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My Why: An Old Coach's Brief Autobiography

Out of a 17 year teaching career, the four years I spent as the coordinator of a fitness based self esteem program called Operation Pull Your Own Weight at Jefferson Elementary School in Davenport, IA were by far and away the most memorable and significant to me.

In the wake of those four years the program died because the state grant which underwrote it ran out of funds. Ever since I've been searching for ways to bring it back to life and in the process I've had lots of people ask WHY I continue with this Quixote-like pursuit when I've had so many doors slammed in my face, and conventional bureaucratic wisdom seems to lack any appreciation for its simple elegance, and its blatant obviousness. I'd like to try and briefly answer that question here and now.

In my own formative years (grades k-12) my teachers and the system in which they worked, did a great job of convincing me and my parents that I was average in almost every conceivable way. For example when reading groups were selected by the teachers who were being paid to do this kind of thing, I was never in the top group or the bottom group. I was inevitably in the middle group, as were a high percentage of my supposedly average classmates, who most likely became systematically convinced of their own respective averageness as well.

In gym class the Coach would pick captains, but I was almost never among those chosen few. When the captains were instructed to pick teams, I was seldom if ever chosen at the top or the bottom round. Among my own peers, I was inevitably a mid-round draft choice.

When report cards came out each quarter, I was always relieved to see a C or a C+ instead of the C- or the D+ that occasionally made its way into the card. B's or B- were well above the call of duty and a genuine surprise to my parents who'd been systematically convinced of my averageness as well.

When I arrived at high school with all my average baggage, I was placed in classes alongside other average students like myself. I was never with the obviously smart kids or with the obviously un-smart kids. I was always in between the top and the bottom, and by that time average placement was what my parents and I had been systematically conditioned to expect, so we just went along.

It wasn't until my senior year in high school when a guidance counselor named Dixie Howells (he was also the basketball coach) blew a small hole in this well accepted sense of averageness that I'd learned to accept. I'd said something about an average student like myself having a hard time in college, and to my surprise he just laughed out loud. Then he proceeded to say that I should take all that conventional wisdom with a grain of salt and recognize that I was plenty smart enough to do just fine in college.

Let me reiterate this one more time. A teacher whom I respected (he was after all the head basketball coach) said that the system that I'd just spent the past 12 years struggling through was highly questionable, possibly even full of crap, and should not be taken with a great deal of seriousness or belief. I'm talking about a ten minute conversation that was so important in my life that it stands out in my mind over 40 years later!

All kids should be so lucky as to have a Dixie Howells in their lives who would assure them that the system is light years from perfect, and should not be automatically trusted or believed. This little ten minute conversation turned out to be the single most important piece of educational enlightenment that I'd experienced in 12 years of schooling. Thanks Dixie!

Yes, Dixie had kicked a small crack in the cosmic egg shell of averageness that had been carefully built up around me over 12 years. But if the shell was ever going to be totally shattered there was lots more kicking to be done. During the beginning of my freshman year at Burlington IA Junior College I met another basketball coaching renegade who would further expand the crack in the egg that Dixie had started.

In his first year as coach of the Burlington Blackhawks, Ed Sparling had America's top rated JUCO team which was led by future Big Ten superstar Sam Williams who was from the streets of Detroit. Being average was not part of Coach Sparling's mindset. In fact everything he touched from his family to his defense, his cheerleaders to his student managers (of which I was one) were simply the best, by virtue of being associated with him. They worked harder, smarter, and they happened to be coached by the nation's best JUCO coach...Ed Sparling.

At the end of my freshman year, Sparling dealt another blow to the crack in the egg when one of the team members told him I was a good place kicker on the Burlington High School football team. Despite the fact that I'd quit football my senior year in high school, Sparling insisted that I write letters to two dozen University football coaches offering my kicking services in return for a football scholarship. I thought he was crazy, but then who was I to question the best JUCO basketball coach in the nation?

To make a long story short, it worked. I received an athletic scholarship offer to kick footballs at Northern Illinois University in DeKalb, IL where I ended up setting several school records, and signing a contract with the Atlanta Falcons of the NFL upon graduation. This was undoubtedly another major blow to the crack in the egg. But I failed to make the Falcon's cut, and the egg shell remained somewhat intact.

Yes, I graduated from college where I had several enviable athletic experiences, but my average grades still supported my feelings of averageness. It wasn't until I enrolled at Western Illinois University to do Masters work (strictly to make more money at my teaching job) that I grew up academically. For the first time in my life I decided that working at my studies might be a good idea. The experiment yielded mostly A's and a few B's at the graduate level, at which I was completely flabbergasted.

Late in my Masters work I took a course in the History and Philosophy of Sport which was taught by an older female professor named Dr. Kathy Pearson. In this class I was introduced to people like Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, DeCartes, Rousseau, and Kant just to name a few.

