Imagine the possibilities…

We have a Senior Project requirement at Greensburg Salem and I have a little bit of a love/hate relationship with it. I truly like that we have this requirement and feel that it’s a strong one at that. I know that many students get a ton out of their project, and for that reason, I think they’re great.

But then there are those students who simply go through the motions and have to be pushed and pulled and prodded to get through them whatsoever. (And I am very aware that this is part of my job with many!) In my opinion, however, the positives far outweigh the negatives – and I base this even more on talking with the seniors after they’re done, especially the ones who will provide an honest response concerning the whole process. And it’s the actual process itself that I feel is the most valuable aspect of the whole thing.

All of that blabbering brings me to this: we can do better. And here’s how: we can demand more – the students will rise to the expectations that we set, in fact, they’ll go way past them. They will amaze us if we push them and they will struggle though the process and they will have doubts and they will have ups and downs and they will learn about life. And they’ll have an incredible project at the end that they can be proud of. Isn’t that what we should want (and demand) out of each of these?

So where did this all come from you ask? Why are you writing about this now??? Well, my brother Tony, a Case Western grad, posted a video to Facebook today and I took the time to watch it. I hope that you do, too. It’s a relatively quick video and you might say to yourself no high school kid could do that. And I would tell you that you’re wrong. We just have to show them that we believe that they can do it and they will.

Or maybe they’ll fail after trying. And there’s nothing wrong with that, either. We fail in life almost daily, don’t we? And that’s a lesson, too.

So check out the link by clicking on the picture – then click on the video – I really don’t think you’ll be disappointed.

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Remembering just how fortunate I am…

I talk to friends who don’t teach and always hear about them complaining about those they work with and I realize that I really am fortunate to work with some great people — people who are dedicated to not only helping others, but to becoming better at what they do at the same time.

Oh, and they’re funny. Really funny.

Exhibit A? If you have read my blog, then you know about my little rant about Mr. Ashton Kutcher telling us how important it is to learn to code. Well today, after getting some flak from the person who was responsible for putting said posters up, I later found this staring at me after closing my door for the day:

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Now, I will freely admit that I cracked up when I saw this. She got me – and she got me good. But, what I also noticed, since it was outside my door and I had a little more time to examine it, was what else it said:

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And now it makes total sense. Unless it really was just his good looks that got him to where he is. Hmm – come to think of it, I’m not sure that I’ve ever thought his acting to be all that good…

Good one, JoAnne!!!

#onelittleword

New Year’s Resolutions. I’m sure we’ve all made them at some point, and I doubt that most of us have ever true maintained one for an entire year (I think the longest I ever went was a month – but man, I was in shape that month!)

But during this year’s holiday season, while trying to figure out what I wanted to resolve, I came across a tweet from Lisa Dabbs (@teachingwithsoul) which led me to her blog post entitled Ditch the Resolutions and Do the Word! (Careful readers will also notice that Lisa was influenced by Ali Edwards, who blogged about her #onelittleword for 2014 — just trying to give proper credit!)

Immediately, I was drawn to Lisa’s post due to this photo:

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I mean, c’mon now, how cool is that??? I was hooked – and immediately started to think about what my word needed to be for 2015. It was about a nanosecond after this that I started thinking about how I could use this with my students. I started twisting it all around and then finally realized (because I’m smart like that…) that there was no need to twist anything around. That’s the beauty of the whole thing – students don’t need different instructions to do this – the project is strong enough on its own that it lends itself to success by everyone, regardless of age.

So yesterday, our first day back after Winter Break, I introduced the project to them. We spoke of past failed resolutions. We laughed at how we all thought we’d do this or do that. And then I showed that thrive graphic and explained the project: Rather than a resolution, choose one word to keep you centered throughout the year. But choose wisely, because that’s your word for the whole year. While there were some puzzled faces, there were many more faces filled with excitement. They were hooked.

All students were required to do three things after choosing their word: tweet out their photo using the hashtag #onelittleword, email a copy of the photo so that I could show them off on this blog, and print out a copy so that I could show them off on our one little word wall.

I was actually amazed that there were only a few words that repeated (although you might see that somebody wasn’t quite sure how to spell perseverance!

