I recall my first class as a college freshman. Fresh out of high school, away from home for the first time, bouncing along in my step, I felt apprehensive but excited. I took a seat on the aisle, pulled out my fresh pens and one subject Mead notebook and got ready.
This class was a mandatory seminar in journalism that was held in an auditorium with every other student who was also new to the major. It was taught by the assistant dean and was totally impersonal. There were many faces that I didn’t yet know but would come to in the next four years. At that point, however, pretty much everyone blended into each other.
There was one face that stuck out. As I sat there waiting for my academic college career to begin, I saw another student walk by. He had a pronounced limp, wore a black leather jacket, and had various band’s patches on his bag (and I don’t mean the Beatles). I immediately classified this person into every stereotype I could think of: anarchist, user, slacker, rebel, unworthy of trust, etc. It’s amazing how much you (think you) know when you begin college.
I was not too thrilled to discover that this person was in two other classes with me, but breathed easier to find out we overlapped only in the lectures, not in the smaller sessions run by the graduate assistants. I could not move myself past his appearance and because of that and my own predetermined notions, I had my mind made up that this guy was trouble. I wanted no part of him.
A few months later, when I began to get involved in the campus radio station, I was flummoxed to discover that he was volunteering there, too. In sports, same as me, no less. I couldn’t understand why this macabre character would have any interest in sports. If he wanted to be a part of the government uprising on campus, why didn’t he go join one of the fringe newspapers? Surely there were more effective ways to wreak havoc than on a sports radio station that broadcasted exclusively over the internet and wasn’t even known on campus at the time.
I don’t remember who broke the ice (I’ll put my money on it not being me), but the ice was broken. Our chat at one of the station meetings began with acknowledging the fact that we had three classes together. We talked at the station and my perceptions changed. It turned out this guy was a sports fanatic. Lo and behold, he was not the angst-spewing person I assumed.
I learned his name was Greg. He was not getting on the air as much I was, but the truth is, without him I would have never gotten on the air as much as I did. The first baseball series I called, when I traveled as a freshman, alone, to Raleigh, North Carolina, Greg was in the studio for each game making sure I got on the air. Sitting in a booth calling lousy baseball by yourself can be trying, and his reassurance through my headset was crucial.
The next year, we found ourselves working together on different sports, both getting on the air. Even though he was a year older and knew so much more about sports than me, I got the majority of the coveted play-by-play duties while he worked mainly as a stat man (least air time) or color commentator. Greg often would remark, in good humor, “I know I’m second banana to your top banana.” However, without his contributions to my understanding of sports intricacies, I never would have learned so much. We both had roles to play, and even though my voice was more prominently featured much of the time, I would certainly argue that without Greg’s, the broadcasts would have been vastly inferior to what they were.
We went on to host a radio show together for two years and became very good friends. Greg, although he was a year ahead of me in college, opted into a five year program so he could acquire a second degree. He now has three and I consider him one of the most intelligent, well-informed friends I have (in sports, world politics, and more).
Why do I tell this story? Well, I think about myself sitting in that seminar, looking at this person, judging him as all these things I later learned he wasn’t. It makes me wonder what kind of person I was to do such a thing. I marginalized someone based solely on appearance. It never occurred to me until we spoke that this was another human being, potentially with interests similar to mine. I never would have guessed that he would one day attain three degrees. Had you asked me to write his story the first time I saw him, it would have probably been about how much he’s disappointed his family and how amazing it is that he’s even able to make it to class on time.
From this foolishness, I learned how important it is to know people before you judge them. We must do this with our students. I don’t allow previous teachers’ opinions of my new students to taint mine – the good or the bad. I am capable of getting to know my own students and forming my own appraisal of them. Because I allow every student to come to me with a blank slate, they are able to become more confident. They have someone telling them all the things that’s right with them, instead of all the things that are wrong. This is so important for our kids. So many of them expect nothing but negativity.
I mentioned in my early description of Greg that he walked with a pronounced limp. On a trip to Jacksonville, Florida to cover a baseball tournament, we killed some time at an outdoor restaurant. Finally I got the nerve to ask Greg about his unique gait. Matter of factly, he told me he had cerebral palsy. I felt like an idiot as all my memories of judging someone I didn’t know came back. It also become obvious to me from then on that what our society defines as a disability – or more the way our society defines people as a disability – is often misguided and lots of times just plain wrong. In Greg’s own words, “I don’t consider myself having a disability because this is the way it’s always been for me.” And clearly, he has not allowed the way he walks to affect the way he lives. We need to keep that in mind too with our students. Though they may be labeled with a disability, that is only one small piece of the complex puzzle that forms their unique, wonderful makeup.
My friendship with Greg endures today, stronger than any I have from college. The way he lives his life has inspired the way I perceive my students.
It’s amazing what can happen when we allow everyone the chance to shine.