3 for 10.

3 For 10, Mrs. Lane, and Hiding What I Don’t Know. 

I’ve done almost every sport I can think of for almost as long as I can remember, so I have had a lot of coaches.

My best coach was my eighth grade math teacher, Mrs. Lane.  I think her first name was Edna, and even though she was fighting off retirement 46 years ago, it wouldn’t surprise me if she was still around rattling cages wherever she is. 

Full disclosure: she scared me witless from the very start. In fact, she scared everybody witless.  She wasn’t mean.  She didn’t yell.  It’s just that you knew that she knew.  Everything.  Especially about you.

She wore a different knockoff Chanel suit to school every day, and had high-fashion oversized black-framed glasses.  She spoke in the snappy cadence of an actress in a 1940’s romantic comedy.  Her white hair was carefully coiffed… I never saw a strand out of place.  I never saw anything out of place, really.  The desks in our classroom (her classroom) were always in perfect rows, and I don’t think one of them ever had a piece of gum stuck underneath.  Even the wastebaskets were orderly.  At the end of class, she would assign one of us to walk down the rows at a precise pace with the wastebasket, and we would lay our scratch paper in the bottom of the basket, flat.

One Wednesday morning in November, as the wastebasket made its way down the aisle between the desks, my friend Dave threw a balled up sheet of notebook paper into the basket from a distance of about four feet.  A dunk, really.  Tim, the kid holding the basket, froze.  The whole room froze.  Dave’s hand was locked in the follow-through position we’d all been taught at basketball practice. His eyes darted back and forth quickly, but his body was paralyzed.  We waited.  I think most of us were holding our breath.  Mrs. Lane sat at her desk…impassive, and then went back to work.

I didn’t know what to make of this breakdown in the natural order.  Gravity itself might as well have reversed itself.  Curtis quietly balled up his paper and tossed it in.  Nothing.  Then Terry. Again nothing.  Soon it looked like a blizzard; people were tossing wadded up sheets of unused paper just to feel the joy.  I wadded up my scratch paper and with the confident innocence of a nun walking past a police station put up a beautiful shot from about ten feet out.

The instant it left my fingertips, from the front of the room, came the words… spoken in that clipped Hollywood cadence:  “Mr. Wilcoxen.”

I knew then what it felt like to be in the room when Lincoln died. The sickening horror, the sadness, the confusion.  All of my friends looked at me with a look that said, unmistakably: “I’m sorry, but I can’t help you.”

Mrs. Lane got up from her desk, and I considered running for the door.  Sadly, her desk was right by the door.  I knew I’d never make it.  All of my pores were open, just as if I’d almost fallen backwards off a ladder, and I was sweating.

“Nice shot,” she said as she walked toward me, high heels clicking on the linoleum. 

I almost fainted with relief.  The room itself exhaled.  Everybody sat back in their chairs chattering and laughing.   She asked Tim for the wastebasket and fished out my ball of paper.  She handed it to me and walked to the back of the room and set the wastebasket down about a foot from the wall in the corner, where it had never sat before.  Our relief quickly changed back to dread as we all knew she wasn’t done with me.

“It was such a nice shot, Mr. Wilcoxen, that I’d like to see you shoot some more.”  To this day, I wish I’d had something witty to say to her, but even if I’d thought of something, I don’t think my voice would have worked. “Get up, Mr. Wilcoxen, and join me at the door.” 

I had no idea what was about to happen.  She walked me up to the threshold.  “I’d like to see ten more shots, from here. For every shot you miss, you will owe me one hour of detention.” 

The classroom hummed like a beehive with kids murmuring to each other.  Mrs. Lane did nothing to quiet them down.  They knew, as did any kid who’d ever thrown a balled up piece of notebook paper, that there was barely enough weight in the ball to get it all the way across the room… let alone accurately.

I squeezed it very, very tightly, down to roughly the size of a ping pong ball, and took my first shot.  Enough distance, but wide left.  The class groaned.  One hour, in the books.  Next shot, on line but just short.  Two hours in the books.  My next shot dropped in the center of the basket and the class roared as if I’d hit a walk-off homer at Fenway.  Mrs. Lane didn’t bat an eyelash; she just waited for the ball to be handed back to me. 

I ended up making three shots and missing seven.  I knew there would be no parole, no time off for good behavior.  I had stacked up seven hours of one-on-one undivided attention from Mrs. Lane.  I didn’t question the fairness of it… I just accepted that I’d probably never be happy again.

It’s taken me half a century, but I think I’ve finally figured why Mrs. Lane was my best coach.

