Monday, June 21, 2010

Eagle Scouts and Scholar Athletes

On Saturday, I had the double pleasure of seeing my former student, Steven, become an Eagle Scout in the morning at Northern Highlands Regional High School in Allendale, N.J. and later, speaking at a News 12/NJEA Scholar Athletes luncheon celebration.

The day started in Allendale, New Jersey, where the Eagle Scouts assembled to celebrate the extensive service projects that these young men do to earn their coveted status. I stopped in to take a peek before heading down my second event in Edison, N.J. The wonderful, Dawn Hiltner, from the NJEA communications division, spearheads this event and was kind enough to invite me to speak.

I pulled into the parking lot of the Pines Manor in Edison and read over my speech in the car. I like to center myself before walking into a new environment. Little by little, I could see the students starting to arrive with their families for the luncheon.

I always enjoy watching the students walking into such an awards ceremony. The kids look all spiffy and the mom and dads, just plain proud. There is a new shirt with a slightly stiff collar. A little brother or sister is in tow and with any luck, there's a beaming grandparent.

I sat at table number 9, which was empty when I came into the banquet hall. Soon, though, I saw some of my friends from the NJEA - Wendell Steinhaur, the Vice President and Dawn Hiltner, from Communications.

Before long, my table started to fill up and I found myself sitting next to Shannon Myers, the goalie for the women's soccer team, Sky Blue. She was to be the keynote presentation and my contribution after her talk was billed as the "words of wisdom." Pressure was on!

Once everyone got there, Channel 12 had organized a presentation of all of these scholar athletes on big screens in the front of the room. These came from a special video segment that had been aired on television.

Reporters from Channel 12 go to the schools and watch the kids at games, at practice and then they talk to them individually. We got to see their real personality. How wonderful to get a chance to meet these fresh faced and optimistic youth. They made us laugh, wipe away a tear and admire their outstanding skills.

We saw one student playing funny songs on his guitar. Another girl, an accomplished gymnast, had joined her school ROTC by mistake. She had intended to sign up for her school chorus, but found herself in a ROTC meeting. She riot is that she stayed and found out that she liked it. "I like commanding!" she said, with a gleaming smile. Another set of twins talked about how they enjoy competing for grades and athletics. "He's got me by a point in the GPA, but I take him in sports."

Shannon, the Sky Blue goalie, took the podium after the student videos and gave a magnificent keynote - right from the heart. She was powerfully spoken and didn't even look down at a written word. So impressive!

She told the students that high school will probably not be the "high point" of their lives. There are many exciting things ahead, she said, if they follow the spark of passion inside. If they follow their inner fire, their wildest dreams just may come true, but if they ignored it, the flame would die out.

Shannon shared with the group that she had majored in communications and later got an M.A. at Syracuse University. This all lead to the corner office she had dreamed of, but something was missing in her life.

One day she read the paper and found a press release about a U.S. women's soccer league that was about to form. She got a couple of credible sources that confirmed this fact and then began the life transformation she needed to become a professional woman athlete. "I'm living my wildest dream each day," she told us. Shannon had so much passion in her voice that every word counted.

I got up next and spoke from words I had prepared. Below is an abridged version of what I said:

"To have the opportunity to address a group of students so worthy of my utmost respect and admiration, is an honor.

You have distinguished yourselves because you have combined the ideals of scholarship and athletics to a high and worthy degree. Your have understood the value of teamwork and leadership. You know what it means to be there when other people are depending on you.

You have found the courage to run down a court with the ball in a special zone of incredible focus or to bravely race as fast as your legs can carry you.

When your body has screamed for you to stop, you know when to listen or when to push on.

It’s not everyone who can do this. You know how to let your coaches show you the way to excellence. You realize that age has something to share and you want to benefit from this knowledge.

We here gathered today know that it’s not easy to shine, to step ahead of the pack, to lead, to forge new territory and to create records that will set you, your team, your school and your family apart.

The trophies and metals that line your walls are society’s way of telling you that you inspire us to remember what your well-spent youth stands for.

When you feel good, you work.
When you feel lazy, you work.
When your friends are flipping channels and going to the mall, you often work.

What’s different about you is that you know how it feels to be in harmony with yourself and to feel the power and beauty of your personal best.

And for you, it doesn’t stop on the field or court. When you hang up your muddy cleats or throw yet another sweaty tee shirt into the laundry or eat an exhausted plate of spaghetti after a quick shower, you keep going.

You do it because there is that paper to write on the Civil War, the art project to finish, the data to tabulate, the video to edit. You promised your classmates that you would create the hand out for the English project and you know that your Spanish teacher is counting on you to present a poem to the class with a perfect accent and emotion.

Everyone is counting on you, but most of all – you are counting on you because you take pride in what you do. Even when the whole house falls asleep or you fall asleep in the middle of a job, you wake up early to put on the finishing touches.

Because for you, doing a shoddy job just isn’t an option. What sets you apart is that you care!

When I was in college, I studied philosophy. Even though my parents didn’t really understand what I was studying, I enjoyed spending a lot of time thinking about big questions. Why am I the way I am? What does it mean to be good? What does it mean to make a commitment?

Besides those questions, I also liked learning about the ancient Greeks who lived about five hundred BC. For the Greeks, sports were an art and exercise was frequently done to beautiful music. For the ancient Greeks, physical strength, grace and movement were vital parts of one’s education.

We can still see Greek images engraved on museum artifacts that show us the strength of their muscles and the sports they played.

In books we treasure, we can even read their conversations in the pages of philosophical dialogs and plays.

I talk to you about the Greeks because I believe that, in an important way, these ancient athletes have passed their torches on to you! You have stepped up to be the keeper of the flame.

So it’s your job to keep it bright and strong until you pass it on to another.

Why you? Because you have chosen yourself through your exemplary actions.

As a scholar athlete, you stand in a fine tradition of excellence which goes back thousands of years and connects you to all that is fine in our history.

So remember those that have come before you with gratitude and forgive them for their imperfections. Be kind to yourself as well and remember that you can only give the world each day’s best job and that sometimes - there is more of a lesson learned in a loss than a win.

Today, you do honor to yourself and to everyone who believes in you. You are a beacon in the state of New Jersey and for everyone who has helped you get here. We do not celebrate you because you are perfect, but because you have excelled, achieved and endured.

It is an honor to meet you. Follow your passion, seek mastery, tend the flame and never give up! Congratulations!"

After my words, Wendell Steinhaur gave a wonderful speech which spoke directly to the students' interests and dreams. He even made sure to include a little humor, which the crowds enjoy.

What I like most about Wendell is his kind and sincere smile and a personal warmth which radiates to the audience. He has been my NJEA liaison for the Teacher of the Year program and has always been there whenever I needed any help at all, within minutes. What a role model!

When the luncheon was over, a representative from Channel 12 came over with the gift of a magnificent pen set with my name engraved and some words of thanks. The set is something I will treasure and admire. Each gift is a reminder of the job I have to do as the representative of my esteemed colleagues. I take it to heart!

On the way out, some parents and students politely stopped to thank me for what I had said. That's always nice because no matter how many times I get up to speak, I can never quite tell how much of what I am saying is resonating with the audience. It's good that some people come up and let me know.

Each talk I give is on somebody's big day. When I speak, I am being scripted onto a life story and I need to rise to the occasion!

Everyone was clearing out of the hall. Waiters were collecting uneaten rolls and half-filled glasses on giant trays. I walked out to my car and enjoyed watching the families exit, stopping to take a picture by the fountain and one more by the brimming flower beds.

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