Why I wrote my book THE HOOPSTER

Why I wrote The Hoopster

Let’s be honest. To a certain extent, we are raising a generation of non-readers. I hate to sound like an old coot but these kids today with their computers, their iPods, their cell phones and their video games, they are just not reading as much as they used to anymore. It’s as if Guttenberg never lived.

And the consequences are dire.

(Okay, I’ll concede that kids today are Screen-Agers. Yes, they are reading their screens all the time in a literal way but it’s not the type of reading that promotes critical thinking. It’s like eating Doritos for dinner. Yes, it’s food but it most certainly lacks vital nutrition and if salty chips are all you eat your health is most assuredly going to suffer.)

Goodness, I don’t even know who I’d be if I hadn’t read some of the books that I have in my life. And many adults, I realize, feel exactly same way.

Quick activity: List your top two or three favorite books of all time… and then X them out, as if you had never read them. Ask yourself, who would you be if you had never read these works? For me I can say without reservation that I’d be much worse off as a human being without these books in my life. From Dr. Seuss to Victor Hugo to the Bible to Walter Dean Meyers, I mean it’s almost unimaginable who I’d be without these texts.

This realization is what led me to write The Hoopster. Knowing how immense the positive impact of one simple book could be to the lives of my students – and knowing how valuable it is in this day and age to be literate and be a reader – well, that’s what got my juices going. I wanted my students to read books.

And I wanted to be the one to write “that book”, the one that would turn them on to reading and make them realize, “This is cool!”.

Heck, it had always been a secret dream of mine to become an author, a dream that I had somehow put on hold as I got older, took a job, got married, blah, blah, blah.

It was at this juncture of my life that I realized I was being confronted by my own hypocrisy.

I mean I spend my whole life telling people to go after their dreams, to reach for the stars, to not let anything hold them back from striving for the brass ring and yet here I was with a dream of my own and I wasn’t going to go for it? The irony was just too thick and I knew I couldn’t have lived with myself if I hadn’t at least made an effort.

So I set to work.

I outlined. I plumbed the depths of character. But really, my whole aim was to simply gain the approval of teenage boys – particularly teenage boys of color, the hardest to reach demographic of all. (Hey, why no shoot for the moon, right?) I mean these were the kids sitting in the chairs of my classroom anyway. I wasn’t writing for the critics. I was writing for a much tougher crowd. To gain the approval of multicultural middle and high school boys.

Now that would be the motherload!

Action. Suspense. Humor. Heart. I flexed every literary muscle I could. And then I handed my novel to Dontae.

“Yo Dontae, Man,” I said in a sort of California-causal way. “I wrote this book for folks like you and your boys. Would you mind checkin’ it out?”

I handed him the manuscript.

“Yeah, sure I’ll check it out, Mr. Alan,” he replied.

A day passed. Nothing.

Two days passed. Nothing.

A week went by.

You know how when you are waiting to hear feedback from someone about something and you start to get all itchy? Let’s just say it felt like I was wearing a wool sweater knit by a fat aunt with bad teeth and lots of caked-on make-up. At day 10, I cornered Dontae in the hall. (Obviously, maturity and patience are not my greatest strengths.)

“Yo Dude,” I said trying not to sound like an addict fiending for a fix. “Remember that book I gave you? Did you even read the first page?”

Dontae looked up at me with innocent teenage eyes, the kind of eyes that always remind teachers why working with kids is the most fulfilling type of job on the planet there is.

“Aw yeah, Mr. Alan,” Dontae said in a relaxed tone of voice. “I read it in two days. And then I gave it to Richard and he read it and gave it to Joel. I hope that’s cool.”

I paused, stunned.

Oh my goodness. They’re bootlegging my book around the school.

“Uh, yeah, Dontae, that’s cool,” I said, unsure of how to respond.

“Yo, when you gonna write another, Mr. Alan. Beats that boring shi… I mean stuff in the library.”