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So, a little bit about the process. I envisioned the students using PhotoShop or another similar program to do this. For my Yearbook students, they didn’t have an option and had to use it (their projects are below). They use PhotoShop on a daily basis, so it wasn’t much of a stretch for them to do this. For my other students (Mass Media and English), I was simply expecting them to write their word on a piece of paper, maybe decorate it, have a friend take a photo and voila. What I love is that it took all of about a nanosecond for the students to realize that they could easily do this using SnapChat – great problem solving on their part!

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So there you have it. I really like what they’ve come up with and truly hope that it helps to guide them through their year – whether that be as a freshman / sophomore or a senior who’s closing in on graduation.

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Oh yeah, there’s that whole little thing about my word. I really spent some time on this and finally decided that this is the word that I’m focusing on the most this year. There are so many things that I want to do, so many places that I want to see – and that’s going to start in earnest, this year…

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Just an incredible day…

There are times that you sit back and just think about how great of a day you had – and yesterday was one of those days (ps, it wasn’t because I proctored the SAT in the am…). A good friend and colleague of mine, Dave Vuick, and I have had the fortune to get to know Baron Batch and Sean Beauford, both part of the creative team at Studio AM, and we had the opportunity to take some of our students to visit their studio in Homestead.

Honestly, I didn’t know what to expect – would we be there for 15 minutes or an hour? Would the kids appreciate the opportunity they were getting or just not quite get it? Would Baron and Sean just be (understandably)  exhausted and unable to make it after their opening night at The Union Hall at Bar Marco the night before? And even more honestly, it couldn’t have gone better.

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Sean and Baron talking about the process of working as an artist.

Baron and Sean were unbelievably giving of their time and our students were filled with questions. It’s not every day that you have the chance to visit an artist’s studio – in fact not every artist even has one. Our kids learned about process and motivation, mediums used, trying and failing (and starting over), looking for improvement, how to brand yourself and your work, the need to be an artist and not a hobbyist, and so much more. I truly felt like I was auditing the coolest college marketing class ever. The real talk was just awesome.

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One of the coolest parts of Studio AM’s space is this room, which fosters conversation amongst all. I couldn’t help but be inspired by everything all over the place…

I watched as three students from very different backgrounds just took it all in. I witnessed true learning as they were validated in their questioning and respected by two pros. I saw three kids light up when Baron offered them pieces of his art and offered to collaborate with them on a future show – and I can’t wait to see these three work together to create an awesome show. There’s not a doubt in my mind that they will do this after they were challenged to do so.

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Who’s that watching over you???

If only you could have seen the joy on Kat after Baron offered her this shield. It's not something that I will quickly forget...

If only you could have seen the joy on Kat after Baron offered her this shield. It’s not something that I will quickly forget…

So thank you, Baron and Sean – you made the days of three great kids and two teachers at the same time. You gave a couple hours of your time to make things better around you and that’s not going to be forgotten…

Baron creating on a skateboard deck...

Baron creating on a skateboard deck…

Sean and Baron with GS students...

Sean and Baron with GS students…

And let me tell you what made it all so worth it – hearing these three on the way home just absolutely geeked about their day and being so appreciative of the opportunity to learn and meet new people – that’s what makes it all so awesome.

#icebucketchallenge

I was nominated by my friend Matt Boe to take part in the ALS #icebucketchallenge and gladly accepted. I think this is a wonderful idea and hope that millions are raised for ALS research (incidentally, I read an article last night that stated that over a 10 day time period, more than $1.35 million had been raised through this challenge, whereas during this same 10 day period last year, $22,000 was raised). ALS is a disease that I, admittedly, didn’t know that much about until reading Mitch Albom’s Tuesdays with Morrie – and if you haven’t read it already, I can’t recommend it enough. It is in remembrance of Morrie Schwartz that I completed this challenge. In return, I have nominated David Zilli, Joe Maluchnik, and Brian Higginbotham to complete the challenge or make their $100 donation to ALS Research. For more information, please check out http://www.alsa.org.

A special thank you to members of the Greensburg Salem Cross Country Team who helped make this happen (I think that some of them truly enjoyed doing this!)

