Q: My daughter goes to a big high school and failed to make the cut at tryouts for the soccer team. I’m fine with that because I know she’s not very good, but it seems wrong that in a school with literally thousands of students, only a handful can play soccer (or any sport). How can we make sports open for everyone?
This is a tough one. Sports are important to the spirit of a high school. They’re also expensive due to travel, state-of-the-art equipment, and designer uniforms. And there’s no way everyone who wants to play on a team can do so. On the other hand, schools are for all kids, and they deserve an opportunity to participate.
The answer might be in schools forging a robust intramural program that allows all students to play, regardless of ability.
When I first started teaching at Laing Middle School, there were no middle school athletics. Kids had to join the rec department to play organized sports. The problem was a number of students weren’t eligible because they lived in something called a “donut hole” (which sounds like a paradise but actually has nothing to do with real donuts).
Our school had a large population of what were called at-risk students, the majority of them boys. They weren’t interested in school, so they would act out and cause trouble. I thought that if these boys had a good reason to behave, it might make a difference.
Noticing that the boys loved basketball, I got the idea for an intramural league. My principal, a great man who was always supportive of ideas to reach students, gave it the green light.
Response from the kids was overwhelming. Hundreds of students signed up. Teachers, most of whom knew nothing about basketball, volunteered to “coach” the teams. Mostly they were cheerleaders, but the students loved the chance to show off for them.
The players had to abide by a code of conduct. The deal was that one school referral for misbehavior meant they had to sign a behavior contract with their teachers. Two referrals and they were out of the league. A lot of students went on contracts. Very few had to be put out, because they knew I meant business.
Whenever a student got a referral, I’d meet with him, dress him down, and then talk him up. I’m sure that and the behavior contracts made a difference. At least the teachers said it did.
We played after school. Games were only 15 minutes long, but everyone got to play. Teams made up their own names. With donations (the league cost the school nothing), we bought every kid a blank jersey. Boys would get together and paint on their own logos. There was very little to those jerseys, but the kids cherished them. For many, it was the only jersey they’d ever have.
One year, we got a new custodian: a 30-something machine of a man, an ex-Marine. He loved basketball and volunteered to coach a team. He asked for the toughest kids in the school.
Though the majority of our students were black, he was one of the few black males on staff. He went out of his way to be a mentor to those kids. He was as tough on them as you would expect a Marine to be, but they loved every minute of it.
We would play our “March Madness” playoff games during school. Entire grade levels would pack into our little gym to cheer on the teams. The atmosphere was electric.
I’ll always remember one particular game. One of the boys, we’ll call him Freddy, had a growth deficiency. He was half the height of the next shortest kid in school, but he loved basketball. I watched him play for three years, playing his heart out each game, never scoring a point.
Until that game. I can still see the play. A teammate made a steal. Freddy was under the basket. “Pass it!” I heard. The ball went to Freddy. He fumbled it in his fingers and heaved it up. It went in, and the crowd went wild. I’ll never forget that moment. I’m sure Freddy won’t, either.
I hope you’ll forgive me for this trip down memory lane. I realize we are far afield from your question, but, then again, maybe not. Intramural sports was the answer for the students at our school at that time. Maybe it’s the answer to your concern, too.
If it provides more kids more opportunities to move, be part of a team, develop sportsmanship, manage success, and cope with failure, maybe high schools should give it a shot. Sometimes taking such a shot yields positive results.
Just ask Freddy.
Jody Stallings has been an award-winning teacher in Charleston since 1992 and is director of the Charleston Teacher Alliance. To submit a question or receive notification of new columns, email him at JodyLStallings@gmail.com. Follow Teacher to Parent on Facebook at facebook.com/teachertoparent and on Twitter @stallings_jody.