Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Connecting with an Early Mentor

I'm currently learning about the importance of mentoring relationships, as well as reflecting on the timeline of my life to see how God uses people, events, and experiences to shape us. One of my key mentors was a high school teacher and basketball coach at Iona Prep, and I thought it might encourage him to hear of the impact he's had the life of a former student. With the help of Google which found a school newsletter celebrating fifty years of service, I was able to learn where he's at and his email address. Brother Thomas Jude Jensen was born and raised in New York and taught by nuns in grammar school. He was greatly impressed with the Irish Christian Brothers by their willingness to help and their commitment to excellence. These traits are ones that he would exemplify in a major way in his life, and which I now realize were successfully modeled to several of his students, including even me. I first got to know Brother 'J' well as a basketball coach. While a solid player and coach, he taught as much about discipline, character and teamwork as about the game fundamentals. One thing I'll never forget was when we went down to the streets of Harlem in New York City for a game in a summer basketball league. Their team was making a free throw, and it came bouncing way out near the top of the key. I out-jumped my foe, faked right, drove left, dribbling with my left hand and taking it strong to the hoop. Hmm... no blocker. Lefty lay-up, as we practiced often, two points. Wow, that was my best play of the season! The crowd was neither quiet nor booing, they were actually... laughing. Huh? The guy guarding me came up with a huge grin and says "Thanks man!" Another said something I can't repeat here and suddenly it hit me. I just put the ball in the wrong basket. Ack! Not much could be more embarrassing for a young teenage boy. We were already getting beaten, but now the other team's confidence went through the roof. As I waited in agony for the whistle to blow to get pulled out, the other team dunked on us and ran up the score. The whistle came. Finally, I could go to the bench and hide. The replacement came in, but not for me? I was kept in. Five more minutes of torture. Still I had to endure. Thoughts of the game dissolved into thoughts of the ribbing I would get on the ride home. After what seemed like an eternity, a sub came in. Brother J stared at me, was silent for a few seconds, and said "I didn't take you out of the game. You took yourself out of the game. That's a far worse mistake than one bad play." Then his eyes went back to the game. I've come to laugh at my mistake for the silly play, a misguided but well executed drive. What I learned by not getting yanked at the next whistle was a dual lesson in persistence and trust that I'll always remember. Want to know one of the ways you know a teacher is something special? When a half-dozen boys spend their summer teaching themselves typing so they can place-out and take an extra class in the Fall. Not just any class, but a third year of Latin! While we did kind of like Latin, what we really enjoyed was a chance to study together and sit at the feet of a master. I frankly don't remember much from the Cicero readings that year, but I do remember growing in my joy of learning, of aligning myself with bright like-minded colleagues, and I started to discover that you're responsible for your own education. By the way, I do remember from that Brother Jensen's teaching in that very class that that to 'educate' comes from the Latin 'ex' meaning out-of, and 'duco/ducare', to lead... hence to educate is 'to draw out by leadership'. (Would our education system today even consider the possibility of a half-dozen kids deciding they want a special elective class and assign a teacher to it, meeting an hour before school even opened??) That summer league was rough - we didn't join it out of boredom but to push ourselves against the very best. This drive for excellence helped us to finish an unprecedented second in the region, falling only to Power Memorial. In that game I had to cover future dream team Olympian and NBA star, Chris Mullin, but he honestly didn't seem so bad compared to what I was seeing on the playgrounds of Harlem. :) One final quote I carry with me was learned on the basketball court. This time Brother J wasn't even the coach but was watching in the stands, and he called me aside for a minute at half-time when my play was simply lackluster. "To succeed, you need to set your mind right... then show some fire-in-the-belly!" Has someone made a significant impact on your life? Why not take a few minutes to let them know?

1 comment:

Larry Baxter said...

Just heard today that Brother Jensen has recently passed away. I'm in tears... we'll miss you Brother J!