Years ago, I was in my first season as the head coach of the boys basketball team at my middle school. The girls coach came to me just before the last game and told me that our school’s tradition was to call eighth grade players and their parents to the floor at halftime to recognize them for the contributions that they had made to our teams. “I give each of my girls a rose as a way of saying thank you,” she said. “Do you want me to pick some up for you?”
Figuring that my boys wouldn’t see roses in the same positive light as her girls, I decided to start my own tradition: Giving each eighth grade player an Eisenhower silver dollar as a keepsake and reminder of his time on my team. “These silver dollars,” I explained, “connect us to one another. Ten years from now, you will find them in your box of special things or the drawer beside your bed and you will think of the time that we spent together and you will smile.”
I knew instantly that the coins mattered to my kids.
In the moment — on the floor in front of their friends and family — they couldn’t take their eyes off of them. They turned them over and over in their hands; they jumped when their coins dropped — afraid that they had somehow cheapened the gift; they kept them on the bench for the entire second half, passing them off for safekeeping whenever they subbed into the game; and they spent the next three weeks showing them to me whenever we passed in the halls.
Since then, I’ve given out hundreds of silver dollars.
Sometimes the moment is formal — an end of the season pot luck dinner, a team Honors assembly, a gathering to celebrate the work of an individual or a group of students. Other times, the moment is informal — in my classroom after a student has done something to make me proud, in the hall on the last day of school, in the lunchroom after cafeteria duty ends. EVERY time, the moment matters — to both me and to the students that I’m recognizing.
A reminder of just how powerful those moments can be landed in my email inbox this week. Check this out:
Hey Mr. Ferriter,
I went to Salem Middle a long time ago. You may remember me vaguely. I was a manager for soccer during my sixth grade year when you were the coach. Your last season of coaching was during my seventh grade year, when I was cut during tryouts. My final year at Salem, I played on the team. I am about to graduate from Panther Creek and move on to college at NC State, and I am writing to you today to let you know that even though I haven’t seen you in four years, you’ve made an impact on my life.
I will never forget my last day of eighth grade at Salem. I wrote a letter to you about a week before, thanking you for the lessons you had taught me when I was a manager in sixth grade….You called me out of class to speak with me about the letter. I remember how you apologized for cutting me during my 7th grade year and you kept praising me for not the soccer player I had become, but for the man I had become.
I also remember crying in front of you, and trust me those were tears of joy. I also remember you giving me advice about high school, and about staying the man I had become. At the end of our talk, you handed me a silver dollar, since you had given one to every player during the year that I was cut. You told me that even though I may have not deserved to be on the team for my soccer abilities, that I completely deserved it for the person that I was.
I wanted to let you know that I still have my silver dollar. I see it often, and whenever I do, I automatically think of you. I think of our talk, and the kind words and advice you had given me…
I just wanted to say thank you! Even though you only coached me for one year, I am extremely grateful for the coach that you were. You never taught me as a teacher, but as a coach, you have had a tremendous impact on my life.
And I know you are wondering, and the answer is yes: I will most definitely be bringing my silver dollar with me to NC State!
Amazing, right? Needless to say, I’ll keep that email forever. It’s a small bit of proof that my work hasn’t gone unnoticed or unappreciated.
What people don’t understand about teachers and coaches is that we aren’t driven by content or conference championships or big fat paychecks or summers off. We are driven by the notion that we might just make a difference in the lives of a handful of kids over the course of our careers. And the best part of our gig is that each new day is FILLED with moments that have the potential to be powerful.
We just have to keep our eyes — or maybe our hearts — open in order to find them.
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