Happy Retirement: My Sister Was Born To Teach

IMG951132_copyAs children, while I was still busy beating up the neighborhood boys, my sister was training to be a teacher. With hand-me-down teaching materials from our parents, both educators, she lined up stuffed animals and dolls in front of her chalkboard. Even back then, she never raised her voice. In an old grade book, she recorded only As and Bs making sure that every Connie doll and Teddy bear in her classroom passed with flying colors.

With a soft spot for the underdog, she befriended the child with a limp and made sure the class misfit was included in games. While I was an ornery, hard hitter looking for a fight, Sue, the peacekeeper, inherited an extra kindness gene. Never has a more compassionate soul walked the earth.

As if she couldn’t wait to get started, she graduated a semester early from Illinois State University with a degree in special education. Her first job was so challenging, she questioned her calling, but she didn’t give up. She moved on to Yorkville High School, becoming the first fulltime LD teacher where she dedicated the next 34 years building the special education department, one brick at a time. When she arrived she was the only LD teacher, now nine teachers in her department serve the needs of about 120 students and co teach in 45 classes where they reach additional students. YHS has 4 other special needs programs with another 80 plus students and Sue and her staff sometimes work with those students though they aren’t on their caseloads.

Sue has been honored with Teacher of the Year accolades and the Fox Pride Award but what makes her proudest is hearing about the successes of her former students. And she does find out because her students keep in touch. Several of her students have been inspired to go into teaching.

Most people embrace retirement with open arms; my sister’s heart is torn. If one could put the state testing requirements, curriculum writing, and administrative demands aside, she would remain in education forever. She never really wanted to give up the teaching.

In her magical way, she made every child who felt stupid and hopeless believe that he had something special to offer the world. She unlocked the key to his heart, unscrambled his mind. Then sitting by his side, she taught him tricks to interpret the world in a way that made sense to his brain.

In Sue’s classroom, students never felt uniqueness was a deterrent. She helped dyslexic kids learn to read and ADHD children to understand concepts while on the move. She counseled distraught parents and troubled teens, and won over colleagues and administrators. As a catalyst, she united families, educators and support staff to work together for the best interest of the child. As an advocate, she implemented the best accommodations and individualized education plans to give her students every tool to succeed. She never pampered special needs kids through the program, she merely leveled the playing field and made sure every child in her department was prepared.

IMG_0762_copyAs if preordained, my sister was destined to teach, born with a gift. She set the bar high and served her school with excellence. She earned her rest, yet I imagine she will continue doing what she does best, giving back to her family, friends, church, and community. Though she retired from her position at the head of the class, her legacy continues in students and colleagues and family members whose lives she touched as a teacher.

The greatest proponents of education theorize that kids learn best by modeling behavior. Sue set a shining example, sharing her time, her energy, her wisdom and her heart, not only with her students, but also with the rest of us. She taught each day in a state of grace and went out of her way to make the journey easier for anyone who crossed her path. In her book, we were all special and gifted.

 

Rocking at my First NCAA Final Four

2014-03-20 05.50.16-UWSPI finally made it to an NCAA Final Four, but not as a player or coach. I rocked as the keynote speaker addressing the athletes and coaches from Tufts University, Whitman College, Fairleigh Dickinson University and UW-Whitewater. For today’s athlete to appreciate how much it means, we have to travel back in time.

As a child, I stood, hand on my heart, singing the national anthem, then watching the boys charge down court and praying someone would throw a bad pass, so that I could scoop up that loose ball and fire it back to the official. That was the only game action I saw unless I could convince the boys to let me in their pick up games. Oh, they’d finally let me play if I agreed to go on the “skins” team.

I never fathomed that one day girls would play on center court because when I was a growing up, the medical authorities at the time, believed that if girls played sports their hearts would burst or their ovaries would drop out their bodies.

After Title IX passed in 1972, mandating equal opportunity for girls in education, basketball took me around the globe. Every step of the way I met obstacles.

At Illinois State University, I played for Jill Hutchison, cofounder and1st President of the Women’s Basketball Coaches Association. Hutchison was a part of every rule change in women’s game and her research proved that a woman’s heart wouldn’t explode by running up and down a full court.2014-03-20 04.46.51-UWSP

In the 1st Women’s Professional Basketball League (WBL), we played in empty arenas, and went on strike after months without pay. In the late 70s “a league of their own” was insane, but out of our crazy collective dream we gave birth to the WNBA.

In Europe, I washed my uniform in a bathtub and shopped daily because my refrigerator was the size of school lunch box. Before Internet, my only connection with home was letters that took weeks to arrive.

I battled back from injury to continue competing until a car accident 4,000 miles away from home ended my career. Forget playing ball, I wasn’t sure I’d ever walk again.

