarterback, Nick Hoffard, could get some reps at safety.
I looked around the huddle at my three offensive lineman, one tight end, and my two running backs. “Okay, let’s block this one well,” I said. “Two, twenty six toss. On one.” I said. Since these were freshman, though, I had to add instructions. “Connor make sure you get a good down block on the defensive end. Grady I’ll pitch you the ball. Steve make sure you seal the first linebacker you see on the edge. Grady will follow you and read off your block.”
“Come on guys,” Sam said from just a few feet away from the huddle. “Don’t let the defense push you around. You can do this.”
My “offense” all shook their heads. Then we broke the huddle.
Once the center hiked the ball, I turned and pitched the ball to Grady. He actually gained three yards before the linebacker shed Steve, the fullback, and drove Grady to the ground.
“Okay, huddle up!” I called. “Let’s get some reps and get out of here.”
The defense with coach Loe celebrated like they had just stopped us on fourth and goal in the Super Bowl.
“Okay,” coach Loe called out. “Here’s the deal. If the offense can score a touchdown, practice is done right now.”
Well, that’s wise, I thought. The defense is going to let the offense score, coach. Genius.
“But . . .” Coach Loe yelled.
Ha ha, I thought. There is always a catch. Now that is genius.
“If the offense scores, they get out of conditioning. And the defense has to do double conditioning.”
Instant groans and frighten looks erupted from both sides. I don’t know if this offense can score, Coach, I thought but kept it to myself. Even if you let them try and score . . .
“And if the defense stops you, they get out of conditioning. And the offense has to do double conditioning.”
Well, that’s not fair, I thought. Again, how are we going to score a touchdown? I swear if the six guys on defense fell down, we’d still drop the ball and fail to score.
Instead, I said, “You’re on. Get ready to run double conditioning. Nancies!” I called and waved my offense over to me.
“So what are you going to run?” Sam asked as he poked his head into the huddle.
“Wait,” I said, turning to Sam who was holding the orange basket full of water bottles. “Wait, wait, wait . . . Sam, first give everyone here a shot of water.”
Sam began handing out the water bottles.
“We’re going to need this,” Connor said, spraying the water down his throat. “Because we are going to be doing double conditioning after this play!”
“Ha ha. Not so fast, you Nancy,” I said. I had an idea. “Okay, Sam, here’s the deal. I want you to play wide receiver on this play.”
“But I can’t have any contact,” he said, putting all the water bottles back into the proper slots in the basket.
“I know. I know. No one is going to hit you.”
Like the rest of the offense, he just stared at me.
“Here is what you do. When we break the huddle, leisurely walk over there and stand by the sideline. They will never suspect that you’re actually lined up as a receiver. No one is going to even cover you.”
Heads began to nod as they caught on to my plan.
“Reynolds, must be thinking up some trick play,” Coach Loe called out. “Hurry up, we’re ready for you.”
“Okay, here it is. I’ll fake a dive to Steve. Connor run a shallow drag to draw the linebackers and safety. Grady you run a swing route into the flat. And Sam . . .” I looked at him.
Sam stared me right in the eyes with the biggest grin I had ever seen on a kid.
“Sam, you drop the water bottles as soon as the ball is snapped and run a post. I’ll hit you for the touchdown.”
“Ready! Break!” we yelled, turned around, and sprinted to the line of scrimmage.
“Down,” I called. “Set,” I yelled. “Go!”
I dropped back and first looked to Connor who was covered by both an inside linebacker and safety. Then I looked to Grady in the flat who was covered by an outside linebacker. Then I dropped back one more step, found Sam streaking over the deep middle and sailed a pass right to him.
Sam hauled it in and high stepped his way into the endzone for a touchdown.
“That’s not fair!” yelled Nick from his safety position.
“Hey, you should have covered the deep middle,” I said.
“Okay, okay, okay,” coach Loe hollered raising his hand. “The touchdown will count, but since it was a trick play, all conditioning is off today.”
Again, you’d have thought we just won the Super Bowl.
“Get a break down,” I yelled, running toward the end zone. “On Sam!”
Soon Sam was surrounded by his teammates who were all shouting and giving him high fives. Sam had never broken the team down at the end of practice before. Since he scored the winning touchdown, I thought it only fair.
“What’s our motto?” Sam shouted.
“Lead, follow, or get the heck out of the way,” his teammates yelled.
Then they lifted Sam and carried him off the practice field.
All of that came back to me in a second as I sat before Sam’s parents.
“Sammie couldn’t stop talking about that when he got home,” Steve said. The pride was evident in every word. “It’s been hard for him not being able to play. He was really down in the dumps. He didn’t know what he was going to do until you asked him to be your co offensive coordinator.”
“And wide receiver when necessary,” I added.
Steven laughed and Jennifer said, “We just want to that you.”
“Yeah,” Steven added. “That one play made Sam’s entire year.”
And I had forgotten all about it until you reminded me of it just now, I thought.
Now, I try to notice every little thing I can. It truly is the things you do when you think no one is watching that matter most.