Whether you grew up with a positive family life or not, chances are that there was a person or people outside of your direct family that had and continue to have a lasting, positive effect on your life. Someone that you know helped shape the person you are today.
In my case, there was more than one person, and thankfully, I continue to meet others along the way that also positively influence in my life. Looking back though, I find myself thinking frequently about one specific person and the debt I feel for his positive influence at a critical time in my life.
March Madness and basketball always make me think of this person. Like so many of you, that person for me was my teacher and coach during that painfully awkward time of middle school. Mr. Tully was the 7th grade teacher in the small Catholic grade school that I attended. He was also the boys’ basketball coach. I think that one attribute many teachers who earn lifelong gratitude from their past students have is the ability to treat the young people they teach as equals, showing them that their opinions, voice, and concerns matter. Middle school is a time when that sort of empathy and respect is badly needed and even more so for kids that grow up with less than ideal family lives. Mr. Tully was that person to all of us in my class and on that team. He knew when to let us be kids, but also when to lean in and try to shape us to help prepare us for adulthood. Never, ever do I recall him talking down to us. That trait is a lifeline for kids that come from backgrounds where getting talked down to is sometimes a common occurrence.
As a teacher, Mr. Tully was ahead of his time. In Social Studies he tried very creative methods to try to get us 12- and 13-year-olds to engage on very heavy topics. That alone both earned our respect and once again showed that he believed in our individual and collective intelligence as a class. To this day, I recall one of his challenging scenarios, where he asked the class to weigh in with our opinion: “You have a family member that is sick and needs medicine, but there is no possible way you can afford that medicine and no other way to attain it other than steal it. What would you do?” This may seem like a simple question, but for kids who have had the Ten Commandments drilled into their heads for years on end (“Thou shall not steal”), this was a very unexpected question. A question that I doubt we would have been challenged with by one of our faculty from the religious order at that time. The discussion was wide ranging and deep. It was a moment that stuck with me and one that seemed to continue to grow roots in me when thinking deeply and objectively on tough issues throughout the rest of my life.
Mr. Tully believed in us and our potential. When a classmate refused to go to school, he literally walked to the student’s house to “convince” him that he was in fact coming to school. I have not talked to that former classmate for years, but I would imagine he looks back on that experience now and understands that Mr. Tully did it because he cared. It would have been so much easier to write that classmate off, but that was not who Mr. Tully was. That demonstration of caring deeply for others also got into my bones more deeply than any sermon ever could.
I could go on and on with more examples, but I think you get the picture. While I strayed off course in early adulthood, voices in my head like that of Mr. Tully and my mother called me back to get back on course and live up to my potential. The greatest testament to Mr. Tully and his influence is that to this day I, and many of my classmates from grade school, remain in contact with him. We have a strong friendship and continued mutual respect.
I was driving through my hometown recently after being stranded in Chicago’s airport due to a snow storm. As I drove through town, there was Mr. Tully shoveling outside of the sports supply and uniform store that he owns and has been running for decades (The Coach’s Locker). I stopped to say, “Hello,” and couldn’t help but purchase a sticky new basketball. While there, we were talking about what is new with our children when a young lady stopped in looking for some sport socks. She was from a neighboring town. Mr. Tully, of course, knew her first name, her basketball prowess, and more. I saw her light up with that feeling one gets when you know someone values and cares about you. It was the same feeling he instilled in me and my classmates so many years ago, and it was so nice to witness it again decades later. After she left, I tried to impress Mr. Tully by showing him that my basketball skills were not completely deteriorated by doing the dribbling drill called the, “Spider Dribble”. When my demonstration was done I looked up for affirmation to which he smiled and immediately replied, “Keep your head up next time.” Yes, he also has always had a great sense of humor and tried to teach us not to take life and ourselves too seriously. He was right of course; I was looking down at the ball the entire time rather than looking down the court to see who I could pass it to. I took his response as a message and lesson as well: Who am I influencing in a positive way to make this world a better place? Who can I pass the ball to, so they can score rather than me hogging the ball?
Rather than a song for this blog post, here is a clip from Bo Burnham’s movie, “Eighth Grade” that perfectly captures both the universal stress of middle school that will forever span all past, current and future generations as well as the unique pressures kids face in this social media age. Good teachers, coaches, and other empathetic adults are so critical during this time in life. Shout out and sincere thanks to all of you that are making such a big difference in kids lives.
Thank you, Mr. Tully. I hope this post expresses in a small way the tremendous gratitude I have for your positive impact on my life. You are a great human being.