The Optimism of College


Last week I had the opportunity to visit Georgia Tech and Clemson University for work. While it isn’t uncommon for me to be on college campuses in my job, these trips were a bit unique in that I had some down time between meetings at each place which allowed me the chance to walk around both campuses a bit on beautiful late summer days in the South.

While each school has some beautiful spots (like the fountain above at Georgia Tech), it wasn’t the natural beauty that struck me. What really stood out to me was how energizing college campuses can be. There was a buzz in the air as I walked around amongst the 18-22 year olds in their environment. Yes, I did realize how old I’ve become as I noted the differences in fashion, language, and fitness level. Sure I had a few moments of angst as students just walked right out in front of my car in the middle of the street because that is where they wanted to cross. And I certainly had some trepidation for our country when I saw the frat boys slamming beers on the front porch of their house at 2 in the afternoon. But those things just come with the territory.

What I had forgotten in my nearly 20 years out of college is how much hope, optimism, excitement, blissful ignorance, and energy can be found around university students. The highlight of my trips last week was the opportunity to speak to a Sports Marketing Class at Clemson University. Far from dis-engaged, the students seemed interested, asked good questions, had insightful comments, and a few even hung around to talk after class. I was on cloud 9 the entire drive home. There is something about young adults, aspiring to be professionals in your field, listening and soaking in your instruction that makes one feel like they are important.

Over the past few days, I’ve been mulling over why I had that reaction to these experiences back on campus. I think certainly there is some nostalgia about my own time at Milligan College. My time tucked away in the mountains of East Tennessee, making the best friends of my life, and learning how to learn were some of the most formative and impactful years I’ve experienced. I remembered back to the carefree feeling of early fall days when classes were over and basketball practice hadn’t yet begun or the springtime when a Friday afternoon meant taking off early (and maybe even skipping a class) for a camping trip.

I’m sure part of my euphoria was also connected to the 10 years that I spent on college campuses as a basketball coach and athletic administrator. I met my wife on a college campus and our lives, both personal and professional, revolved around those schools and their athletic departments for many years before our own kids came along. We developed intimate relationships with the coaches and student-athletes we worked with, and developed passions for the schools where we worked.

Still, I think it is the optimism I sensed that excited me the most. Unlike our adult lives that often grind on endlessly from week to week and month to month with no beginning and no end, college has built in points of reset. The start of school in the fall is a chance for everyone to have a clean slate with no grades in place, no interpersonal fractures with professors or friends, and a fresh start. Every year there is a new crop of freshmen experiencing things for the first time, which adds to the excitement. Most schools have a fall break that is the end of the first big push of the year, and when you come back you start focusing on getting the first semester wrapped up. Then it is an extended Christmas break time for family, football bowl games, and a time to decompress. The Spring semester gives you the promise of new and different classes, established friendships, and the pursuit of an internship or other summer activities. By the time Spring Break rolls around, you’ve pushed yourself to have a good start and you come back from a week of fun in the sun to finish the school year with 6-8 weeks of either hanging on in your classes or throwing in the towel. The end of the semester may have angst and anxiety, but after a week its over and there isn’t anything you can do about. All that is left is to move on to whatever personal or professional opportunities you’ve lined up for yourself in the summer, where if you’re lucky you get a 3 month ‘test drive’ of something you think you want to do for the rest of your life. Then you walk away from your summer fun/work, wash your hands of it, and start the cycle over.

How could you not be optimistic if every 3 months you got a ‘reset?’ It is no wonder that there is energy permeating from college campuses. Rather than starting each week looking at last week’s sales report and worrying about how this week will impact next month, every week holds the promise of its own new challenges with little regard for last week and certainly no concern for things months from now. Instead of facing the same 8 am start and 5 pm end to the day Monday through Friday, college schedules are random and scattered with some classes meeting 3 times a week, others 2, a few one day a week, and an intensive seminar now and then. Some days your first class is at 8, sometimes it might be 10. When Friday rolls around all you think about is yourself, not chores around the house or kids’ activities. If you go through a semester and struggle with a class, its over in less than 6 months and you redirect things to an area where you’ll find more success; think about the opportunity to do that on your work projects!

For me, being on these college campuses was a great mental reset. It not only made me grateful for my own college experience, but it got me thinking about trying to borrow some of their optimism for my own life again. If you haven’t been on a college campus in awhile, I’d strongly encourage you to go – go back to your alma mater for Homecoming, volunteer to be a guest lecturer at a local school, or go to a random art or sporting event at a nearby school. Park somewhere on the edge and give yourself some time to walk the campus, hit a coffee shop, or stop in at the student union. Then sit back and ask yourself why you shouldn’t have the same optimism as the students you see around you? My grind is only a grind when I let it be that way and so is yours.



Jack4thGrade Jo1stgrade

It’s the first day of school and while I’m excited for my fourth and first grade children to kick the year off, I’m praying especially for their teachers today.

Teachers are perhaps the most important adults in our children’s lives after their parents (and in some cases more than their parents). Teachers definitely deserve more than they get in so many ways. And teachers have a HARD job.