“Uh, I’ll get back to you, Dontae.”

And that’s how The Hoopster was born.

Measuring teacher effectiveness: Day 1

These past few days I have been blogging about this idea of measuring teacher effectiveness. To do this properly, the rule seems to me that the powers-that-be are going to have to use multiple measures.

And when I say multiple, I mean multiple.

First off, test scores. Fine, you want them so bad, I’ll put them on the table. (And this is coming from a guy who is Mr. Anti-Bubble test so this is no small concession on my part – but since I know how much they mean to you, I’ll toss in the first olive branch.)

But you gotta give me a few things in order for me to believe that measuring my effectiveness has been fairly rendered.

I want my peers weigh in on me. That’s right, my peers. They may be scallywags and rascals, but if you create an anonymous system whereby the teachers in my department can give me a score, I think that there will be some merit to be found in their aggravate evaluation.

Let’s say we use a 10 point scale. Is your peer, Mr. Alan an effective teacher? (Please, for the sake of me not having to explicate an entire survey, know that, of course, the peer survey will be more than 1 mere vague question — I am trying to make a point here, so please, cut me some slack.)

And so, back to the question: Please rank Mr. Alan on a scale from 1 to 10 (ten being the highest).

Throw out the top score and throw out the bottom and I think you get a picture. Not a crystal clear picture, but hey, fellow teachers know our peers to some extent and if across the board for 3 years in a row, a person is scoring 2′s and 1′s on the peer evaluation survey, I’d say that it reflects something bigger than a “nobody around here likes me” issue.

Year one is an anomaly. Year 2 is an indication. Three years in a row. That’s smoke… and perhaps there’s fire.

Besides, I will have to trust the professionalism of my colleagues to try and do what’s right. (I mean HOLY JEEZ, we have to start trusting one another!) Besides, the ELA Dept is not Lord of the Flies and railroading someone out of political conspiracy just for the sake of a power grab doesn’t seem very likely to happen to a teacher that colleagues feel is actually doing a good job of, well, teaching.

I know, the cynics will tell me, “Oh, I am SOOOOOOOO wrong!” (Did I mention the trust factor? We’re being trusted with the lives of kids but we can’t trust one another to simply be honest on a simple survey. We really need to get a grip.)

Ultimately, the dude down the hall might be a schmuck, but if he’s a good teacher, I am going to have to be a big enough boy to recognize that if the kids are being well served by him, that should count for something — and I can give him a 7 instead of a 9 because he has a grumpy disposition. Whatever. But if he’s not a 2 I won’t give that to him.

Plus, knowing that he’s gonna have a chance to weigh in on me, well, it certainly tamps down my desire to be contentious… at least with a person who is doing their job.

As far as the opposite conspiracy taking place (“Hey man, you give me a ten and I’ll give you a ten, okay?”) the thing about teachers is, way too many of us are like Atticus Finch and would respond with some kind of comment like, “It’s nothing personal, but my integrity prohibits me from making any such deal as aspects like this could undermine the entire American education system… and that’s a system to which I believe we must contribute honesty.”

Come on, you know you are out there. How many of you would really give a 10 to a teacher who you thought was a three simply so that they would return the favor in kind?

Like I said, Atticus lives.

Multiples measures for measuring teacher effectiveness will continue tomorrow… post is growing too long.

Dr. Seuss is my Homeboy!

Tuesday was Read Across America day, chosen as such because it’s the birthday of Dr. Seuss (who, btw, is probably one of the most influential authors to shape my own writing life).

Me, I read all of my classes GREEN EGGS AND HAM. Literally, I sat them all on the carpet (criss-cross apple sauce style) and these rambunctious, worldy, street smart teens immediately reverted into a crowd of 34 first graders eager for story time.

Never diminish the power of reading to your students. For the sake of modeling. For the sake of fluency. For the sake of fun. Wasn’t a kid in my room who didn’t just LOVE it.

