That’s me in the lower left of this photo with the buzz cut and the happy grin. That’s because I was a basically happy kid in fourth grade. My teacher was an amazing person named Miss Kegerreis. She was blonde, and she was smart. And she drove a white Mustang with a red leather interior.
And one day, Miss Kegerreis drove me to some after school function in her white Mustang convertible. It was a fine spring day south of Lancaster, Pennsylvania. I loved the feel of riding in that car on the twisting, rolling roads of Lancaster County. And I darn near loved Miss Kegerreis.
It wasn’t that kind of love, you perve. I loved Miss Kegerreis because I felt like she understood me. Unlike many teachers of that era, Miss Kegerreis taught using integrated methods. She connected dots, and used the Robert’s English Series curriculum to encourage us to actively bring literature and poetry to life.
So we drew murals, and that let me shine during class. It also gave me opportunities to lead, but she made sure to help me realize that while I could draw better than anyone else in class, it was my job to get everyone to contribute and participate.
What a life lesson. It was instruction in collaboration, you see. And teamwork.
I can’t always say that I’ve abided by that great lesson. In running there is such a demand for individual performance that sometimes it is easy to forget that others need encouragement. But those lessons come with experience. I got to captain teams, coach others, and provide leadership.
There was another life lesson that Miss Kegerreis imparted that would prove important over time as well. Not every aspect of my home life was positive. My father could be rough and critical in many ways, and sometimes even physically abusive with us. So my tender young brain was beset with some challenges in self-esteem. Some of those it has taken a lifetime to overcome.
Self-worth seems like it should be inherent to all of us. But betrayal of trust and safety can undermine even the most self-assured child. And when a child is naturally shy, anxious or even prone to depression or attention-deficit disorder, environment is quite critical to healthy outcomes.
Affirmed and encouraged
With Miss Kegerreis I felt affirmed and encouraged. It was the most liberating sensation. It felt like I could do anything, and succeed. As a result, my grades were good that year. I was socially confident.
But the following year, they stuck me in a class with a real bitch of a German woman named Ms. Shultz. She was stern and cross, and wore her wire-rimmed classes close to her face while her white hair was pulled back so tight it must have creaked protest when she got ready for school.
She was mean and impatient and dismissive. We all got spankings at times because corporal punishment was still allowed in schools. Basically she was the German Mennonite Protestant parallel of the Catholic nun.
And I hated her fucking guts.
Fighting for respect
The school year went difficult. I started getting into fights, a habit that lasted through sixth grade when I finally got in over my head with a challenge from a real bully and a friend stopped me before I went to get my ass kicked.
So it was a harsh way to learn my limits. And learning that I had limits at all was such a contrast to the belief instilled by Miss Kegerreis that I questioned why the world had to be that way at all.
The anger somehow stuck with me through some aspects of life. And heading into my sophomore year in high school, I was determined to prove myself to anyone that would listen. At the same time, I was also desperate for approval. That’s not a good psychological mix. Every rejection or failure seemed double in dimension. Success sometimes seemed fleeting, and the cycle could repeated itself. I had anger issues.
Fortunately, I encountered another positive influence in a coach named Rich Born. His approach was both objective and fatherly at the same time. He made me believe in myself, and even my grades improved that year.
The point here is not just that life has its ups and downs. It is also true that there are themes, like a core of goodness, that still run through these periods of strife. They might be ideas or hopes or people or beliefs that can sustain us despite events that come along and seem ready to crush our spirits.
I encourage you to go back through your life and think about your personal Miss Kegerreis. There is almost undoubtedly someone in your life who made you feel important, interested and real. Think about why you felt that way around them. And think about how your mind responded, and how everything seemed to fit together.
Write down the feelings you had. Try to recall what other periods in life you felt that way. Perhaps when you really did fall in love with a person. Or when you had a good coach, a good teacher, or a good boss.
Think about what that felt like. Think about how your mind worked then.
And think about yourself now. And let it be real again. First consider where you found inspiration in the past. And then take inspiration where you find it. It’s there waiting for you. Let it be real again.