I apologize for the poor video quality!!!

Helping to chaperone a trip to France…

I had the opportunity to participate in an exchange with French students in February of 1988. At the time, I just remember it being a horrible experience – everything was just awful to me. Quite frankly, I wasted the trip and, most importantly, the opportunity.

Looking back on it now, I have no idea why Mrs. Leshock even allowed me to go on that trip – to say that she was taking a chance on me would be an understatement. I was a jerk and didn’t speak French very well; not the kind of kid you want to oversee in a foreign land. Yet she did let me go – and while it took me many, many years afterwards to realize it, this trip really laid the foundation for my future.

Flash forward to 2005: I was now a teacher at my alma mater, working alongside Mrs. Leshock, a woman I had always liked, but now had grown to truly respect and admire. I once again had the opportunity to visit France, this time as a chaperone with Mrs. Leshock for an exchange. The tables were turning, to say the least. And man, my eyes were opened in so many ways. I now saw just how much it took to put on a trip like this, from a teacher’s point of view. I also truly saw the beauty of Paris and France in general.

Memories of my earlier trip kept coming back to me – and I realized that I didn’t have a successful trip when I was in High School because I didn’t make the most of it. It wasn’t because the opportunities weren’t there – it wasn’t because I wasn’t treated well – it wasn’t because it wasn’t beautiful. It was simply because of my own attitude.

We had a really strong group in 2005 and I’ve kept in touch with many of the students who participated in that trip – it’s an experience that really bonds you, and that’s truly a great thing. Quietly I hoped for yet another opportunity to do this yet again.

I get to climb the Arc de Triomphe to see things like this??? Sign me up!

I get to climb the Arc de Triomphe to see things like this??? Sign me up!

Mrs. Leshock has since retired, but our “new” teacher (she’s been at GS for six or seven years now), Mrs. Grace, has continued our school’s exchange with Lycee Jean Monnet, and I once again had the opportunity to help to chaperone a trip this summer. Understand that in this time, the way that world languages are being taught has seen a radical shift. Gone are the days of rote memorization of vocabulary and the conjugation of verbs – the way that I was taught. Instead, students are immersed in the language from the moment they walk in the door – and I had the chance to witness the application of this style of teaching first hand.

Now, the absolute last thing that I want to do is make it out like Mrs. Leshock wasn’t a good teacher – this couldn’t be further from the truth. It’s been 25 years since I’ve had French, yet I can still recognize much of what people are saying and can read it pretty well – and that’s a tribute to her, without a doubt. But I have a tremendous difficulty in speaking French.

From the moment our plane landed two weeks ago, I personally had the opportunity to witness just how incredibly talented our French students are in speaking the language. Quite honestly, I was shocked at just how well they were able to communicate with their hosts. I vividly remember being scared beyond all belief as I sat at the dinner table with my host family for the first time, searching for anything I could possibly say in French that made sense – the words just wouldn’t come to me. And here were these current students just hitting the ground running, speaking entirely in French and just blowing me away. To say that I was impressed would be a tremendous understatement. I’ll put our French students who are studying under Mrs. Stephanie Grace up against any from across this land – and I have no qualms in saying that.

So now I’ve had the chance to chaperone with two different women, both of whom were so incredibly impressive in this process. Being in charge of the safety of 17 students in a foreign land is a tremendous responsibility – and both took this very seriously. Planning a trip to a land that has so much to see is daunting, to say the least, and both pulled this off with seeming ease (I say seeming because I know first hand the stresses that come with this, but also saw both make it appear so easy).

It might seem crazy, but one of the ways that you judge a trip to be successful is by the tears that are shed by the students and their hosts as they say goodbye. The tears show us pretty clearly that bonds were formed and lasting friendships forged. And we saw plenty. Yet I’m also sure that some don’t think they had that tremendous experience that others had – and I completely understand that – I just hope, for their sake, that it doesn’t take them as long to come to the realization that they just experienced a tremendous, life-altering opportunity as it did me.

Finally, beyond once again thanking both Mrs. Leshock and Mrs. Grace, know that this experience would never be possible without willing parents and families who so warmly open their doors to students from both sides of the Atlantic. And it also wouldn’t be possible without the commitment from the teachers at Lycee Jean Monnet who have so willingly done the same on their side!

