Abraham Lincoln once penned a note to the world regarding his young son beginning school: “Teach him, gently, World, but don’t coddle him, because only the test of fire makes fine steel.” I am grateful to have had the Merrimack Youth Association, travel soccer leagues, and truly incredible coaches from recreation straight through college. But in high school, I believe, is where Lincoln’s “test of fire” burned brightest.
Laurie Rothhaus and Joe Raycraft, even now 25 years after they were our coaches, provided a barometer for hardwork, character, and teamwork on the field of life. There were times, we truly believed they were the toughest people we knew, maybe just one step away from ruthless military leaders– the way they pushed us to be better students, better athletes, and better people of the world. Mr. Raycraft did not always make us feel good about ourselves or our decisions; but that was not his job. His job was to build a tough team (in this case it was basketball, but he also coached varsity football and softball), complete with offense and defense, and players who were fit, maintained part time jobs and grades, and worked to individual potential. We later felt good about ourselves because he drilled us to problem solve, make better choices, prioritize for survival. He was not just coaching for the win; he was preparing us for the rest of our lives. When that man told you you did a good job– or better yet, when he slapped you hard on the back, or when he actually smiled, he undoubtedly made us believe in our own strength, our convictions, and our competence. Half- assed effort wasn’t worth praise; half- hearted attempts at running line drills earned you only more line drills; early on it wasn’t clear whether he cared about us as people at all. But he did. We knew it at a fundamental level in our hearts because he had no tolerance for poor attitudes. He cared about the kinds of adults we would grow into. Would we be the kind who avoided difficult tasks? Would we be the kind to avoid challenging people? Would we handle failure badly? Would failure make us stronger?
Mrs. Rothhaus coached soccer and taught health, so we had to see her in the hallways and at practice. She had her pulse on everything in that building of 1100 students at the time. How she knew what was happening in every grade astounded us. In four years, she went from the scariest person in my life to the one I most revered. I didn’t worry about my parents finding out if I had been in trouble at school; I worried about Coach finding out and blasting me in front of my teammates or friends in the locker room. Therefore, I did not get in trouble. Private conversations did not exist in her world, but I watched her listen to girls who sought her ears for advice or shoulders to cry on when she hired me to paint her fence or watch her three kids. When my own dad lost his job my sophomore year, the school told me that I couldn’t start playing soccer again (it was preseason double sessions) until my health insurance was worked out. Coach was the one who helped my mom and dad figure out the school insurance so that my younger brother and I would not be kept on the sidelines. When I had a high school boyfriend for a few months, she was the one who came right out in the open and asked if we were being smart or stupid. Momentarily blindsided by her question, she took my pause to be my answer and shook my shoulders right there in the hallway and said, “You are a smart girl, so don’t be stupid.” I’ll never forget that.
She invited us into her home and continued to ask the hard questions, even in college, even after college when we had our first jobs but sometimes remained tethered to boys’ hearts who did not feel the same way. Her lessons to us then was that we needed to be able to adjust, to change, to go with the flow even when things didn’t go our way. She warned us that being strong women meant that life would always challenge us because we could handle it; we had independent minds, powerful bodies, and courageous beliefs to make a difference. She made us believe we were forces of nature, who had disciplined ourselves to never give up no matter how tough the opponent; to maintain a positive attitude publicly at all times–even, and especially, in the face of defeat; to demonstrate sportsmanship, integrity, and confidence. And if we could do this in high school, that no matter what life dealt us after 1993, we had the tools we needed to not only to survive, but to thrive.
So, thank you, Coach Raycraft and Coach Rothhaus, for testing our adolescence with a whole lot of fire. And thank you to all coaches who temper gentleness with toughness in search of the fine balance which can make all the difference. Mostly, thank you for those lessons in failure and not being accepted right away– or for having to work harder to earn a sought after position. Even though the Connecticut College Admissions office would not hire me on as a tour guide (still a ridiculous decision as it was the one job I really believed I was qualified for), we learned as kids to move beyond failure for what comes next. Like F. Scott Fitzgerald writes at the end of The Great Gatsby, “So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”