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Stephanie Hill: Look deep to see kids' real potential

Jan. 10, 2013 @ 06:59 AM

"Hey, Steph, when you have a minute, I have an article I want you to read. I think it is right up your alley," my husband, John, said with a broad smile across his face. He, more than anyone else, knows how much I love to see what I consider to be "kid underdogs" succeed. It is something that has driven me throughout my professional career -- not giving up on kids even when all the odds are stacked against them, and attempting to instill in them the desire to defy the odds and make it.

It is often a frustrating battle, as all too often, environmental factors dig their dragon-like talons into the underdogs and continue to bring that child down, no matter how hard I fight. Still, I refuse to give up, and reading the story my husband shared with me furthers my commitment. This is because, every now and again, you get the "perfect storm" -- a parent willing to establish high standards, despite and in-spite of their life situation, a teacher (or, in this case, a coach) willing to see the potential in a child, combined with the willingness and determination of the student to defy the odds. It is for these types of scenarios that I continue to teach.

"Determined to attend the first day of summer conditioning for football players at Monroe (GA) Area High School, (Stephon) Tuitt left home around 7 a.m. for what he believed would be about an hour walk. After more than four hours... and 10 miles...Tuitt finally reached the high school's field house. He was drenched in sweat...and arrived more than two hours after the other players had left."

At this point, the coach could have said, "You're late. You cannot be on the team," and then lecture this boy on rules and the reasons the team has rules. This is a common argument I have observed repeatedly throughout my 26 years of teaching. While I respect that point of view, I sincerely believe there are times, situations and, bottom-line, a human, that needs more than a black-and-white rule.

Thankfully, this coach was able to see the human desire within this future athlete, Stephon Tuitt, now a defensive end at Notre Dame. He will, no doubt, by the time this column runs, have played a key role in the BCS Championship Football game. Whether Notre Dame wins or loses, Tuitt will remain a winner because of his high school coach and a mother firmly grounded in parenting skills.

Tuitt's high school coach, Matt Fligg, did not realize how far Tuitt had walked. Later, Tuitt explained that he had, "just put his mind to it. 'I'd never played football before and I was determined to join the team.'"

"I didn't even know who he was . . .. When I took him home, I was dumbfounded," explained Fligg. "I really didn't believe that was where he lived." Fligg goes on to describe that the very next day, when he arrived at the same house, sure enough, out marched Tuitt, ready for practice. The coach promised Tuitt from then on, he would never have to "walk to practice again." Three years later, Tuitt was one of the most recruited high school players.

Tuitt's mom, Tamera Bartlett, described as a single, working mom of four, still felt her son should have responsibilities at home. "He started getting lax in what he was supposed to be doing around the house." She further added that she did not believe her son should be rewarded for not "doing what he was supposed to be doing." Therefore, during the heat of football practice during Tuitt's junior year, his mom marched across the football field and pulled him out of practice because he had not taken out the garbage like he was supposed to do. Bartlett told Coach Fligg that she "didn't care about his football program. All she was worried about was (Tuitt's) education; football was recreation."

While Tuitt describes the moment as "straight embarrassing," he compliments his mother on her disciplinary follow-through. "She taught me that little things mattered -- even taking out the trash."

Later, when Tuitt debated about whether he should attend Georgia Tech or Notre Dame, his mother was there to provide more guidance. She encouraged her son to attend Notre Dame, not because Georgia Tech was a "bad" school, but rather for the fact that it was too close, too regional. Bartlett wanted her son to branch out and experience a broader life. "I didn't feel like he'd learn anything being so close to home," she said.

I tell you Dear Reader, this is why I teach and parent "hard." First of all, when it comes to my students, I learned years ago, when I first began working with rural special needs students in Greenup County, Ky., you have to see beyond the surface. Instead, teachers (and coaches) need to look deeper into the souls of our students and see their potential -- what could this kid be if given a chance? Secondly, parenting requires "follow-through." It is the most challenging aspect of being a parent, in my opinion. When you establish rules and boundaries for your own children, as a parent, you must follow through.

In addition, as a parent, it is imperative that you see your child's potential and look beyond the "trophy society" that little leagues have established -- not every child will or should win a trophy. However, every child can "win" at life through hard work, determination and follow-through.

Ultimately, as parents, coaches, teachers and even grandparents or significant loved ones, we must consider our children's future. Do you want them to be successfully employed, able to live on their own, paying their own bills as well as reaping the benefits a regular salary provides? Then don't give them the easy, trophy-lined path. Challenge them with responsibilities, rules, and boundaries. Then, follow through.

Our children's careers do not necessarily require a college education. They do, however, usually require some sort of post-secondary-education training. Together with your children's teachers, coaches, and significant loved ones, your child can score their own win at life.

May all children have significant adults in their life who see their potential.

Stephanie Hill is a freelance writer and an eighth-grade reading and writing teacher at South Point Middle School. She is also a lifelong resident of Lawrence County. She can be reached at hill992@zoominternet.net.