Okay, I lied – finally, I will leave you with a link to my photography site, which has more photos which highlight this incredible trip. Simply click here to check them out.

Thank you so much Steph!

Thank you so much, Steph!

The most ridiculous thing you’ve ever heard about the Common Core Standards…

I know, that headline is promising big things. And they’re coming. I’m going to do my best to keep this short and sweet.

I have struggled with my thoughts on the Common Core. On one hand, I do believe that national standards can benefit many, many people. Overwhelmingly, however, I keep coming to their assessment, and I just can’t get past the ways in which these standards are being assessed with high stakes tests that negatively affect both students and teachers alike. (I know, those are just two of the issues at hand, there are many, many more!)

And then I had the pleasure of reading this headline today:

“Florida lawmaker is sorry to be the bearer of bad news, but Common Core standards will make your kids “as homosexual as they possibly can.”

I mean, really? This has to be false, right? Nobody could possibly be that idiotic. And then my mind took me to one of my all time favorite quotes as said by Mark Twain: “It’s better to appear stupid than to open your mouth and remove all doubt.”

Seriously, Mr. Van Zant (and I use that Mr. loosely), you are an absolute idiot. The people of Florida should be completely ashamed that you represent them. I cannot possibly imagine anyone ever agreeing with something this idiotic (although I have a feeling that there are many who do and that this will undoubtedly become a talking point.

I mean, how could the following NOT become a talking point?

“Bizarrely, the Republican lawmaker seems convinced that officials who support the Common Core have an “LGBT agenda,” which includes “attract[ing] every one of your children to become as homosexual as they possibly can.” Though surely in some cases, these kids won’t be capable of becoming very homosexual at all.” 

Read on for yourself, please. Please watch the video. Please share this idiocy. And please keep in mind that this man was elected by the people of Florida.

The Common Core will turn students gay.

 

Tell the Wolves I’m Home by Carol Rifka Brunt

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When you get to the last 100 pages or so of a book and realize how much you don’t want it to end, you know you’ve found a good one. When you find yourself realizing that an author has just nailed a time and place — and you find yourself magically taken back to that time and place — well, that’s just incredible. And Carol Rifka Brunt has done just that in her debut novel Tell the Wolves I’m Home

Had this book not been chosen for this month’s selection for our Book Club, I’m not very sure that I’d have ever picked it up. Well, that’s not entirely true — the cover art is intriguing enough in itself — I just might have pulled it off a shelf. And I liked it from the start — it was obvious that Brunt knows the 80s — she wasn’t just writing about them, she had experienced them. While Jerry Maguire may have had Dorothy Boyd (yes, I had to look up Zelwegger’s character’s name…) at hello, Brunt had me at “I ran up to my room. It had never seemed so small. So shrunk down. I looked around at my stupid fake candles and my big dumb collection of Choose Your Own Adventure books, my gaudy red comforter with the fake tapestry print on it” (20).  I mean, c’mon – a Choose Your Own Adventure reference early on? Yeah, I’m in…

And she kept me on the hook as she walked me back down the memories of what it was like to grow up in the 80s during the AIDS Crisis. I’ve often tried to explain to the kids I work with what it was like to grow up during this time period in which I truly believed Ronald Reagan hovered over some type of red plunger-type button, waiting to start World War III (“Wargames” anyone?), and that if I even had a gay person look at me, I would become infected with AIDS. My students look at me like I’ve got a second head on my shoulders when I tell them that. They truly think that I’m making it up; after all, how could either of those scenarios possibly be true?

And yet, they both were. And I was as homophobic as the next guy. I certainly wasn’t raised that way, but I bought in to the mass produced hysteria we were sold. Brunt nailed the description of  the original news reports that always seemed to have B-Roll of some seedy gay nightclub, guys dancing around in leather chaps and leather hats. Evidently, the guys from the Village People were at every gay club in the US. I look back on those days and seriously cringe at the thought.