I cannot imagine the difficulty teachers face everyday in dealing with all of the different backgrounds and circumstances that show up in their classrooms every morning. Most of us spend the majority of our day with adults. While the adults in our lives certainly bring baggage to the workplace that affects who they are and their performance, they are ADULTS, and most of them are able to put those things aside long enough to get their work done. But a teacher is dealing with kids who have all manner of challenges in their lives and aren’t emotionally mature enough to know how to deal yet.

Can you imagine having a classroom of 25 9 year olds? Now, how about if half of them have parents living in different houses? What if 4-5 of them didn’t eat much for dinner last night or didn’t get breakfast before school because money is tight at home? What if another 3-4 are sexually or physically abused by an older sibling, neighbor, or uncle? How about the 8 or so that have learning disabilities but are ashamed of it so they try to hide it? Not to mention the 15-20 that are so insecure and nervous most days that just getting on the bus is a challenge to overcome.

I don’t want to think about the baggage that I pile on my fourth grader when I lose my patience with him in the morning about getting his shoes on or getting his teeth brushed. What kind of challenge am I handing his teacher by dismissively telling him he won’t have any trouble making friends this year when I know that it is one of his biggest fears? I can only imagine what state some of our kids show up in emotionally every morning.

So this morning, I’m praying for teachers. I’m praying that they have patience beyond any reasonable human allotment. I’m praying that they can discern the difference between struggling and troubled. I’m praying that they are flexible enough to provide all of those different kids the space to learn in their own unique way. I’m praying that they are firm enough to instill discipline and boundaries because kids are longing for it. I’m praying that they will inspire my kids and all of the kids they teach the way many of my teachers inspired me.

And this morning, I’m thankful for teachers. Thankful for Mrs. Kaveney, my third grade teacher who had the courage to tell my parents she thought I should be held back even when my academic numbers said differently. Thankful for a group of junior high teachers at Metcalf School who didn’t let me coast by when they saw I had academic potential but cared more about sports. Thankful for Coach Hubbard who modeled for me how to treating kids with respect on the court earned their respect on and off. Thankful for Ms. Scott, the best teacher I ever had, the one who instilled a passion for history in me, and the most influential adult in my life who I don’t share a last name with. And thankful for Tim Dillon, my Milligan College American History professor and mentor who not only taught from a place of passion, but cared for his students from a place of passion.

Today will be a great day for my kids because of the caring of their teachers and I am who I am today because of the teachers who cared for me. Pray for your teachers and the teachers of others today and every day.

Smoky Mountain Rain

smokies 020

It is so funny how things connect to memories in our brain. Seemingly unrelated things are connected by strange, oft forgotten, little triggers from our past that stir up memories of those times who framed our being.

I seldom remember how much I love sitting on a porch in the morning, sipping coffee, while a light rain comes down until it happens again. It isn’t an experience I ‘crave,’ but it is one that I always cherish when it happens. This morning was one of those moments and I was overwhelmed by the flood of memory connections that started to occur as I quietly let that moment happen.

I know that one of the reasons that I love softly raining mornings is that we had them a lot when I was a student at Milligan College in the mountains of East Tennessee. The rain would fall lightly as we walked or biked to class, coffee in hand, trying to wake up for an 8a lecture. Normally, when we came out of classes for lunch, the rain and fog would have burned off and we’d have a view like the one in the picture above greeting us. For some reason this morning, the temperature, fog, and soft rain were exactly right to trigger a very specific memory of a fall day of my junior year when I rode my bike to class in such a rain from my first apartment to campus. It was a glorious day, rain or no rain. I was so excited to be able to ride my bike to class with my new Mountainsmith backpack (which I still have), no longer an underclassman, time on my hands since basketball hadn’t started yet; a man with the freedom of living off campus!

And the memory connections continued…as I recalled that rainy mountain bike ride I remembered that a song popped into my head that day that took me even further back in time. When I was growing up my parents listened to the ‘new country’ of the time – The Carpenters, Barbara Mandrell, Kenny Rogers, Dolly Parton, and Ronnie Millsap. That fall morning as I rode my bike to class, the song Smoky Mountain Rain popped into my head right off of one of my parents’ 8 track tapes and wouldn’t let go. I sang it over and over all the way to class that day. I’m singing it again this morning.

I was profoundly impacted by my time at Milligan College. In some ways it was the mountains, which I fell in love with and have been a place I’ve loved ever since. In some ways it was the lifestyle; an outdoorsy, laid back approach to a life lived in pursuit of knowledge and beauty. And in all ways it was the people – my best friends, my roommates, my first loves, my coaches, my professors, and my classmates who made up an environment that shaped me from a boy with few of his own thoughts and values to a young man who had figured out how to learn, question, search, and find what he needed to be successful in life.

I’m so glad that the brain finds ways to connect those little things in our lives to one another in amazing ways that allow us to recall and give thanks for moments in our lives that have made us who we are.