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Class Notes
The academic athlete
(Published November 4, 2002)

By H. WELLS WULSIN

Rain pours down in sheets, tapping the tops of two dozen black helmets, each emblazoned with a capital "W" above the ear. Red jerseys shuffle in orchestrated formation, charting unusual and cryptic shapes across the concrete plaza outside the Tower of Power. The quarterback calls a play, and the ball is flipped to a lithe running back who dodges through a few linebackers before being pummeled by a cornerback. Helmets crash in what appears a near-fatal collision, but neither offender nor defender is hurt - only further energized with a rush of adrenaline. Spiking the ball, the running back lets loose a battle cry: "Wooohooo!" The players return to formation, ready to try a new play.

Darkness settles earlier now, after the end of daylight savings time, and so by five o'clock dusk has faded every color to a shade of gray. Most teachers and students left long ago, but for the H.D. Woodson Warrior football team, three hours of practice remain before they can return to their homes. Nighttime, rain and Code Blue lockdowns will not deter this ritual worship of a game here held so sacred.

With a 5-1 record (a lone defeat to a team from Berwick, Pa.), the Woodson Warriors have much to show for the hard work they invest every day. They are set to maintain their standing as East Division Champs in 2001, and plan to usurp the city championship title held for four consecutive years by Dunbar.

At a school where so many things seem broken - the keys of the choir room piano, the escalators, the internet connections, the dripping pipes - here in the pouring rain, wearing sweaty shoulder pads and reeking of adolescent body odor is an institution that really works. The Warriors make no mistake that victories are what they set out to achieve - and for the most part they succeed.

Players on the football team are required to make an extraordinary commitment to this organization: two-a-day practices during the summer, and four-hour-long practices daily after school. Junior Kenneth McManus, a left tackle, works hard to motivate his peers: "I tell them [my teammates] all the time as a captain - on any given day, if you don't come in with your A-game, you're going to get beaten. But if you come out aggressive and determined, and most importantly, you have fun, then you're going to find a way to win."

Taking a break from grading papers, I gaze through my fourth-floor windows at the afternoon football stretching routine. Lined up in straight rows, at even five-yard intervals, the team spreads out over fully half the field, like an army in formation. They wear the same uniforms, they shout the same cheers, they clap in synchrony. Even from several stories high, the allure of this regimented, trained organization is enticing.

The truth is that the best teachers are often found not in the science lab or behind the lectern, but on the 50-yard line or beneath the backboard, whistle in mouth and stopwatch in hand. Professors of academic subjects may decry the over-emphasis on sports in our culture - the excessive time dedicated to practices, the financial investment in athletic staffing and equipment, and our society's deification of athletes but ignorance of intellectual heroes.

Still, coaches are often able to accomplish what many of us teachers strive for every day but never fully achieve - a determined, persistent focus on a challenging worthwhile goal. Certainly the deck is stacked: kids inherently want to play sports but do not want to be educated, right? Yes…and no. Coaches have advantages on the field that aren't accessible in a classroom, but ideally students would approach their studies with the same intensity and work ethic that they apply in their drills and play patterns. The essential difference between coach and teacher is not the subject, but rather the relationship.

A coach wants his players to do their best in competition, and when he demands push-ups or wind sprints as punishment, they know that ultimately he still has their best interests in mind. A teacher, by contrast, often is seen by the student as an antagonist - an enemy equipped with red pens and detention slips trying to trick, spoil or downgrade you for no other reason than his own cruelty. If only teachers could be coaches, guiding students to hone their skills for competition and performance.

Turning such a theory into practice is where the genius of master teaching becomes paramount. A debate of the death penalty by seniors in Mr. Burton's English class was aired on a local television news station. Sophomores in the Leaders of Tomorrow program competed in a regional business competition and came home with thousands of dollars in scholarships. A charcoal sketch of Martin Luther King Jr. made in Mr. Usilton's art class was selected as a citywide prize winner and displayed at the Natural History Museum. Examples abound, but we need more of them. When students know that they must perform against an external challenge, the teacher turns from adversary to adviser.

Two leading physics students - Justin McLeod and Derric Daniels - from my classes last year were football players. Not only did they score well on tests, but they set a strong example in their maturity and work ethic in the classroom. McLeod, a tenacious 125-lb. wide receiver, says he must work twice as hard as those around him to rise to the top, whether at a desk or on the field: "Anybody who's ever played football has dreamed about being in the NFL. Some people put football before their class work, but not me. I'm shooting for a 4.0 so I can be at the top of my class, so I can feel good at graduation."

Daniels, starting quarterback and a team captain, has his choice of football scholarship offers for college next fall, but he hasn't given his life over to sports: "I plan to take total advantage of my intelligence and skills. I plan to play in the NFL and at the same time own my own electrical engineering company. That mainly takes me out of the category of just being average. I wouldn't settle to just be average."

The pigskin snaps off the center's hands, triggering opposing lines to muscle against one another, bashing shoulders, scraping helmets, digging into the soft turf and grappling with bare hands. Screams of anguish and exertion emanate from this frothing mixture, growing in intensity as each side battles for position. Finally, it's over - touchdown! Cries of exultation drown out softer groans of sorrow.

Given the chance to perform, students - as players - prove that they are prepared to dedicate time and labor to reach a worthy goal. How sweet is toil with victory its reward!

***

Wulsin is a second-year chemistry and physics teacher at the H.D. Woodson Academy of Finance and Business. Please send stories, comments, or questions to wulsin@gwu.edu.

Copyright 2002, The Common Denominator