Friday, August 10, 2012

Black Coffee Memories

I've been searching for a topic to write on for a few days now.  I hate having the itchy feeling of wanting to write without a clear idea of what to write.  I assure you, when school starts in 10 days, this problem will be long forgotten.  This morning before work, I went to the Starbucks close to campus and ordered what is becoming my summer staple--iced black coffee, no sweetener, no milk.  A few days ago, I went to the Starbucks by our house where they are less familiar with my ordering tendencies and ordered the exact same thing, but instead of being met with a smile and my receipt, the cashier looked at me and said, "Really?!"  Her reaction sparked a memory, a very fond memory, from about 8 years ago.

I didn't like coffee until my junior year of high school.  That year, I went out for the Academic Decathlon team at MHS.  I'd heard about AcaDec since junior high and would've tried for the team in 10th grade if it had been allowed.  The summer before 11th grade I showed up for a preliminary meeting, my inner nerd bursting at the seams, ready to think, learn and prove myself as the academic I knew I could be.  Of course, at the beginning I didn't really understand that that's why I was there.  I just thought it would be a good extracurricular, look good on my college applications, open some doors for scholarships.  But trust me, if those were the only reasons I did AcaDec, I wouldn't have lasted long and its influence in my life wouldn't be what it is. 

Our coaches, Fort and Hill for short, pushed us hard.  Learning ten subjects in-depth while taking on a full class schedule of AP courses is not easy, but I found in myself this motivation to learn and compete that had been lurking beneath the surface and was only being discovered to its fullest.  I wanted to be on the team more than I had ever wanted anything before.  I'm not an athletically competitive person.  I played tennis for three years in junior high, and while I liked the mental aspects of it and enjoyed playing, I lacked the drive to compete.  But as I should have guessed, my slightly competitive tendencies in the classroom erupted in AcaDec.  By the time the 3 people from each division were chosen based on our scores in practice meets and in-house tests, I was almost 1000 points ahead of the next closest person in my division.  In the AcaDec scoring system, a couple hundred points is negotiable, 1000 points is an entire event's worth of points.  It would be like making a perfect score on one of the tests and everyone else making 0.   I don't say this to brag, but to show how incredibly driven I was to make the team and excel.  (And no, at the time, I did not think a 1000 point lead was good enough.)

That year, our team struggled through Regionals, but we made it into the State competition as the 39th team out of 40.  Flying out of Lbk, I sat on one of the Emergency Exit rows, facing Fort and Hill. As I'm pulling out my botany materials (I remember studying macro- and micro-nutrients during that particular plane ride), the flight attendant walks up to me, and says, "You know you need to be 15 to ride on the Exit row?" To which I promptly reply, "Yes, I'm 17."  Fort and Hill got a kick out of that one.  A few minutes later, the flight attendant who didn't think I was 15 comes by with coffee and orange juice.  All the adults around me order OJ, and when it gets to me, I promptly ask for coffee, black.  The flight attendant's look expresses a resounding, "Really?!"  I'll never forget Fort smiling at me and Hill saying, "That's a dedicated student."

Some things never change, including my love for black coffee.  In a small way, my coffee order is a talisman for all the things I've carried with me from my two years on the MHS AcaDec team.  Yes, I made the team a 2nd year, though not quite by 1000 points.  (I know, I was such a slacker...)  I have reminisced a great deal lately on all that AcaDec did and continues to do for me.  When I went to college, I thought the maximum benefits I gained were from the added knowledge I had gained and learning good studying skills.  Though the knowledge and ability to study have served me well, I'm coming to believe the greatest benefits are less obvious.  As I contemplate my future--PhD work, family, ministry goals, etc.--I know that who I am today started with AcaDec.  I am astounded at the lack of self-confidence I showed  in high school, and eternally grateful for my coaches who had confidence in me anyway.  I am bowled over by the friends I made at that time in my life, who walked through the tears and the trials and the stress.  I am amazed that we came together in the way we did, and though I don't seem them much any more, they all hold a place in my heart.  We fought together, we learned together, we laughed together, and somehow the molding that took place in the midst of that carries far greater value than all the facts we ever took in.

Fort always read us a quote from Teddy Roosevelt at the beginning of the year and throughout difficult points in the season, and it still stirs something deeply spiritual within me, despite it's lack of overt reference to the things of God:

"It is not the critic who counts: not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles or where the doer of deeds could have done better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood, who strives valiantly, who errs and comes up short again and again, because there is no effort without error or shortcoming, but who knows the great enthusiasms, the great devotions, who spends himself for a worthy cause; who, at the best, knows, in the end, the triumph of high achievement, and who, at the worst, if he fails, at least he fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who knew neither victory nor defeat."

Life is full of moments when we make a choice to do or not to do, to bravely step out or to cautiously wait at the shore.  Our culture is plagued with a fear of failure that spurns us to do nothing unless success is guaranteed.  But this is not the way of God.  God dares us to step out, even if we do not know where our foot will land.  God calls to us, "Have I not commanded you? Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged, for the Lord your God will be with you wherever you go.” (Joshua 1:9)  It is in the stepping out that blessings beyond what we can comprehend come, sometimes in the form of success but more often in the surprising results of our "failure." 

A couple years ago, Fort went home to Jesus.  I miss him terribly, especially in the moments when it hits me how deeply AcaDec shaped me.  But, he left a legacy with his students, his family, and his friends that honors him and the work the Lord gave him to do.  For me, that legacy is apparent every time I look up from my reading and in the joy of learning hear him say, "Isn't it so great to know stuff!?" 

Yes, Fort, it is a blessing to learn and a blessing to share from what we've learned with others.