So, against this backdrop, I understand June and Greta Elbus. While I didn’t have an uncle with AIDS, because Brunt painted such a vivid picture of these siblings, I was able to see my brother Jantson and I going through a situation such as this. In short, the relationship between these sisters also forced me to take a look at my own rocky relationship with my brother. While reading, I was able to not only see myself as that older sibling (Greta), but also as that younger one (June), fighting through the feelings of being alone with nobody understanding you whatsoever. I could see how much they loved each other while hating each other at the same time, and it forced me to take a look at it from the younger sibling’s perspective.

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And while all of that points to a strong, personal experience with this read, it truly didn’t click for me until I had one of those “a-ha” moments and realized that this wasn’t the story of the uncle with AIDS, but rather the uncle’s partner with AIDS. I can absolutely be thick in the head at times and it took me awhile to come to this realization, but man, once it hit me, it hit me. It almost became a completely different book to me, and I mean that in the best possible way.

So there I was last night, with about 100 pages to go, right up against our Book Club’s “deadline,” and I just flat out didn’t want this book to end. I didn’t want the ending I knew had to come. I didn’t want to stop reading about the Elbus family. I didn’t want to no longer have Brunt’s similar take on growing up in the 80s. I just didn’t…

I don’t write in the books I’m reading (unless for a “teacher’s edition” of a book I’m teaching), and I used to take notes in a notebook — but now, with Twitter, I’ve been simply tweeting lines/sentences that stand out to me and using a hashtag to help me organize this for further reference (#ttwih).  I found myself doing this more and more as the book came to a close. Was this because Brunt’s writing became more profound? I’m not so sure about that. I think there is a part of me that was just trying to stall, to prolong the ending…

**  “I need to work out how to keep things flying back to me instead of always flying away” (350)

**  “I was a stealer of minutes” (349)

**  “Because maybe I don’t want to leave the planet invisible. Maybe I need at least one person to remember something about me (341)

I dread the inevitable big movie production of this, which I am certain is in the works — I dread them ruining my vision of these characters. I dread them thinking they can possibly do justice to Brunt’s words — it’s just not going to happen.

Make no mistake about it: this is an absolutely important book to read. There’s a scene toward the end where Brunt describes a visit to a hospital; it might be the saddest scene I’ve ever read. I spent a good 10 minutes re-reading that scene’s first paragraph, fighting back, then letting the tears go. We treated these people so poorly because of our ignorance, and I feel that Brunt said this without actually saying it. There’s a subtext throughout that she just absolutely nails.

And what I came to realize is that this isn’t the story of a family’s reaction to a member dying of AIDS — it is simply the story of a family.

So here I am this morning, still trying to organize my thoughts and ideas and my reactions. I’m still trying to fathom just how Carol Rifka Brunt — in her first novel, nonetheless — was able, so perfectly, to nail this.  I hope that you, also, try to figure this all out for yourself…

What 20+ years of coaching has taught me…

First of all, that title was a tough one for me to type — I mean, in my head, I’m still 25 years old, so how could that possibly be the case???

I have truly been unbelievably fortunate to work with some incredible kids – and many have been absolutely, positively, incredibly talented, athletically-speaking. I’ve also had the chance to work with some awesome coaches – whom I’ve learned an awful lot from – starting with Steve Snider, my former cross country and track and field coach. I started coaching Track and Field at Greensburg Salem in 1992 – and contrary to my own background with the sport as a long distance runner – I was hired as a Pole Vault coach. Keep in mind, this was long before the internet and youtube – and my experience with Pole Vault was limited to one approach in junior high in which I dropped the pole, ran up over the pit and kept on running. Pole Vaulters are crazy!

I knew nothing about the event – I did my best to research the event, went to a coach’s clinic at Baldwin and then sidled up to Erie McDowell’s Joe Sanford at every meet we went to, attempting to soak in as much as I possibly could in the process. I coached the Vault for 2-3 years until I became our middle school’s Head Coach. I’ll admit this freely – I wasn’t disappointed to move on from the Vault. But one thing I did miss was the camaraderie at the Pole Vault. The coaches all got along. The Vaulters always seemed to get along and pulled for each other. It never really seemed to be cutthroat like so much of sports can be. It was actually a lot of fun and parts of me missed it.

