Second Chances by Bill Bussey, Provost
More than 30 years ago I was coaching varsity football in a private school in Maryland. One kid, in particular, drove me crazy. No matter what I told him he couldn’t quite get it right. In that regard, he had plenty of company, but he stood out from the rest by grinning at me whenever I focused in on him. At first I found it unsettling, but two weeks into the season I began taking it personally. One afternoon I found myself on the field barking at him nose to nose only to be met with his usual smirk. As my arteries began to pop, I angrily asked him just what exactly he found so funny. I never forgot what happened next. As he jerked out the hunk of plastic designed to protect his braces, the lower half of his face dropped and I realized right then and there that he never had been smiling. His mouth guard had been propping up the corners of his mouth.
I was so ashamed that it took everything I had to look into his sad eyes. I didn’t know where to begin.
Fast forward to April 2012. I’m in Gleason Hall, school just let out, and the Techno Dance is hours away from ramping up. I find myself standing next to a young man and asked him if he planned on going to the Techno Dance. Last year he had gotten into some trouble at the dance. He is a quiet guy, plays his cards close to the chest, and carries himself with dignity. Over the past year we always exchanged pleasantries when we passed each other, and from time to time engaged in small talk, but not much more than that. He mulled my question for a moment, and then looked me square in the eyes and asked sincerely, “Do you want me to go?”
My heart sank.
I was stunned. How could he think otherwise? What had I missed? What hadn’t I said or done over the last year that would lead to this moment? I told him that of course I wanted him to come and that he never should have thought otherwise and I probably said much, much more that I don’t recall. But here’s what I do remember: I remember standing in the dark outside of the Techno Dance and hearing someone call my name. I turn around and make out the figure of this young man in full stride emerging from the darkness. We shake hands, and I tell him glad I am that he showed up. He smiles and nods and moves on. Sometimes you get a second chance.
You can be staring at your child straight in the face and misread her emotions. You can have all the casual interactions in the world and still not truly understand how a person feels. It doesn’t matter if you have taught for 30 years or have raised 30 kids. Every child is different. Instinct and experience often helps anticipate or guide you through tough times, but in the long run those qualities alone will take you only so far. Simply put, don’t allow past experiences and instinct serve as a substitute for intimate conversation. When it comes to your child’s feelings about their world and how they see themselves, you can not assume anything. Most children ultimately come to realize that we parents and teachers are just doing the best we can with what we know. . If our timing is right, they may let us in, but more often than not they will reach out when we least expect it. Seize the moment. You never know if you’ll get a second chance.