In so doing I discovered what I still contend real education is all about. It ran me over like a Mack Truck, I ended up doing a thesis in sport philosophy that was eventually published in full by the University of Oregon, which caused me to check into Ph.D. programs in this suddenly fascinating discipline. Imagine me, the most average of students checking into a PhD program. Dr. Pearson proved to be another renegade who further expanded the cracks in the egg shell that Dixie had started well over a decade ago.

I went on to attend Arizona State University where I won a graduate assistantship in the P.E. Department, and Dr. Robert G. Osterhoudt helped me explore an entirely new world (philosophy) to which I'd only been introduced at WIU. My grades once again were mostly A's and a few B's, I passed my comprehensive exams in flying colors, got a dissertation topic, organized a star studded committee to oversee it, stared writing, and shortly afterwards ran short of money. Regardless, by this time the academic part of the egg was completely shattered.

I must confess that at this point in my life I was riding high and was full of optimism. After all, thanks to Dixie Howells, Ed Sparling, Kathy Pearson, and now Robert G. Osterhoudt, I'd now excelled in athletics and in academics, DESPITE a system that had previously convinced me that I could never do either. And when one has spent his entire life in school, what else is there other than athletics and academics? The world should now be my oyster, right? Wrong.

With a family to support that included a wonderful wife and two fabulous kids, I had to get a job. That 's when I discovered the market could care less about athletic or academic excellence unless it could be translated into corporate profit. I quickly decided to get back into the teaching profession and took several jobs before arriving at Jefferson Elementary School, Davenport, IA, in the fall of 1990, where I was fortunate enough to be put in charge of a program entitled Operation Pull Your Own Weight.

During this four year period I met many kids whose lives had already been swallowed up by the indoctrination of averageness or much worse. They'd been systematically labeled AVG. (average), BA (below average), BD (behavior disorder), ADD (attention deficit disorder), or just plain BAD (as in inferior or bad kids).

They'd been effectively taught by their parents (who'd learned the lessons from the same sources), their neighborhoods, their peers, and now by their school, to expect failure instead of success. For all practical purposes, these kids were systematically taught to say "No I can't" instead of "Yes I can" to new experiences of all kinds. And once they're convinced they can't, they stop trying, because trying and failing is uncool. If they avoid trying they at least have a face saving excuse - the opportunity to say "I didn't try."

Humiliation is thus avoided and some sense of "cool" is maintained. But when kids stop trying, they automatically self-fulfill the failure prophecy because nobody can succeed without trying. In other words, the egg shell of averageness that surrounded me for so long was nothing compared to the egg shell of inferiority that surrounded many or most of the kids who attended Jefferson School. Nothing!

I now step back and ask, is it any wonder that so many kids today want to be BAD? I mean they've been so thoroughly convinced that they have no chance of being good... so why try? 51 of the 52 cards in the deck are stacked directly against them. Why try? Why humiliate yourself by trying hard, and predictably failing?

So yes, on the surface the physically based self esteem program (Pull Your Own Weight) was designed to help kids learn to immunize themselves against obesity for a lifetime, naturally by learning to do pull ups. That's obvious and simple. But if you take the time to dig in a little deeper, you'll see that this program is designed to physically and psychologically...

o Reach down to kids who've been systematically convinced that they're average or worse, and give them a Dixie Howells, an Ed Sparling, a Kathy Pearson, a Robert G. Osterhoudt who will help kick a crack in their own personal egg shells.
o It's designed to give them a regular, hands-on experience with success.
o It's designed to help them learn to become stronger this week than last, stronger this month than last, and stronger this year than last, for many years to come.
o It's designed to help them learn to say "yes I can" instead of "no I can't," while taking regular whacks at their own indoctrinations, their own cosmic egg shells.
o And it's designed to help them recognize that the primary purpose of the "education system" is maintain the status quo,
o So if you're down, it'll help keep you down.
o If you're up, it'll help keep you up.
o And if you're average, it's designed to lock you into remaining average, forever and ever.
o It's also designed to help participants see that the system doesn't like to be challenged or questioned and it punishes boat rockers of all kinds... ask Socrates, Jesus Christ, or Gandhi who all committed the ultimate crime of questioning the status quo and who all paid the ultimate price.

Simply stated, the Pull Your Own Weight program was specifically designed to create lots of winners instead of lots of losers, in lots of different ways. And while it's doing that, it also helps kids learn to immunize themselves against obesity for a lifetime by using a simple, natural, documented, and affordable acid test called pull ups to do the trick.

To a certain extent, I know how these kids feel because I've been there myself and I'm still furiously kicking at the egg shell of averageness in my own life. But to the degree that I can be a Dixie, an Ed, a Kathy, or an RGO and show other kids how to break free of indoctrination, I will finally decimate and destroy my own egg shell, win my own freedom, break my own systematically imposed chains of averageness, and be able to say free at last, free at last. Thanks God I'm free at last.

That's My Why. ...Rick O.

1. He who has a strong enough WHY, can bear almost any HOW. ...Friedrich Nietzsche

2. Where there's a will, there's a way. ...Someone, somewhere, sometime

3. If I look back on all the crap I learned in high school, it's a wonder I can think at all. ...Paul Simon/Kodachrome