It was my father’s job to pick me up after Saturday speech tournaments during my high school years. His old truck would always be there, waiting for me long before the bus of worn-out high schoolers would arrive. “How’d it go?” he’d ask. “Not very well,” I would concede, “I didn’t even make it into the finals.”
Every weekend it was the same. I was mediocre at best. My friends were just more talented that I was. I was trying hard when I was there, but it just wasn’t happening. One unremarkable evening when he picked me up, he posed a different question, “How much do you practice?”
Admittedly, I was surprised. He went on, “I know I am just a football coach and don’t know much about speech tournaments, but in high school, it’s really more about practice than talent. Sure, I’ve got players who are better than others, but, ultimately, it comes down to how hard they are willing to work.” This was a new perspective for me: a paradigm shift if you will.
And while my father didn’t know much about speech tournaments, he did know a lot about football. As a 27 year- old high school coach, he led the Mt. Sterling High School Trojans to a Class A State Football Championship in 1969. These same boys that he loved and coached almost 50 years ago showed up at St. Joseph Hospital in January of this year as word got out that Coach was in his final days. Now older men, these champions stood in the hospital corridors with tears streaming down their faces, hoping for a final opportunity to speak to my father.
We knew this day was coming. In November of 2014, two weeks before my son took his final ACT and reached his score goal, my Dad had been diagnosed with Stage 4 Neuroendocrine Pancreatic cancer. He was given six months to live.
I was facing the very real possibility that my Dad would not live to see my son graduate from high school. The hope that I felt for my son and his success on the ACT was juxtaposed against the heartbreak that I felt for my father. My mother, sisters, and I temporarily found ourselves in a place of shock as we resolved to move forward with courage and strength.
Remarkably, Dad lived for three more years. He saw my son graduate from high school and two more grandchildren after that. He witnessed the birth of The ACT Mom, a company I had no idea I was creating. At one point, he said, “Let me see that test.” After flipping through each section, he exclaimed, “My goodness! How in the world do you know all of this?” I looked at him, laughing, “You taught me how to do this, Dad.” I replied. “Don’t you remember?? You said that I could do anything I wanted to if I just practiced hard enough.” He looked at me rather confused. “Oh,” he said simply, still unaffected by my words.
He had forgotten about the speech tournaments, but I had not. I had taken his words to heart all those years ago. I had started studying the winners. What were they doing? I made changes. I practiced. I did more of what worked and less of what didn’t. As I slowly made these changes, I gradually started to win. As the Regional tournament approached, I qualified to move on to State. It was an exciting time. I started to learn that speaking was an art and that it could be cultivated.
The State speech tournament of my Senior year was the final time that I would compete. When my father picked me up on that eventful night, he could see that things had gone well. I was carrying a 2 foot trophy: Prose Fiction– 1st Place in the State of Kentucky. He had shared his winning secrets with me: assessment, correction, and practice. Twenty-five years later I had used those same skills to master the ACT.
The ACT Mom is busy these days. I miss my father terribly, and I drive his Ford truck to almost every class. He wanted to make sure that I would get there safely. Moreover, it makes me happy to arrive at class with a tangible reminder of his presence. However, it’s the intangibles that he taught me that matter the most: hope, courage, humility, and perseverance. And so I carry those things with me as well as I seek to teach and train the next generation of leaders. Into every hallway, into every classroom, and into every office, I carry the unpretentious strength of my father.