So fast forward a year (or 13 or 14), and, through a pretty complicated series of events (we’ll leave it at that), I got back in to coaching the Pole Vault. And not only did I get to do this again, but I also inherited a heck of a set of athletes in the process, led by both Cassidy Shepherd and Courtney McQuaide:

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We worked together through ups and downs (literally – I know, that was bad), great days and rough ones, triumphs and injuries. I’m not sure that I can describe the anguish tied in to watching one of your athletes being upside down at 13 feet, coming down short, head first toward a steel box. And I’ve seen that plenty. It truly takes your breath away and reminds you just how dangerous the event can be. And I’ve never seen anyone get as inverted as Cassidy can. It’s cover-of-a-magazine worthy.

I’ve had the chance to see both of these young ladies compete against some incredible vaulters: Larissa Debich (Auburn University), Kasey Kemp (Penn State University), Lexi Masterson (Penn State University), Brooke Mancuso (Westminster College), etc. – all young ladies who are competing at the collegiate level. Within that list of athletes are WPIAL and State Champions. In addition, it’s been great for them to compete against Bridget Guy (Hempfield) and Kelsey Plecenik (Norwin, and a WPIAL Champion in her own right) — two young ladies who, along with Courtney, are pushing themselves to new heights. Keep in mind that with the exception of Brooke, all of the young ladies I’ve listed above went to or go to either Hempfield or Norwin. For those of you who don’t know the area, Greensburg Salem, Hempfield, and Norwin are located within about a 20 mile radius of each other. If you go back to last year’s State Meet, you’ll see that these three schools had 5 of the first 9 places. Let that sink in.

And this is just flat out awesome. So let’s go back to what I said before — the camaraderie amongst these ladies is just awesome. It’s amazing to go to meets and see them not only compete against each other, but also pull for one another at the same time. Make no mistake about it — they all want to beat each other. At the same time, though, they’ve all pushed each other to get better in an incredible way. They get along well and it’s just incredible to see them pull for each other as they compete.

Along the way, I’ve also learned from some unbelieveable coaches. Beyond Coach Sanford, I’ve also had the chance to work with – and learn from – Craig Stamford and Matt Fox and Melissa White and Jackie Rodgers and Steve Cochran and Jeff Wirth (whom I mistakenly forgot to include on this list) and Rob Theissen and many, many more. To see everyone pull together at a meet is something special. I can assure you that these coaches have made me much better in the process — and I’m indebted to each of them.

And this brings me to yesterday at the Pennsylvania State Indoor Track and Field Championships. Going in to the meet, Courtney was seeded 4th, behind Bridget Guy and two other young ladies from the eastern part of the state. If you know ANYTHING about the Pole Vault, then you know that the event is a ton of fun to watch, but you also know that there are a TON of things that can go wrong. Yesterday, just about everything went right for Courtney. She was clean through 12’6″, meaning that she had no misses.

Courtney’s 12′ attempt

Courtney’s 3rd attempt at 12’6″

And because she had no misses until 12’6″, she emerged as the 2014 Indoor State Champion in the Pole Vault. It was just an awesome feeling to know that this kid who has worked incredibly hard would get to see that hard work paying off. That’s the ultimate reward as a coach – to see that an athlete gets to see this payback for all of the hard work – and I can assure you, having been there for many of those hours, she’s worked incredibly hard.

Place winners in the 2014 PA State Indoor Championships Pole Vault.

Place winners in the 2014 PA State Indoor Championships Pole Vault.

Courtney being interviewed by Phil Grove for PennTrack.

Courtney being interviewed by Phil Grove for PennTrack.

As great as it was to celebrate the victory with Courtney, one of the best things about it was to see her being congratulated by so many different people – people who were genuinely happy for her. And that includes Bridget, who got 2nd place and was the first to congratulate Court on the win. I’ve had the chance to work with Bridget, and I’ve gotten to know her through this process, so I can attest  to what kind of a young lady she is, but I can assure you that it’s a great thing to see this happen. So many people in other events and other sports wouldn’t dream of acting as classy as Bridget did and does.

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Sometimes, as coaches, we think that we’re the ones imparting the wisdom. It’s not that hard to figure out that it’s the other way around most of the time and we are truly lucky to be along for the ride.