By Tim McGrath
We all need people in our corner, our own personal cheerleaders. Take Weiner, for example. As the story goes, Weiner was in the outfield. He was having a rough time shagging fly balls, high pop-ups, and those sneaky bouncing grounders that go every which way. As one who played his share of right field in my earlier years, I could relate to Weiner’s plight. It all just seems to compound the more you play. One flub leads to another, then three more. Confidence flies out the window, knees go wobbly, mouth dries, time stands still. Just you and that stinking little ball.
According to the storyteller, a high fly was headed Weiner’s way. I imagine as the reality of what was happening dawned on Weiner, the sight of the little white orb hurtling in a high arc his way created some performance anxiety, given the past issues. As the ball headed in Weiner’s direction, a collective gasp rose from the crowd, each holding their breath. All seated in the bleachers knew the chances of a botched effort were a stark possibility. In silence they watched the ball heading toward Weiner, hoping against hope. Just then, as the ball reached its zenith, a clarion call rang out loud and true, “Weiner, catch the ball!” It was Weiner’s mom.
I’d like to think this had a wonderfully happy ending: Weiner snagging the ball for the final out, his teammates swarming him, lifting him high in the air, the beginning of a new and wonderful chapter in his life. Truth is, the storyteller couldn’t remember what happened. The shock of Weiner’s mom yelling in support of the little fella was all that remained. A little disappointing, I know. We all want those happily-ever-afters.
The happy ending isn’t the point of the whole thing, of course. The very act of someone in Weiner’s corner encouraging him, cheering him on, in spite of the outcome- that’s the point. Many of us have lived these moments of high drama that mirror little Weiner’s. Maybe it was a parent, coach, teacher, or friend that stood behind us, yelling encouragement in our direction just when it was needed most. I’d also wager those moments are quite unforgettable.
Perhaps, even life changing….
“He’s definitely college material,” Mrs. Koets, my second-grade teacher, told Mom at parent teacher conferences one spring afternoon. This was big stuff for her, as I heard it repeatedly throughout the next ten years of schooling. I didn’t give it much thought, really. I wanted to be a cigar chomping Marine like Sgt. Rock, my comic book hero. That is, until the Vietnam War came along, and the glory of battle looked a lot different than the comic book version. I thought being a scientist would be kind of cool; perhaps a marine biologist, or forest ranger. At any rate, being college material wasn’t much I dwelt on. By late high school, though, a little bell tinkled in my head asking, “just what are you going to do once this whole high school thing is finished?”
I was no student, in spite of what Mrs. Koets told Mom all that long time ago. I don’t remember taking books home to study for the big test, or writing those important term papers. Guess I got most of what I needed to do finished in class or study hall. At any rate, I graduated somewhere in the middle of my high school class. Good enough.
My college career at Calvin College commenced that fall. Didn’t take long to figure out I was in the deep end, with absolutely no understanding of what I was doing. I wondered what Mrs. Koets would think of her little “college material” kid now? Even registering for classes was a nightmare. Back then, you were assigned a time to go to the fieldhouse where tables were set up and professors of the various courses were located. You’d go up to the table, ask to register for such-and-such a class. They’d OK it, or not, depending on whether it was full. If you lucked out, all your classes were still available, and they’d fit nice and tidy-like into a workable schedule. I had no knowledge of such things. And, I was the very last group to register on the last day of registration. By the time I got to register, many classes were full. By some bit of good fortune, though, an upperclassman saw me wandering aimlessly from one table in the fieldhouse to the next. It was painfully obvious I needed some help. I was trying to sign up for all the wrong classes only to be told they were for upperclassmen; what’s wrong with you? He took me aside and showed how to block out classes that were 100 – level core classes, the ones all freshmen take. Even escorted me to the various tables and got me signed up so I had a workable schedule.
That’s when he said,” Uh, oh. You’ve got Tiemersma for English 100. Good luck, man. You’re going to need it. I’ve got to go. See you around, maybe…”. Well, I just might need good luck, but at that point having a jigsaw puzzle schedule of classes that actually fit together was all I cared about. Tiemersma will just have to wait until…, let’s see…, next Monday, Wednesday, Friday from 9:00 until 9:50.
English 100. Composition and grammar. A strict core requirement for all students, usually taken in the freshman year. Pass this class and you’re handed the keys to the kingdom. Failure is not an option, there’s no remedial English, this is it. Trouble was, I really didn’t know much about either composition or grammar. What composition and grammar I did know came from elementary school days and eighth grade English class – a lifetime ago. I suppose I’d had some kind of composition and grammar in high school, yet most of what I remember about high school English involved finding “the deeper meaning” in literature. Always about “the deeper meaning”.