How do you deal with those life-changing setbacks? How do you keep your dreams alive after defeat? A championship title is not the only sign of victory.

Today every girl can participate. To my generation, this is our triumph. Our own women’s NCAA Final Four. Though work remains in our fight for equality in women’s sports, our first victory was the RIGHT to even compete.
NCAA final four UWSP-copyNCAA final four UWSP 1-copy

After college, I moved overseas and decades later saw my first college game when my daughter suited up for Coach Shirley Egner at UWSP. I knew we’d made it when I saw a young girl ask my daughter for her autograph.

I wish I could go back to that girl who sat on sidelines praying she could play with the boys, and tell her what it’s like now. That one day girls like her would be celebrated.
That one day women would be doctors, lawyers, and businesswomen. We fought for the right to play ball and in doing so opened doors for our daughters. Though it is unlikely DIII athletes will play professionally, they will have the opportunity to pursue careers in the field of their choice.

I am not famous, just a feisty tomboy who fell in love with basketball as a 5-year-old, and refused to take no for an answer. I spent the 1st half my life fighting for the right to play, the 2nd graciously cheering for others. I wrote Home Sweet Hardwood to bear witness, to give a voice to the silent generation who battled so hard for the rights we have today.

We cannot know who we are if we do not know where we came from. We stand on shoulders of the women who came before us. In women’s basketball, it’s women like Pat Summitt, Tara VanDerveer, C. Vivian Stringer, Sylvia Hatchell, Jill Hutchison, and Kay Yow who paved the way. In my own life, it was my mom and coach.

Today, thanks to Title IX, a girl never grows up questioning her right to be all she can be.

At the NCAA Final Four, I dared athletes to be the first, to refuse to take no for an answer, to stand tall, to be smart. Play hard. Play fair. Play as long as possible. Then pay it forward. Pass it on. Encourage another little girl to chase her dream.2014-03-22 06.52.39-UWSP

Four decades after the passage Title IX, the little girl who grew up on the sideline finally made it to the Big Dance. I kicked my heels up for all women. Raise the roof. Ladies, we have arrived!

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Opportunity to Honor Women Who Shaped Lives

IMG_1387_copyThe worst part about living abroad is that I can never be two places at once. Due to the logistics of a 7-hour time difference and 4000 miles distance, I grieved alone the passing of my grandparents and celebrated solo the accolades that mean little to folks here in Europe. Of course, I know better than most that all of the hardware in the world can’t help you get up and walk again, but after growing up in the shadows, it is humbling to be in the limelight.

I wasn’t there for my induction into the Illinois State University Hall of Fame in 1984 for basketball because I was living in Paris at the time, still recovering from a car accident and caring for a new baby. Nor was I stateside for my induction into the Illinois Coaches Hall of Fame in 2005. But my favorite all time coach, my dad, stepped in for me.

I wasn’t back on campus to receive the highly coveted “I” letter for participating in varsity sports. Prior to 1989, female athletes were not awarded Varsity Letters at ISU. Legendary basketball coach, Jill Hutchison, women’s advocate extraordinaire, righted that wrong. She initiated the Letterwinners’ Recognition Banquet February 8, 2003 to honor female athletes who in early and pre Title IX years never received that honor. Though I wasn’t physically present, my words – a column I wrote about the event -circulated to all the alumni. At the time, I was in my own gym at the International School of Geneva coaching my daughter’s team to their 5th consecutive European International Schools Sport championship.

A part of me feels undeserving of the honor to speak for my generation at an NCAA Final Four. Why me? For years, I stuffed down the ridicule, the snide remarks, the insults and kept dreaming. That little girl scorned is afraid to stand tall and shine. Yet, I will rise to the occasion.IMG_0767_copy

Because ultimately, I wrote Home Sweet Hardwood, not for my own bragging rights, but to pay tribute to the silent generation of women who fought so hard for the privileges we are have today.

Countless times when my spirit was broken, when I felt like giving up, when my legs no longer held me upright, my sisters lifted me to battle on and off the court. If I am triumphant today, it is because of the efforts of the mothers and grandmothers of yesterday. If my daughter rises in glory tomorrow, it will be due to the generations of women who have risen before her in pursuit of their dreams.

Historically, women have taken a back seat. Yet, it is women who have worked so hard behind the scenes to help us reach our goals, beginning with the mothers who believed in us from the day we were born. Pause and pay tribute to the women who guided you. Repeat their names out loud. Make a call, write a letter, send a prayer. Then continue doing what we do best, extending a helping hand, supporting one another, passing it on, and paying it forward.

When I step up to the podium at UWSP, I will speak in the “mother tongue” of our ancestors, representing those who came before us, honoring those who sacrificed in the past to create the opportunities we enjoy today.