Of course, it’s probably most fun for the teacher, though. Makes me jealous of all the elementary school teachers who get to read to their kids all the time.

Anyway, as a warm up, I wanted the teens in my room to think about their own early childhood experiences with books so I had them do a quick write on: Cite three memories you have about being read to when you were a young child (about the age of 4).

And of course, I got the hands shooting up… “But what if you don’t have any memories of being read to, Mr. Alan?”

Now whodda thunk that the kids with that question floating around in their heads were some of the kids with the lowest skills in my English class 10 years later? Must be a coincidence that these are my most “at-risk” students, right? I mean these kids are still trying to play catch up for the work that was never done before they even really entered “official” school. (I am thinking kindergarden as “official” because pre-school is not mandatory and thus, so, so, so many of the lower-economic students I teach never went to pre-k.)

And speaking of pre-K, my own daughter will, of course, enter kindergarden with two full years of pre-K in her belt (a private school, of course) — and at least 1-2 books a night having been read to her since the moment her dendrites started to form. (Okay, I am a weirdo and used to read to my daughter in the womb… laugh away but I drank the kool-aid on the value of reading long, long ago!)

So, for class homework on March 2? Go find a little kid that needs reading to. Cousin. sister or brother. Neighbor. They are plenty of little munchkins floating around Lynwood. It’s yet another way that I explain the importance of books and reading and literacy to my students over the course of the year. Hopefully, it will be a lesson they will value and pass on to the next generation when that time comes.

Perhaps they’ll even be womb readers!!

Happy Birthday Theodore Geisel (that was the real name of Dr. Seuss). Your work has shaped mine forever.

You are my Homeboy!

The Campus Dope Man

I have become a “dealer” to my kids. A pusher. A peddler of ill repute. I serve up scandalous interactions, tortuous emotional dealings, torrid affairs, dangerous lies, inspirational heartbreakers and flat-out back-stabbing.

The worse it gets, the better [sometimes].

Yep, I am The Campus Dope Man. And the drug I push: books.

Indeed, once the cherubic naifs are hooked, I do all I can to serve the needs of these little fiends until they blossom into full blown addicts.

Addicts for a lifetime! (Or so I hope.)

The funny thing is, the younger I get them started, the better I feel about matters. Middle school playgrounds? I have no shame. Elementary school classrooms? Even better. Pre-school… don’t even get me going on how much I love to weave an entrancing spell over these unsuspecting youngsters, seeking to instill deep in their minds the idea that they need stories.

That they need literature.

That they need books even more than they need oxygen itself!

Hhhmmrraahh! Hhhmmrraahh! Hhhmmrraahh! I say, twisting my mustache. I am molding minds.

And my scheme, it is working! Kids each year come in my room at the oddest of hours – during lunch, before school, when they ought to be in goodness-knows-whose class asking me, pleading with me, begging me to feed their little habits.

“You started this,” they’ll say. And like any proud kingpin, I keep a face full of stone but on the inside, I just kinda laugh.

“Yeah, I did, baybee. Yeah, I did.”

See, around my campus, my students know “Mr. Alan’s got the hook-up on books.” Part of it is because I get free books sent to me all the time. (Perks of being a writer, folks. I mean butchers get meat and bankers get free money so why should my line of business be any different?) Of course, I buy books as well. Loads of them.

Matter of fact, I am the type of person that currently has 11 books by my bedside, 3 more at school, 2 in the car in case I am ever stuck waiting somewhere and still, if I see something I even think I might want to read at some point, I buy it.

Essentially, I can’t read all the books I possess. But, in a weird way (the kind of weird way I oughtta talk to my therapist about — item number 673 on the list for 2010) I very much find emotional comfort in being surrounded by books.

However, I do love to share.

Today, I shared 13 Reasons Why and I shared The Hunger Games. No extra credit. No bonus at the end of the quarter. No reprieve from the other work we are doing in English class. I just shared.