Monday morning, first day of classes. I’d just come from my eight o’clock, Chemistry 151, where we were told make sure you’ve got a slide rule for lab this Thursday. Slide rule? Isn’t that one of those weird little ruler things? Bet they might have them at Kmart; guess I’ll have to check it out. Now it was nine o’clock, the time of reckoning – English 100, and the dreaded Tiemersma. I finally found the room, wandered in, settled into my seat, front and center of the lectern – the only seat left in the place. Seemingly from out of nowhere, in swooped Dr. Richard Tiemersma. Tall, gangly, bespectacled. Rumpled suit, battered brown leather briefcase, deep intimidating voice. Not one to be trifled with.
“Your first composition will be due one week from today; late work will not be accepted. Three to five pages. In addition, please read chapters one through three in your Composition and Grammar text for next class. Be ready to discuss – participation is required.” OK, got it.
My graded composition was the last in the pile he passed out during class the following week. Red marks everywhere. More red marks than writing. Question marks, arrows pointing every which way, insert marks, cross outs. Then, at the bottom, double circled in red, “D”. Scrawled underneath: “lack of idea development, organization, poor grammatical structures. College-level papers must always be typed – double-spaced, NOT handwritten and torn from spiral bound notebook. Very poor work!”
This scene repeated itself the next two papers, except I did type them: double-spaced, of course. The third paper received a “D+”, so there’s that. In addition to the blazing critique, the words ``please see me” were written in a somewhat gentler hand under the rest of the vitriol. After class I cautiously approached the feared man, and handed him my latest failed effort. “Come with me,” was all he said.
I didn’t realize it at the time but it was the beginning of something quite remarkable. Each week, I’d wander into Dr. Tiemersma’s office for several hours of intensive work developing my composition and grammar skills. He carefully coached, tutored, cajoled, and ranted, all the while chain smoking Alpine cigarettes. And, never once, did he question my ability or intelligence. That’s when the turnaround began.
Slowly, oh so slowly, the “D” became a “C-“, then “C+”. By the time the semester came to an end, I got a “B-“on the final paper. All it said at the bottom was “Better”. The whole composition and grammar thing was finally beginning to make sense. I don’t remember what my final grade in English 100 was, yet I passed. I’ll take it.
As the next few years raced by, I’d become a confident, mostly successful college student – a far cry from those initial disasters. From time to time I’d see Dr. Tiemersma still swooping from one place to another, battered leather briefcase swinging jauntily at his side. I think it was my senior year when I saw him stopped outside a classroom admiring some recently added artwork. I had to tell him.
“Hi, Dr. Tiemersma, good afternoon; do you remember me?” He turned, eyeing me carefully.
“Why, of course, Mr. McGrath. How are things faring for you in our hallowed halls?”
“Very well, sir. I’m in my senior year now. Believe it or not, I’m going to be a teacher! I just have my student teaching to finish. When I saw you standing here, I knew I needed to stop and thank you for your help when I was a freshman in English 100. If it hadn’t been for you, I don’t know what I would have done. So, thank you for your patience and encouragement. It was exactly what I needed. What I’d like to know, though, is why did you spend so much time with me when it was obvious from the start I was far below the rest of the class?”
“I do remember our sessions that semester. I also recall the extraordinary progress you made in those weeks. It was a delight for me to witness. So, the simple answer, Mr. McGrath, is you are college material, and you just needed someone to illuminate the way.”
7/1/2021 10:40:39 am
Hi Tim, I enjoyed reading that. You have quite the memory and the way with words. My daughter just met with her Calvin advisor yesterday to pick out her freshman classes. Things are much different now, but I’m confident she’ll have someone there in her corner cheering her on as we will from home.
7/1/2021 01:46:56 pm
Hey, Tim. Glad you kept shagging those pop ups in the outfield! Wish more of us had that perseverance.
7/1/2021 02:15:06 pm
Wow Tim, I so enjoyed reading that! You truly do have a gift with words and the way you put them together… thanks for sharing that gift with others!
7/4/2021 09:21:54 am
Tim, what a beautiful story. As a teacher myself, I could see myself as you the student and then how I've impacted some of my own students. My English teacher, Mrs. Granata, Hastings High School was my encourager. I wasn't ever particularly into reading and writing until her. I was too busy surviving. But, then she wrote me a not "To sweet Katie who sees within" written with a red A circled on a poem I had written to an assignment we had after reading Odeipus. She helped me understand that I could express what was going on and touch others through my writing.
7/5/2021 02:25:52 pm
7/7/2021 01:06:33 pm
Such a great read, Tim. This really took me back to freshman year at Grand Valley, jogging my memory that someone gave me a few pointers, also, when signing up for classes. Amazing, isn't it, that a random person taking a little time with a stranger can have such a profound effect. I also had a scary, wonderful teacher who took extra time with me and that made all the difference. Thanks for reminding me of an extraordinary time in my life with your wonderful essay.
7/7/2021 02:16:32 pm
Each of us has others in our past who have encouraged or inspired us.
7/8/2021 02:39:45 pm
Thanks for a wonderfully emotional read.
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