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Dr. Toughlove or: How I’m Learning to Stop Worrying and Kick Some…

Bear with me for a minute. Inspiration comes from strange sources and today’s came from one of those inspirational dreaded email forwards. But it came for me at a time that I was in the middle of one of my hardest kinds of struggles as an educator. But first the email.

There was an unusual high school football game played in Grapevine, Texas.  The game was between Grapevine Faith Academy and the Gainesville State School.  Faith is a Christian school and Gainesville State School is located within a maximum security correction facility.

        Gainesville State School has 14 players. They play every game on the road. Their record was 0-8. They've only scored twice. Their 14 players are teenagers who have been convicted of crimes ranging from drugs to assault to robbery. Most had families who had disowned them. They wore outdated, used shoulder pads and helmets. Faith Academy was 7-2. They had 70 players, 11 coaches, and the latest equipment.

         Chris Hogan, the head coach at Faith Academy, knew the Gainesville team would have no fans and it would be no contest, so he thought, "What if half of our fans and half of our cheerleaders, for one night only, cheered for the other team?"  He sent out an email to the faithful asking them to do just that. "Here's the message I want you to send, Hogan wrote. "You're just as valuable as any other person on the planet."

         Some folks were confused and thought he was nuts. One player said, "Coach, why are we doing this?"  Hogan said, "Imagine you don't have a home life, no one to love you, no one pulling for you. Imagine that everyone pretty much had given up on you. Now, imagine what it would feel like and mean to you for hundreds of people to suddenly believe in you."

          The idea took root. On the night of the game, imagine the surprise of those 14 players when they took the field and there was a banner the cheerleaders had made for them to crash through. The visitors' stands were full. The cheerleaders were leading cheers for them. The fans were calling them by their names.  Isaiah, the quarterback/middle linebacker said, "I never in my life thought I would hear parents cheering to tackle and hit their kid.  Most of the time, when we come out, people are afraid of us.  You can see it in their eyes, but these people are yelling for us.  They knew our names."

        Faith won the game, and after the game the teams gathered at the 50-yard line to pray. That's when Isaiah, the teenage convict/quarterback surprised everybody and asked if he could pray and he prayed, "Lord, I don’t know what just happened so I don't know how or who to say thank you to, but I never knew there were so many people in the world that cared about us."  On the way back to the bus, under guard, each one of the players was handed a burger, fries, a coke, candy, a Bible, and an encouraging letter from the players from Faith Academy.

        What an incredible act of Christian witness and kindness and goodness that was.  Proverbs 11:17 says, "Your own soul is nourished when you are kind." Proverbs 3:27 says, "Do not withhold good when it is in your power to act." Here is the video link.

At the time I received this, I was dealing with a student who previously failed my class, mostly for poor attendance, and this semester had completely failed to show up even once to the first four labs because it conflicted with his intramural hockey game. (short version of the story) Since this is an upper-division lab course, I don’t have much patience for this immaturity. These students are about to graduate, enter the work force and this stuff won’t be tolerated. I feel an obligation to be Dr. Toughlove so they will stop shooting themselves in the foot before they get to where it really matters.

Yet, in the midst of back and forth emails with the student, I get this email reminding me to be kind and do good. Personality-wise, I lean pretty heavily towards Mr. Softlove, so this was pulling at me, asking if I should be extending grace to this student. This balancing act is one of the toughest for me as an educator, because I not only have to take into account the course objectives, the particulars of the situation, but also the needs (physical, mental, emotional and spiritual) of the student to elicit the best long term benefit for them.

As I thought about the choices before me and prayed, I was reminded once again that goodness, righteousness and holiness are not the tame, children’s Sunday School concepts we tend to associate with the terms. They are dynamic and concerned with the end result as well as the means, that ‘niceness’ in the milquetoast sense is irrelevant and counterproductive.

There is a difference between young men who are convicted felons at the bottom of society’s heap, accustomed to being treated as dirt (even for valid reasons), and someone privileged enough to attend one of the world’s best universities who is putting recreation above graduation and acting as if he is entitled to our indulgence.

One desperately needs a period of true grace, and the other, just as desperately, a hard reality check. Both, properly given, are in the highest sense, good.


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