Sometimes I share the books I have written. Othertimes, I share the ARC’s that other publishers send to me for early preview before titles even get released. Essentially, I share and I share and I share.

Yet, no matter what, it keeps ‘em coming back for more. That’s the rule of being a good dealer, right? First you give ‘em a taste. A free sample of the good stuff. And then you tell them, “Don’t worry, this won’t hurt you. Go ‘head, I think you’ll like it.”

Soon enough, they even find themselves spending their own money on the product.

Indeed, I am the Campus Dealer. Hhhmmrraahh! Hhhmmrraahh! Hhhmmrraahh!

Twist mustache. Twist mustache. Twist mustache.

The "Uhm, Hey… Dude" Name Game

Let’s face it, I am at a HUGE disadvantage when it comes to names.

First off, there are about a ba-zillion new ones I need to learn. This always takes a lot of effort and a few weeks. Kids, they have about 6-10 new names they must learn at school at the start of a new year — the names of their new teachers. Me, I have scores and scores and scores of them I must learn.

It’s a challenge every year… learn all the names as fast as you can. However, at least I learn them!!

See, I just realized I used the word “must” above. However, as other teachers often prove to me, what I find to be a “must” is not really a “must” when it comes to public education. I mean how many teachers are there out in our school systems this year that will just never even bother to learn all their students’ first names? (More than you think, that’s for sure.)

They just simply put kids into alphabetical seating order and spend the rest of the year looking at their charts to see who is who — but they don’t really know the kids. Wouldn’t know what to call them if they saw them at lunch or in the halls or what not. And let’s face it — the kids know when you do not know their names.

This is why I view learning the names of my students as a must — because how in the world can you expect to be an effective educator if you do not even know your students’ names?

Even if there are 43 kids in your 2nd period class (with only 36 desks)?

(Those are rhetorical questions, BTW… you really can’t, IMHO.)

So I learn names. All of them.

However, I still haven’t figured out a way to handle remembering the names of all my former students. I mean, I teach teenagers and these kids change and grow and lose their braces and cut their hair and pierce their faces and color their hair and gain weight and lose weight and on and on an on.

So when a semi-quiet kid I had 2 years ago in 4rth period who has become taller by 2 inches, grown a mini-mohawk, gotten contact lenses and is now deeply into goth comes up to me and says, “Hi Mr. Alan,” a bit of a deer-in-the-headlights look sometimes crosses my face. I mean I know I remember the kid… I just don’t quite remember their name.

It’s that tip-of-the-tongue thing that never comes.

And they sense it. And they take it personally. And I feel bad. But I am struggling with names in the month of September. Struggling badly. My focus is more on learning new ones than recalling old ones anyway and the fact is, I think the memory card between my ears has storage space limitations that inhibit me from remembering any more than I already do.

I mean how many names can a teacher possibly be expected to recall?

For example, I betchya that last year in the month of June I knew the first names of 500 people on campus. Kids, teachers, administrators… yep, 500 seems like a solid guess. And yet, there were probably at least 1,000 people that new my name if not more. (We were over 4,000 at our high school in enrollment, or thereabouts.)

But do I get any credit for the ones I remember? Nope… but I feel terrible for the ones I forget.

Never mind the fact that I have 4 Juans, 5 Marias and two students named Jesus this year (one’s a boy and one’s a girl — go figure). It’ll all make a person bonkers.

So what do I do when I get hit with a former student saying, “Hi, Mr. Alan”?

I play the “Uhm, Hey… Dude” Name Game.

But if there’s a better way, I’d love to hear about it.

The D'Oh of Being a Teacher

I’ve read scores and scores of books on the art and science of teaching. Many of the big names, lots of small ones, folks who have had some genuinely brilliant stuff to say and others who struck me as flat out nincompoops. But I think that one of the most important things I have taken away from all my “studies” is something about which everyone in our profession needs to be frequently reminded.