Coach Hutchinson, coach Egner & Nat_copy

Jill Hutchison, Shirley Egner, Nathalie Lechault
3 generations of fighting women

Thank you: Sue Westphal, Karen Carlson, Betty McKinzie, Martha Olson, Lenore McKinzie, Jill Hutchison, Linda Herman, Shirley Egner, Nancy Lo Patin, Pat Summitt, Vivian Stringer, Kay Yow…

 

 

 

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Mix a French Printer and an American Writer and Watch the Fireworks Explode

IMG_4003_copyAfter 30 years, ze Frenchman said, “I am so sick of hearing about the damn book, publish it yourself.”

So I brushed off the dust of a manuscript I had worked on with 3 agents and a dozen different editors and started over again. Long before I felt that the 88th edition was ready, my other half gave me an ultimatum, “Now or never!”

Unite a pragmatic, logical, French, feet-on-the-ground-no-nonsense-businessman and a flighty, idealistic, touchy-feely artsy American writer and then watch the fireworks! I live in my dreams. He worries about reality – about spaces, margins, and quality of images.

Ze Frenchman, a CEO in printing, formerly headed a French book printing company; now he manages newspapers in Switzerland on a 24-hour deadline. However, I have worked on this memoir nearly half a century changing the content according to the whims of a regiment of editors.

“I hate WORD (the computer program)!”  I hear ze Frenchman scream from our attic office.

Ze American loves words. I am driven by words. Do they dance across the page delighting the reader?

“If your cover doesn’t catch the eye, no one will open your book.”

I worry about content; he focuses on form.

Meanwhile the website crashes. Spammers from outer space invaded the blog. Drafts are lost in cyberspace.

“Putain, vérole, bordel de merde!” he yells enriching my French vocabulary.

I learn new curse word every time something goes wrong upstairs in the attic. I jump, fearing his foot, slammed so hard, will smash through the floorboards.

What in the heck were we thinking publish a book? He wants it to be done; I want it to be perfect.IMG_3961_copy

His reputation is not at stake, he is the loving husband who endured three decades of his wife’s eccentricities: writer’s block, creative outbursts, artist angst.

I want to reread, revise, re edit, resubmit. The Frenchman says, “Non! Stop!”

I press forward, trying to sneak in one more rewrite quickly, so the Boss will get off my back! Fine for him to say “Just Do It,” he’s not the one standing on the high dive with acrophobia!

There is no hand holding, no coddling, no ego stroking, back patting, confidence boosting. It is just YOU and your idea flying solo through the universe on a wing and a prayer. Self-doubt is your sidekick.

I second-guess myself on every sentence. My English language fluency regresses daily. I live in a country with four national languages – none of which are English -and work in an international school where students speak in 84 different mother tongues.

Ze Frenchman adds a comma. I take it out. He questions the origins of a word. “You can’t use that word in English. It’s French.”

“No it is not.”

“Yes it is.”

We race to our respective language dictionaries.

“It’s not in Webster’s,” I lament.

“It is not in the French dictionary either. You can’t make up words with nice rhythms, just so they can dance!”

Oh la la…how is a marriage to survive.

What was I thinking?  Write a book.

Ta da boom! Three decades later, longer than it took to raise our doctor daughter, my dream, -his nightmare- takes shape.

Together we created a book baby, Home Sweet Hardwood, A Title IX Trailblazer Breaks Barriers Through Basketball. I hope that my story inspires readers of all ages to never give up on their dreams. He hopes that after publication, I will quit writing.

I could never, ever have attempted to publish a book without my techie sidekick, to whom I am forever grateful for standing by me.

What advice would ze Frenchman offer anyone embarking on such an all-consuming endeavor?

“Never marry a writer!  Especially an American!”

 

 

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“Olympic” Moms Teach Us To Get Up

first stepsFrom the moment a baby takes its first step, a mom’s heart is torn. With one hand, Mom beckons her toddler forward, while the other hand lingers behind ready to catch the fall. In the push-pull of motherhood, moms encourage children to step up to the next challenge, while longing to hold them back in the warm, safe, cocoon of unconditional love, knowing full well the world will never be so nonjudgmental and forgiving.

My mom cringed each time I got knocked flat playing sports. After every concussion, broken bone, and heart wrenching disappointment, never did she suggest that I should give up the game I love.

In turn, when the time came, I perched on the edge of a hard bleacher – my heart was lodged in my throat each time my child hit the hardwood. Yet, I continued to drive my kids to and from practices and games, doctors and chiropractors.

