Imagine 20 kids, aged roughly 9 to 12, all bounding about the gym. Add in at least one harried parent for each. Throw in few grandparents. Complete the scene with ten younger siblings scurrying about, clamoring for attention.
This is the banquet for the Academy cross-country team. This is a group who practiced by hitting wooded trails between their school and the park. These are children who avoided fallen apples and twisted ankles while racing through scenic apple orchard race courses. These are the ones who braved the heat of the early fall, and the pouring, cold rain of their last meet.
The noise level crescendos as they all file in. The adults calmly set a few tables, chatting a bit, milling about for the ten minutes it takes to finish the preparations.
Their coach emerges with huge, steaming bowls of pasta in his hands. He barely makes it to the table as the mass of young people stampede towards the food, yelling, "Pasta! Pasta!" Another adult quickly sets down additional sauce, nestling it between green salads and rolls. She answers the all-important but unasked question by simply noting "The Parmesan cheese is already on the tables, guys."
The dull roar of energy and enthusiasm exhibited only seconds earlier quiets quickly. For perhaps ten minutes, they are laser-focused: fork into the noodles, wind them up, sop up sauce, stuff in mouth, chew. Mouth closing is optional.
Their coaches time it perfectly. As soon as they start to think about cake they've eyed, their coaches call them over to a rocking chair and lamp. They roar over to their coaches, and happily sit in a circle, leaving the special seat for their lead coach. The lights go off, and the lamp comes on. The only noise at this point is a sibling playing with a hula hoop, and a few of us unknowing parents, who are still catching up with each other. The cross country team has fallen completely silent, sitting at their coach's feet and waiting to hear what he'll say to them.
This is not my first end-of-year sports banquet, but it is my first time as a cross country mom. I expect the first part of what he says; it's the normal stuff. Thanks for a good year, you all did really well, it's great you chose to do this, hope you had a good time. Yes, yes, yes, I think, all the stuff the coaches always say. Good stuff, too, I think. Nice of them to coach, nice program, nice kids.
But then I realize that the coach is talking about each and every child. Individually. To each of them, directly. In turn.
The kids are incredibly poised, polite, responsive and responsible. They give this man, and his assistant coach, their undivided attention; the ball that slips from a younger sibling's reach and disturbs their circle is merely tossed back.
"Now, this young fellow ... where is he? There you are!" the coach smiles a wide grin over at his runner. "This is what, your second year in cross country, right? And let's look at his time." All the kids wait as he goes through the printout, holding it closer to the lamp. "You started out at 10.52. Your next race you dropped that time to 9.30. That's incredible!" The fourth grader beams quietly. "You know, that's just what I loved about working with you. You are one of my favorites for this! You were always striving, always trying to improve. Great job!"
He moves along to the next one on his list. "OK, now, let's see, our next runner had some of best times of everyone. She was just amazing! Look at this time. You know, there are adults that don't make this time–and you're what, 10 years old? Wow! You're one of my favorites! I am so looking forward to seeing what you do next year!"
He goes down the line, and each child visibly swells under his praise and kind words. His remarks are unrehearsed; every statement is honest and thoughtful; no child is left without an attribute making him special. Each is his favorite in some way: one of the fastest ... the hardest working ... the most determined ... the happiest personality ...
He finishes his comments, and his assistant coach steps closer, guiding the conversation over to a couple of the sixth-graders. "So," they begin, fairly confidently and yet still obviously not that accustomed to speaking in front of the group, "so, we wanted to thank you ..." As they draw to an end, the entire group circles their coaches, surrounding them with accolades of praise and affirmation for a job well done.
For they have been coached.
And they have learned.