We flub. We mess up. We make mistakes… on almost a daily basis.

Sure, there are days when their is magic at the whiteboard, as if our dry erase markers were an alchemist’s wand turning neurological water into cranial fine wine. But most days, balls are dropped. Opportunities come up but they are not seized. Something exceptional is planned and it falls flat on its face. I come off as salty when in fact I am in a great mood but merely pressed for time. Yes, I always want to be attuned to the individual needs of all my kids –especially the ones that merely need a friendly, encouraging voice that day — but when I am in the midst of navigating 186 other kids over the course of 7 hours and the fire alarm has just been pulled for the fourth time in a row during third period by a buncha comedians in the halls, I sometimes miss the cues.

I aim to do great and then I find myself just barely hanging on. The last bell of the day rings and I realize that I did not get done nearly the amount of things I needed to do in order for tomorrow to function the way it ought to. Friday hits and I realize that I really need to work both Saturday and Sunday in order to make sure Monday is gonna work the way it needs to — and in the ways my kids deserve it to.

But I’ve got plans with the family, errands long left undone, a stack of paperwork from my own life to navigate (like the very pedestrian necessity of paying bills) and my pillow is taunting me with the idea of actually getting more than 5 1/2 hours of sleep every night.

And do I manage it all in some sort of suave, filled-with-European panache fashion? Hell no. I stumble forward, bang my foot into the dresser and screw up.

I bumble and stumble forward. And this is after 10 years at Lynwood High and even longer than that in the profession.

Yet, the difference now is that I understand this about teaching. I get that this is the nature of our career beast. Early in my career I used to get down on myself, really beat the crap out of myself. Think to myself, “Ya know, you really stink at this — and you are working at almost maximum life capacity to be this bad. It’s hard, I am no good, and the kids deserve better. Shouldn’t you pack up and go find a cubicle somewhere that offers bathroom breaks any time you need to pee?”

However, with experience, that negative-loop tape recording no longer plays in my head. Why? Because I’ve come to realize no one ever masters the art of teaching. No one is immune to falling short, fouling up, getting caught in a situation for which you were completely unprepared and acting in ways that, “Oh, if I could only turn back the clock 45 minutes and get a do-over, the world would be so much better.”

It just doesn’t happen.

And so here I am, so frequently with my tail between my legs. But if I set my intention to do as well as I can do, continue to try and improve my craft, make sure that I learn from my mistakes and remain optimistic about the future, I think I am gonna be alright.

And if I can remain alright, I do believe I have something of great value to offer my kids. Even if sometimes I am going to trip and fall and bang my head on a desk in front of a room full of teenagers who are gonna make no bones about laughing at me and telling all their friends at lunch what a dork Mr. Alan is.

Cause at the end of the day, this is a job that can only be highlighted in a “And warts and all” type of fashion. There is just no way to ever avoid the, as Homer Simpson would say, “D’Oh!” of being a teacher.

It's time to FREAK OUT on my kids!

It’s Monday, June 1, 2009 and Lynwood High School ends on June 26, 2009. That means there are 25 days left until the end of the school year and 20 more official teaching days left.

But you wouldn’t know it if you came to my first period class today. 35% of my students were absent.

That’s right… 35%!

And why? Well, the answer I got when I freaked out on the kids who actually did show up was that, “Well, the school year is almost over.”

Excuse me? (Deep breath, Mr. Alan!)

WHAT IN THE WORLD ARE YOU TALKING ABOUT!?

Actually, I know exactly what they are talking about. This was more for theatrics, a bit of Bobby Knight throwing a chair to make a point, catch everyone’s attention and right my classroom’s ship… and quickly!

But even though I’ve been here for years – and been through this for years – it still makes me want to FLIP OUT!!

So how do I respond? By turning up the heat. More work. More teaching. More everything. And why?

Because there are only 25 days left. The perspective through which my students view the last month of school and the way in which I view it are so diametrically opposed it’s bananas. And the thing is, in a way it’s like I am fighting a culture war here.