I was new to Connecticut, having moved up from southwest Miami the summer before.  I had no history at that school, and just a few friends.  I wore Florida sneakers and Florida jeans, and I never dressed warm enough for the weather.  I was just a little different in a community that didn’t celebrate being a little different.

 Here’s what happened that day: Each shot I made made me a bit of a hero, and each shot I missed made me a bit of a hero.  I think Mrs. Lane knew what she was doing.

Coming from Miami (apologies to the Dade County School System) also meant I was significantly behind in math.  I was an A student, but had been able to hide what I didn’t know.  In the months of September and October, Mrs. Lane had discovered what I didn’t know.  I couldn’t hide it from her.

How many hours of tutoring did I need to get up to a solid grade level? Turned out to be exactly seven.

Day one of detention was Thursday.  I showed up at her door at 2:35, sharp, as instructed, strangely at peace.  My son tells me convicts on death row experience a euphoric calm just before their execution; the mind’s way of having us not fall completely apart.  “Come in,” she said, not getting up from her desk, “Pull up a chair.”

I did.  I sat down on my hands.  Without looking up from her papers she slid a china plate full of cookies across her desk.  “You’re probably hungry,” she said.  I was always hungry, two or three sandwich hungry, so I took a cookie. “Thank you,” I said.  “You’re welcome,” she said.  She looked up at me. “Don’t mumble so much, Chuck, I often have trouble understanding you.”  “I’m sorry,” I said.  She nodded, “Just see what you can do about it.” There was a plate of cookies waiting on her desk every afternoon for the next six afternoons.  They were homemade, and they were delicious.

I would like to say we became close that week, but I never learned a thing about her private life, nor she about mine.  But I did learn math.  Each detention was customized to address and remediate a weakness that she had drilled down to discover earlier in the year.  I loved filling the gaps, of course.  It was thrilling to finally understand the things that I had pretended to know.  I grew comfortable with her, and felt a little lost on the eighth afternoon, kicking my way through leaf piles, all the way home. 

I learned the depth of her kindness later that year and will never forget the lesson she taught us all about compassion.

One of my classmates had been caught with marijuana in his locker.  A weed-sniffing German Shepherd had been brought to school, and seemed as surprised as anyone to find drugs in Ozzie’s locker. Ozzie was suspended for a week, and in those days and in that town, a drug-related suspension was a scarlet letter one wouldn’t likely erase.  To make matters worse, Ozzie came from the very small and very easily identified wrong part of town.  He smelled like a bag of dirty laundry.  He had long hair, but not what the girls considered cute long hair.  It was neglect long hair.

When Ozzie came back to school, it seemed as though he had shrunk a little, and nobody would make eye contact with him.  Ozzie was in my math class, and when he arrived, he made his way back to his desk.  Once we were all seated quietly, Mrs. Lane looked up from her work and said “Good Morning, Oswald, welcome back. “  And then she smiled.  It was the first and only time I saw her smile, and I can only compare the way it made me feel to the first time I saw the Grand Canyon.  Truly.

It seemed to be enough for Ozzie, and enough for all of us.  He was going to be O.K., and it was up to us to accept it.

Let me recap: Mrs. Lane ran a tight ship. She cared deeply about her students, and sought out ways to help them without embarrassing them. She was creative. She was intuitive, and she worked very, very hard to outsmart us all and figure out what we were hiding.

In time, I think we all recognize how our teachers and coaches have helped shape us.  I learned from Mrs. Lane the way I learn best: from carefully watching somebody who knows what they’re doing.  Lately I’ve been helping at a nearby elementary school and Mrs. Lane’s words and actions ring loud and clear for me.  I’m beginning to recognize when kids are working hard to hide what they don’t know.  They hide it from each other, they hide it from their parents, and they especially hide it from their teachers. 

I think of Mrs. Lane and I know I need to help them fill in the gaps they’ve puttied over.  I’m also trying a more direct approach:  every chance I get, I tell the kids to stop hiding what they don’t know… it’s the last thing they should want to succeed at.

The same holds true for me, too. I just had a meeting with potential partners that felt very high-stakes for me, and I found myself reluctant to say the words “I don’t know.”  I did, because I’ve learned to. Experience has taught me that I can’t know everything, and it gets easier to accept every year.  Even so, it’s still hard to admit, especially if I feel I should know.

I think recognizing and understanding what we don’t know ties in neatly with the growth mindset, as long as we’re willing to get the help and do the work.

If we coast along living a life where we actually do know everything, it’s a lot like skiing without ever falling; we’re just not going hard enough. 

I’ve decided to fall at least once every time I get on the hill.  I don’t mind shaking off the snow.

Chaz Wilcoxen