My daughter, long and lean, had so many injuries during her career that she received birthday cards from the urgent care center. From the time my hyperactive son’s feet hit the floor, he ran recklessly, slicing open his hand before the age of two, splitting his head as a 4-year-old.roller skate

Sprained ankles, twisted knees, separated ribs, compressed vertebrae, broken fingers. During my son’s ankle surgery in the middle of the night, I lay awake worrying about the long-term effect of a growth plate break in early adolescence. Would his right leg be shorter than the left one?

A shattered finger. A bruised rib. A broken dream. An ice pack, a back rub, a favorite meal. Moms know instinctively how to comfort, to console, to care.

After every setback, I cheered. “Go ahead try out”… for the team, the band, the play, the scholarship, the job.

“What if I don’t make it, Mom?”

“Don’t worry. There will be another game, performance, employment. Don’t give up.”

Very few kids will stand on an Olympic podium, but whether they play sports or put their energy into other interests, our children will be stronger for having given it their best shot.

Life will knock them on their butts. More than once. The greatest lesson a parent can impart is, « Get back up!”

When children need the extra oomph to rise after those discouraging losses, thwarted goals, career-ending injuries, Mom will be there with a helping hand, a kind word, and a chocolate cookie.

My dad taught me how to throw a ball and shoot a basket, but Mom was the one who listened to my fears, wiped away my tears and encouraged me to follow my dream. I’d apologize for unloading my problems, but after teaching all day, my strong Norwegian-American mom would point to her back and say, “I can carry the weight. God gave me broad shoulders.”

We all stand on shoulders of the women who brought us into the world.

And every mother knows there is an « Olympian » in each child, then coaches it out of them.

“This remind me of you,” my daughter posted on social media acknowledging that strength passed on from one generation to the next

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=57e4t-fhXDs

Thanks, Mom. For teaching us that falling only makes us stronger.

Congratulations to all the competitors at the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympic Games!

And to the moms that picked them up every step of the way.cross country skiing Jura

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In High School Basketball Friendship Wins, Cancer Loses

I spent the first half of my life fighting to be allowed on the court and the second half learning to graciously cheer for others when I could no longer play the game I loved.

ISG teamEven though I can’t drive the baseline anymore, I get a kick out of seeing the players I coach at the International School of Geneva make a perfect pass, hit a jumper, and run a fast break.

Teamwork is a beautiful thing. I love watching well-balanced WNBA teams like the Minnesota Lynx run the floor or the precise passing of the UWSP college women. None of that coast-to-coast garbage.

But high school basketball is best. Players put their heart and soul on the line every week in front of the family, friends and community that shaped them. They play, not for money, or prestige, but for the camaraderie and love of the game. Most of these young athletes won’t make the college roster; even fewer will sign a pro contract. But the lessons learned on the hardwood during their chaotic, fleeting adolescence last forever.

Not a day goes by where I don’t wish I could still play basketball; not a minute passes where I don’t forget how lucky I am to be here wishing just that, because I could very well be 6 feet under. I am grateful to be in the game even if only from the sidelines. I love giving halftime talks, drawing up last second plays, and encouraging kids to gut it out in tough circumstances.

If I ever forget the gift of “overtime” on my own game clock, a twinge in my back, an ache in my shoulder, or a pain in my skull – repercussions from my accident – remind me of the other option. Life took on new meaning after I came so close to losing mine.

Fortunately, rarely is a young athlete confronted with his/her mortality.

Some win. Some lose. Some survive. Some die. Cancer, a formidable foe, strikes down opponents indiscriminately, but the loss is particularly painful when the disease steals the life of a child.

Hopefully most teenagers won’t be confronted with cancer, but they have all faced hard times which were made easier with the support of that special parent, sibling, aunt, uncle, teacher, coach or friend. When an innovative basketball coach at Bishop McGuinness High School in Greensboro suggested that his players dedicate the game to someone who had influenced their lives, he never expected his idea to go global.

One of his players, Spencer Wilson dedicated his game ball to an inspirational friend on the cancer ward, Josh Rominger.

On January 24th in that North Carolinian gym filled to capacity, a boy made a 50-foot last second shot to win the game in memory of a friend and found the courage to carry on.

Sooner or later, we will be faced with those defining moments when our best laid plans and deepest hopes are derailed by injury, illness, accidents and unforeseen disaster. Do we give up or go on?

We get one chance. To give it our best shot. To dedicate our game.

Bad stuff happens. So do miracles.

Friendship is eternal.

Keep fighting.

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Swiss Champions U21 – June 2008
Christoph Varidel,Paul Costello, Nicolas Lechault, Michael Shumbusho, Alex Gromadski

Together.

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Congratulations, Debbie! Your name was selected in a random drawing of commenters to receive a copy of my memoir, Home Sweet Hardwood: A Title IX Trailblazer Breaks Barriers Through Basketball.

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