And if you are keeping score at home, my army is under-equipped, outmanned and ill-prepared to win the battle. Yet we will cede no ground. My class goes bell to bell, September to June, year to year.

And being that it’s NBA time and the Finals are on us right now (Go Lakers!) I believe there is a great deal of value to be found in looking to sports.

Who are the icons of the sport’s world? The folks who deliver in the clutch, who close strong, who deliver in the end when it really matters. Think about it, when is the most critical time of any game? The fourth quarter, the last 2 minutes of the second half, the bottom of the ninth. This is where the mettle of folks is shown.

And teachers who cash out come June make it really hard for those of use who realize that 9 weeks of summer is already enough of a detriment to our nation’s kids (yep, I believe we need a longer school year — but a more effective one as well… simply spending more time being as ineffective as we currently are isn’t going to help anything — we need more school AND we need better schooling) that we don’t need peeps folding up their tents before the gig is even up.

Now is the time where I want to see my kids at their best… not at their most lazy and apathetic. June 1 is message day for me, the day where I fire a shot across the bow of my class and say, WARNING: bring heat or do not enter this room. A psycho teacher is on the rampage and only excellence will do.

Does it work? Well, I do feel like I certainly reach a lot of kids with this approach. And it’s the proverbial teachable moment for my kids about positive habits in life.

But most importantly, though I may be losing the culture war, the battle to treat education seriously in the state of California, I can sleep at night knowing that at least I gave it my best effort.

I can’t control what other people do. Not the parents who buy into the shenanigans of their kids, not the other educators in our state who simply phone it in during the last few weeks of school, not the Governor who wanted to cut a few days of school off the back-end anyway thinking it made for sound economic policy… no, I can’t control any of that.

But I can work my kids to the bell, making them intellectually sweat like Kobe Bryant closing out a game when all the chips are on the table late in the 4rth quarter. You may not like Kobe as a person, but you have to respect the heart he shows as a basketball player — especially when it’s all on the line.

And like I said, this mentality helps me sleep like a baby over the summer… because I know I tried.

Zombies ate my homework

See, this is why my students need to be readers who can apply text-to-world critical thinking to our classroom and the world at large.

Take for example, the inimitable actor Woody Harrelson, most famous for being Woody on Cheers but also pretty well known for a heck of a lot of other quite solid — and not so solid — movies he’s done.

White Man Can’t Jump… big thumbs up!

Money Train… big thumbs down!

Anyway, Woody admits getting into a physical confrontation with a paparazzi a few days ago. But he had a good reason. And I quote…

“I quite understandably mistook [the photographer] for a zombie.”

Yep, he really said this. And he also said this…

“I wrapped a movie called ‘Zombieland,’ in which I was constantly under assault by zombies, then flew to New York, still very much in character,” Harrelson said in a statement issued Friday by his publicist.

Niiiicce!

Now if my students were actual readers of the news — any news; The NY Times, The AP wire, FOX or MTV (those last 2 are kinda the same) — they could build a text-to-world connection that could easily get them out of their homework for the night.

I mean if I had a kid come into my class and tell me that “…while scouring the Washington Post for the latest political insight into world economic fiduciary policy they ran across this brief but salient human interest story about Woody Harrelson and then — whodda thunk it — alien zombies ate their HW assignement and there was simply no way Mr. Alan that it could ever be replaced.

And so, I should give them full credit yet not require to see the actual work.”

I’d go for it.

Text-to-World connections. If only our kids could see how valuable what we perpetually advise really could be to their lives.

And what would you do, Mr. Alan?

Another student of mine came back from suspension today.

“Hey Zeke,” I asked. “Tell me, why’d you get suspended?”

“Fighting.”

