by Tip Fallon
It is remarkable how the seemingly smallest incidents can make a lasting impact when it comes to character development. Over 15 years ago, I was playing on my high school soccer team and we traveled to an out-of-county school for a game. This situation was a little different because we played almost all of our regular season games in our own county. I recall the ride to this game being much further than other games, and we had never played the team before. As we covered long stretches of road far off the highway to get to the school, I recall feeling out of my element. This school and town seemed very distant, and different from, the community that we lived in and played in. The game seemed to reinforce that belief. The demographic of the players, parents, and school were not what I was used to. Their style was different, and, of course, the referees seemed to make calls that went in their favor.
In soccer, I usually have an appreciation for whoever is on the other side of the field. Even among opponents, there is a mutual respect for our love and passion for the game. In this situation, that respect was trumped by competition – trying to beat this other team – and frustration the game was not going our way at all. Even after giving it our all, we lost the match. I recall wanting nothing more than to get out of that town once we shook hands with the other team after the game. As I walked out of the field, I muttered an insult about the opposing team to a teammate. It was not my finest moment. I didn’t think more than one or two people could have possibly heard me.
Sure enough, when we had our next practice, our coach pulled me aside and told me that a parent from the other school’s team did hear me. I confirmed that I did say something insulting about the other school. Our coach had me issue two apologies: one to our team, and one to the other school and their community. Initially, I was quite resistant. Did he not remember the other school and their team at all? Why would they be deserving of an apology? And who is he to assign me the task of issuing apologies?
Once I had time to reflect though, I realized how wrong I was – not only in my behavior – but in how I framed the entire situation. Before I got to their school on the day of the game, I thought of their team and town as different from mine. I entered the game not with mindset of how that school shared a passion with me – soccer – but how they were not like me and others on our team. I applied this view to their school – their parents, coaches, and probably teachers. They might as well have lived on a different planet.
Slowing down and looking at the situation more clearly brought me to recognize that they were just like me. Their parents cared for their players deeply; their teachers were as passionate as ours; and their team as close-knit as ours was. I could see myself in them, and see them in myself. I felt terrible for disrespecting them in the manner I did.
In the grand scheme of things, this may seem like a trivial act and incident. Yet, I believe the importance of incidents like this cannot be understated. How we live as a society is about choice – we always can choose how we view the world, what standards we hold ourselves to, and ultimately, how we behave. When we go on “autopilot,” we can let our emotions, or ill-informed views get the best of us, which leads to division, lack of empathy, and lack of personal growth. It’s in these situations where we find opportunities to reflect to call on ourselves to be the best versions of us that we can be. These are opportunities for moral development and action.
When I recalled this incident with Character.org, I emailed my high school soccer coach. As the incident happened over 10 years ago, I didn’t expect him to remember it at all. Sure enough, he e-mailed me back saying he did remember it, and that he was pushing me to learn to reflect in situations like that as he knew that behavior was not consistent with who I was. I cannot imagine the number of teaching moments like this that our coach must have had in a week, let alone in all the years that he coached and taught students.
At the time, I rebelled against him trying to have me issue those apologies, but as an adult, I am very grateful that he went out of his way to help me learn that lesson. Part of this gives me hope that there are teachers out there who invest the time to plant these seeds of character into the heads and hearts of students. The other part of it compels me to work to bring more character education to my practice, my self, and to schools, as I believe more character development is sorely needed in today’s schools and communities.