Do you remember the best day in your history? I do! In the midst of being an “at-risk” student and having the self-esteem of a slug, I was making one bad decision after another until I ended up sitting in the principal’s office facing suspension. And that, my friends, was the best day in my history because that’s the day I discovered the ultimate key to success and happiness: Live It Forward.
Kent Julian – The Early Years
In elementary school, I was a loser and I knew it. It’s not as though I was depressed or unhappy; I was one of those nice kids that got along with everyone. However, I did struggle. Academically, I had a significant speech impediment and could not pronounce the sounds associated with the letters “f, g, j, k, l, r, v, s, z, ch, sh, th, and related consonant blends.” Additionally, by the time I reached third grade, my teacher had a private conference with my parents and asked how I had passed the previous grades without being able to read. Simply put, I wasn’t the sharpest tack in the box.
Physically, I wasn’t much to look at either. I was short, chubby, and wore Tough Skin Jeans. (You probably have no idea what Tough Skin Jeans are, so just think of the dorkiest pair of pants a kid could wear, and that’s what I had plastered on my chunky little body.)
But what was most difficult for me was my lack of athletic ability. I loved sports, but my arms and legs never supported that passion. Let’s just say when it came time to choose teams for kick ball, I prayed not to be picked last. That way, at least I knew I wasn’t the biggest loser on the playground.
Bottom line . . . the word “confident” was not in my vocab.
When I hit middle school I grew, so fast, in fact, that by the beginning of eighth grade I was almost as tall as I am now. Along with this growth spurt came some athletic ability, not a ton, but enough that I decided to try out for the middle school basketball team in seventh grade. Jim Vaught, the middle school coach, decided to keep 15 players that year. When he met with me, he told me I was the last person to make the team. The conversation was not an aren’t-you-lucky speech, but more of an I believe-in-you chat. He told me I probably wouldn’t see a ton of playing time, but if I worked hard, next year could be a different story. To be honest, I wasn’t really listening; I was just thrilled to make the team. In my mind I would never be a real athlete, so just being associated with jocks was a step up from my loser status. I still wasn’t confident, but at least now, I could fake like I was.
During the season, I made a major personal mistake; something that to this day I am still ashamed of doing. The details aren’t necessary; just know, it was major! When Mr. Vaught called me into his office to confront me about my alleged transgression, I had no idea I had been caught. When he dropped the bomb, I was devastated. The mistake was bad enough, but at that moment I realized my parents, my teachers, and a basketball coach who believed in me were all disappointed. All the confidence that was budding within me was cut short.
Or was it?
Mr. Vaught helped turn a potentially devastating situation into a positive watershed moment in my life. He was firm. He was even disappointed. Yet he still believed in me. I could sense it. I saw it in his eyes and heard it in his words. Even in the midst of saying some very hard things to me, I knew he believed I was a special kid with a special future. He clearly communicated that my tomorrow did not need to be created from my yesterday; that my future was still in the future. He challenged me to own up to my mistake, seek forgiveness, learn from it, and move on.
At the end of the season, Mr. Vaught pulled me aside for another chat. The incident had happened only a few weeks earlier, so I had been avoiding Coach. I’d see him in math class and at basketball practice, but always kept my distance. So at first, when he wanted to talk I was afraid he was going to rehash my mistake. Instead, all he said was, “Kent, I think you could get significant playing time next year if you work hard this summer. I really do!” When next year rolled around, not only was I starting, I led the team in scoring.
At the awards ceremony, Mr. Vaught stood in front of a packed gym and said something along these lines: “I want to recognize Kent Julian. Last year he was the last person picked for the team. This summer he dedicated himself to practicing four to five hours a day. Because of his efforts, he was our most improved player, our leading scorer, and our most valuable player.”
Nice words, huh? Almost thirty years later, I have a hard time writing them without getting choked up. But honestly, Jim Vaught left out one, very important detail. I accomplished those things because he believed in me. If he had handled my watershed moment any differently, those words would have never been uttered, at least not about me. My relationship with Mr. Vaught—a teacher and coach who saw me at my very worst, yet chose to believe in my absolute best—was what inspired me. Because he believed in me, I started to believe. And it didn’t just affect my basketball skills, confidence spilled over into other areas of my life as well.