There are two other people with whom I crossed paths, however, that did provide lessons for me that are easily identifiable and that have stuck with me for years. They are the two people I recall when asked the question about teachers who inspired me. They are not, however, people who inspired me in the classical sense; they did not fire a passion in me for teaching, math or soccer, all things I eventually pursued in some way. They are simply the two people I think of because their brutal honesty about my limitations helped me to think differently.
When I attended Davidson College, we were assigned an advisor for our first two years until we declared a major and were given an advisor in our chosen field of study. I was assigned Dr. Alberto Hernandez in the Spanish department as my freshman advisor. Like many college freshmen, I was naïve and overly confident. I was a rather bright kid in my rather strong public high school’s honors track, but I was a rather weak student with poor study skills and little real idea of what it meant to study or to struggle. I was a slacker who got by on talent.
Perhaps Dr. Hernandez could sense this about me when we first met to look at the schedule I had chosen. Perhaps he was just experienced enough to know that most freshmen enter Davidson thinking they are smarter and more prepared than they really are. He took one look at my course load—Calculus II, Chemistry 101, Sociology 101—and said with a chuckle, “You are going to fail. You are not as smart as you think. Everyone here thinks they are going to be a doctor. You, too, I assume. You are not as smart as you think.” “But I was a top student in high school,” I countered. “I got a five on the Calculus AP!” Dr. Hernandez gave the wry smile I grew to appreciate in him, chuckled again, and said, “So did everybody else. You are not as smart as you think. Take an easier schedule to start and see how you do.”
I don’t remember the way the rest of the conversation went, but I recall defending myself, not giving ground that intro Chemistry would break me if I took it alongside second-year Calculus. I loved math and science and I was going to be a doctor, no matter what this guy, who didn’t really know me, said.
He was right, of course. I was humbled. I had no idea how to study, no idea how to struggle, no idea how not prepared I was. The real world hit me hard, I made poor grades for the first time in my life, and I kept working against Dr. Hernandez’s advice just to prove him wrong. I tried Physics and Logical Math the second trimester with the same results, and I realized medicine was not in my future. From then on I took a course in pretty much every department, looking for something that interested me, but none did.
By the end of my sophomore year, I was supposed to declare my major, but I was lost and without inspiration. Dr. Hernandez suggested I take my junior year in France. “I can’t,” I said, “I’m on the soccer team here, remember?” Dr. Hernandez chuckled the same way he did when I told him I was a scholar at my high school. “But you don’t play,” he said. “Sure, you are on the team, but you haven’t played a minute, and as long as Jim Kelly is here, you won’t.” Jim was the starting goalkeeper, and Dr. Hernandez was right: he was far better than me, I had yet to play a minute, and I was not going to play a minute my junior year, either. The painful honesty hit me hard, again, but I did not take his advice this time, either. I had played soccer for a long time, it was part of my identity, and going to France and stepping away from the sport seemed like accepting failure. I told him I wouldn’t do it and he just shrugged in response, a sort of, “It’s your funeral, kid. You’ll see I’m right,” kind of gesture.
I finally declared as a history major and he and I did not see much of each other after that, but I did run into him now and then my senior year and he convinced me to take a new class he was teaching: Latin American Authors in Translation. It was a literary course in the Spanish department taught in English. We read authors I had not heard of—Borges, Infante, García Márquez—and discussed their stories in a class of no more than about ten students. We would read each night and come to class the next day to share what we thought as he educated us on the social implications of the stories. “What questions do you have about what you read last night?” he’d ask. I usually said I didn’t have any until one day, in the front of the class, he called me out on this. “Then you didn’t read it,” he said. “Of course I did,” I countered. “If you can’t come up with one question about what you read, if you are not the slightest bit curious about anything, you either didn’t read it or you are simply not that smart,” he said. “How can you not have a question? How can you not find something interesting in the story that you are wanting to know more about? How can you not push yourself to dig? Without questions there are no answers.” Once again he pointed out, this time publicly, the limits of my efforts and the arrogance in my beliefs about myself. He never questioned my potential; he only questioned my ability or desire to be honest with myself about who I was at those times, and what I was doing about being something different.
A few years later, I found myself in England playing semi-professional soccer in the fall of 1990 because a foolish though talented coach convinced my even more foolish and younger self to give it a try. Certainly my soccer career took a turn after my junior year at Davidson that allowed this opportunity to happen, but the set of circumstances around it would take more space than what I have here to adequately outline. Suffice it to say, my soccer improved dramatically in the ensuing years though my blissful naïveté remained.
I was playing on a very strong club team in Sheffield while moving around to different semi-professional teams. One semi-pro team I played for was in transition with the coach who brought me in leaving after a few games and a new coach coming in to replace him. The upside for me was that the new coach was a professional goalkeeper coach, a man named John Bilton. The downside was that a number of the experienced players left the club when the former coach left and John brought in many of his own younger players.
The training I received from John was the best I had ever had, and he was very complimentary of my abilities. I played very well in my first game with John as coach, but he sat me for the second so he could see what the backup keeper could do. After this second game, most of the veteran players left the club, as they did not like John’s style of play or his coaching. I stayed on, as my options as an American in England were rather more limited. For the third game, he brought in an entirely new back line, guys I had never played with before and who I met on the bus ride to the game.
We were beaten 8-0 in that game. The defense was in disarray, the strategy confusing if existent at all. I felt that my play kept it from being even worse. On the quiet ride back, John called me to the front of the bus and said, without preamble, “Josh, I think you should go back to America. You do not have any understanding or appreciation for this game.” I think he went on to say that I couldn’t really expect to come to this country and step in and play the game that was so foreign to Americans, but I was having a tough time listening. I was recalling his words of a few weeks earlier, praising me as one of the better goalkeepers he had trained. “You are blaming me for the loss?” I asked. “Yes, for the most part,” he said. I just stared straight ahead after that and said nothing. He broke the short silence by asking me, “So, what do you intend to do?” I did not hesitate in saying, “I am not going back home. Maybe I have some work to do, but this was not entirely my fault. I am not going home. I am not giving up.” He said, “I hope you prove me wrong.” I don’t recall if I said it or merely thought it, but the words I recall in my head were, “I have no intention of proving anything to you; I will prove it to myself.”
Unlike Dr. Hernandez, John Bilton’s honesty with me did not really come from a place of compassion, support or education, but it was not from a place of unkindness, either. He was simply stating reality as he saw it, a painful one to me to be sure, but his reality nonetheless. He could have sugarcoated it and told me the team was going a different direction, but his honesty is what allowed me to change my approach to how I viewed what I was trying to do, and how I viewed the game that I was still really learning to play. Were it not for that advice, I am not sure I would have made the changes I did that resulted in a tryout with a professional team four months later.
I hesitate to give too much credit to either of these men for influencing the way I teach, parent or ask questions the way I do, but I cannot deny their influence, either. These relatively individual moments in time have stuck with me for years. I have taken them and shaped them a bit to give them meaning for me, and though they are similar in some ways, I took something different from each. From Dr. Hernandez, I learned the importance of being honest with myself and to question what I see and do if I truly want to learn anything. From John Bilton, I learned that being an expert does not guarantee the person is right, but it is worth listening to what they have to say. They give us their truths as they see them and it is up to us to take those relative truths, assess their validity, be honest with ourselves, and find the absolute truths in them.
We need people around us who think we are special no matter what we do, but we also need people who tell us when we are wrong and when we have failed. We are lucky when we find people who can serve both of these roles, because these are the people we can trust to help us to be better for their influence in our lives.