Saturday, June 11, 2011

A Year of Possibility

This past Friday marked the unofficial end of the 2010 - 11 school year, my first as Principal at Incarnation Catholic School in Tampa, FL. While we were finished with students on June 3rd, and teachers only worked on the clock until the 7th, we hosted a Math workshop June 10 for ICS Math teachers. As it was outside of their 190 paid work days, it was not compulsory. Well attended, though, it was.

While not a rousing end to a banner year, it did signal the hope, promise and expectation shared by myself and our teachers about the year ahead. They could have very easily stayed at home and started their summer break. As a school, we could have let the government money used to sponsor this workshop roll back into the hands of bureaucrats.

Championships, however, are won in the off-season.

Very much a forward thinker, I seldom look back to the past with either nostalgia or regret. What does the future hold? How can I bring it to fruition? Do other possibilities exist? How can I open myself to see beyond even these avenues and welcome that which is from God?

Very much introspective, reflective and prayerful, I tend to spend much time prior to making a decision in thought, reflection and prayer. Doing so allows me to put the outcome of such decisions in the hands of God and rarely spend time in regret. Rarely do I even reminisce. Trust that I'm doing, in a human and imperfect way, what God wants me to do. Pray that He gives me the strength to do it. Keep trying.

But, look to the future. At the very least, focus on the present moment in such an intimate way so as to live in harmony with the only time there is. "Don't stop thinking about tomorrow..." Fleetwood Mac sings, "...don't you look back."

And I typically don't. I loved it when Elizabeth would fall asleep on my chest. I loved being able to sprint and play sports that require quick changes of direction. I even loved being an Assistant Principal. Instead of longing for these pieces of my past, though, and what I no longer have, I choose to focus on what is still to come. The glass isn't just half full, the other half is coming.

But, within a span of 48 hours last week, the first year of my principalship ended, my wife and I celebrated our fourth wedding anniversary (the best 4 years of my life-- and they just keep getting better!), and one of the most influential people in my life outside of my immediate family and my wife died: Coach Ron Alexander, my wrestling coach at Benedicting High School. "Coach Al" as he was affectionately and respectfully known, taught me so much about not only what it means to be a man of faith ("Cheese and crackers, Michael! What in the ham sandwich are you doing?"-- never once did I ever hear Coach Al swear and he would NEVER use the Lord's name in vain), but also what kind of man I wanted to be. Humble, hardworking, generous, kind, Coach Al made Christ incarnate to me. In me Coach Al saw what few others did, including myself. I'd like to think that he saw me as He sees me. Coach Al challenged me. He encouraged me. He supported me. He loved me.

My retrospection continues. As I thought about the past year, I thought back to that pivotal year half of my life ago. I was 16 and had made the transition from the hard court (basketball) to the grunt and grind of the mat (wrestling). My reasons for quitting just about the only thing I ever quit were numerous. What I learned that year echoes in my mind as I reflect on the many events and lessons of this past one.

Reinvention. The differences between basketball and wrestling are many. Prior to my first day at wrestling practice I thought that I was a good athlete. After that first day of getting twisted into more shapes than a box of rejected pretzels, and being completely exhausted, I realized I had very little endurance, little functional strength and absolutely no idea how to wrestle. I lost 8 matches prior to finally winning one, which, according to Coach Al, was much quicker than even he had expected. I had an enormous drive to learn an entirely new sport (prior to joining the team I had never even seen a wrestling match that didn't start with a W and involve foreign objects), fueled mostly by my desire to please Coach Alexander. I would spend time after practice working on the move covered that day at practice. I would pride myself on running our mile or two-mile warm-up as fast as possible. Climbing a rope once, turned into doing all four of my climbs consecutively. I had to reinvent myself as an athlete and as a person. Thanks to Coach Al, I didn't have to do it alone.

16 years later, I became a first time principal and father within a year. I also had major knee surgery, altering my once-typical workout routine. Reinvention once again, and again, and again.

Risk-taking. As a junior in high school, I took a risk to begin a new sport dominated by life-long wrestlers. Thanks to the tutelage of Coach Al, my gamble paid off. Only two years into the sport and I placed third at sectionals. This confidence to attempt new things empowered me to walk-on to the University of Notre Dame's Football team. The risk I took my junior year, though, was juxtaposed to Coach Al's gigantic arms. He was there to pick me up every time I fell. Had he not been my safety net, I'm not sure I would have gained the confidence to try other new becoming a principal.

This past year was filled with many new tasks. Observing and evaluating teachers. Re-aligning a faculty and staff to stay within budget. Adjusting our tuition scale and parish contribution expectation. Starting a Dads Club. Refreshing a website. Reconnecting a Parish to its School. Revitalizing a mission.

Resolve. After each practice we would, without fail, join in prayer together as a team, and repeat after Coach Al, "Victory doesn't always come (repeat) to the stronger, faster, man (repeat). But sooner or later (repeat), the man who wins (repeat), is the man who thinks he can (repeat). We respect everyone (repeat). We fear no one (repeat)." To this day, those chants ring in my ears, my mind, and my heart. 16 years ago, Coach Al nurtured a flame inside of me that has transitioned from a passion for sports into one for Catholic Education, and dedication to my school and team into a loyalty to my wife and daughter.

Coach Al, thank you for planting seeds of life inside of me that have continued to grow and blossom. So much of my life has been affected and influenced by the lessons taught to me that year.

I don't know what life has in store for me. God only knows the stories I'll be able to tell a year from now, or even 16 years from now.

But, I do know that no matter where I am or what I'll be doing, Coach Al will have, as he has for the past 16 years, played a part.

Thank you, Coach Al. I hope to see you again someday.