My eleven year old daughter is playing softball for the first time this year, and this weekend her team matched up against a team that looked like it was ready to compete in the College World Series.
The pitcher on my daughter’s team, a petite ten year old with a long blond pony tail, kept throwing the ball and the big girls kept hitting it out of the infield.
Midway through the third came the inevitable passed ball. The opposing runner flew in from third as our little pitcher hurried toward home plate.
A miraculous bounce off the backstop put the ball into the catcher’s hand, and she tossed it to the pitcher, who caught the ball and tagged the runner in the sternum before she could step on the plate.
The umpire leaned forward, spread his arms, palms down, and shouted: “Saaaaaaafe!”
Our pitcher burst into tears.
The suddenness of the crying startled even the umpire, who took a step back, eyes wide.
She had done everything right. She had tried so hard. The call was wrong. She looked down, tears flowing, chin on her chest.
And then something miraculous happened.
Our coach, a dad, not hers, called timeout and walked out to the pitcher. Stopping in front of her, he took a knee to meet her eyes. She was so small.
She looked up at him and he said: “Things like this happen.” He paused. “I need to know you’re okay. We’re playing a game and you’re pitching. I know you can do this, kid.”
She blinked, thinking about what he’d just said. Then she wiped her eyes with the back of her hand and nodded. The coach smiled at her, stood up, and walked back to the bench.
I’ve been in education for more than twenty years and I’m not sure that I’ve witnessed an action by a coach or a teacher or a parent that struck me with such force.
He did not blame the umpire, though the umpire had been wrong.
He did not lament what had happened or speak of unfairness.
He did not pity the girl or establish her as a victim.
He spoke the truth: Things like this happen.
They do. We all wish they didn’t. Every parent, every teacher, every person who works with kids wishes the world (and we) always got things right, but we know that isn’t the way things work.
So, instead of any of the easy responses, the coach slowed down and looked the girl in the eyes. He expressed empathy, bringing her back to the situation -a situation that didn’t need to be terminal- and let her know that he believed in what she could do.
And I found myself, a principal whose business is working with kids, sitting in the stands, listening closely, completely moved by the simple beauty of what he’d done.
In education today we talk a lot about how to help students overcome adversity, develop resilience, and learn the skills they need to become healthy adults. Books, articles, and workshops dissect the issue, and parents and teachers strive to educate themselves so they can get it right. I’m part of both those groups, a dad and an educator, and I often have people talk with me about their anxiety or point out examples of parenting that looks and feels unhealthy for kids. I think that’s why what my daughter’s coach did on Saturday struck me so hard.
Amid the examples of helicoptering, coddling, and overprotection, there are incidents of brilliance too. Sure none of us get it right every time, but when I see something wonderful, it helps me to know that things like that happen.
…and they inspire me.