Zeke is an A student in 1rst period, a good kid. Sure, he dressed like every other kid in California. Wore a hoodie sweatshirt, clothes with some giant brand names on them, baggy pants and an occasional baseball cap. But underneath the clothes (and who among us should ever be judged by our clothes?) was a solid student who wrote well, read all the books I’d assigned, possessed a good work ethic and had a nice, soft-spoken demeanor. Thus my next question.

“You got into a fight?”

“Yeah.”

“Where?”

“Right out in the hall at lunch.”

“Dude, you couldn’t just walk away? You’re smarter than that,” I said.

“Naw, Mr. Alan,” he answered. “See a dude was messin’ with me. Him and his friends. And the dude challenged me to go one-on-one right there.”

“Like I said, just walk away,” I repeated.

“Naw, that ain’t how it is, Mr. Alan. See his boyz said that if I didn’t go one-on-one right there then they’d all jump me.”

“Jump you? When?”

“Whenever they could catch me. In the halls. At lunch. After school. I didn’t have a choice.”

I paused. In a way, it’s true. He didn’t have a choice. I mean coming to an adult to “snitch” on a kid for threatening to beat you up isn’t how problems get solved in the real world for students in America’s schools today. Doing that just seems to make matters worse for kids, not better. Of course, I wish it wasn’t that way, but if Zeke had come to me, could I really protect him? Could security? Could the community? Nope. He knew it and I knew and we all know it. Zeke was a boy faced with a man’s decision: either stand up for yourself in the face of tyranny or live in fear with much worse consequences to be meted out later if ever you get caught in the wrong place at the wrong time.

“Is it squashed?” I asked wondering if the one-on-one fight put an end to it.

“Yep,” he answered. “We went one-on-one, got busted by security, I got suspended, and now it’s over.”

Zeke was back in class working towards keeping up his grades. The other boys, I have no idea. And what did it all start over. I didn’t even ask because really, what did it matter. Some boys just like to fight and pick on the weak.

“All right, just try to keep safe, okay dude,” I said to Zeke.

And then he looked at me and we made eye contact. His face had a simple resolution to it, a resigned, matter of fact, this-is-the-way-it-is for kids like me look. And though he didn’t say it, I knew he was thinking it.

“What else could I have done?”

And when he walked back to his desk, I asked myself, “And what would you do, Mr. Alan, if the tables were turned?” Does a kid like Zeke really have a choice but to fight?

Just another day at the office, right?

The Beauty of Sports

Walking to the parking lot after school today I cruised right past our girl’s softball team. As they headed out to the field to play a game, dressed proudly in Lynwood Knights gear top to bottom, I heard an enthusiastic, “Hi Mr. Alan,” from one of the girls on the team.

I looked up and saw Patti. (Not her real name.)

“Hi, Patti,” I replied with a smile. She shyly looked down and continued on. Me, I went to the car with a smile on my face as well. Why?

Because a year ago at this time, I was seriously worried whether or not Patti would still be a part of Lynwood High School. She had “drama” going on like no one’s business. Friends who got jumped, she ditched/missed a ton of school, had an older sister who she went to the abortion clinic taking Patti with her for support (a sister who had already dropped out of Lynwood and was NO WAY going to share the news with her parents) and on and on. Patti was someone I felt a great deal of concern for. Bright, but troubled. Intelligent but tempted. Good but attracted to being bad as well.

She was already at one of life’s great forks, at a mere 15 years old.

But there Patti was, getting ready to go play girl’s softball against one of the local schools in, what I am sure would be, a fierce match.

That moment reminded me of why sports are so great. I have no idea what turned Patti around — or if it’s gonna stick — but seeing her doing something so “regular kid like” brought warmth to me today. Playing sports helped to save me when I was a teen, I am sure of it. And then, as I got older, the personalities of various sport’s stars and a deep discovery of the mental aspects requisite to really succeed in sports helped get me through the next series of wild frontiers in my 20′s.

Some people think things like girl’s softball is just, well… girl’s high school softball. Other people know it can be all the difference in the world to a young person’s life.