I was a young teenager when I first met the Reverend. I walked with my parents through the doors of an old college gymnasium that served as headquarters for his quasi-military school. His presence immediately intimidated me.
He was a Korean War-era U.S. Army veteran turned truant officer and preacher in my tough New Jersey neighborhood. His glare cut through me. I swore this was a man who never knew a day of fear.
When my parents introduced us, his voice boomed a question.
“Do you want to fly, son?” he asked me.
“Yes sir,” I said, my voice catching in my throat.
“Speak up!” he replied. “Quit slouching. Make yourself be heard,” he continued.
“Yes sir,” I said, standing taller.
“Good,” he said, “How are your grades?”
I told him I was not sure.
The Reverend shot back that “not knowing” would not cut it. He laid down his expectations on academics and conduct if I ever wanted to see the front seat of his airplane. “Excellence. Honor. Integrity. Dignity.” These were his exact words. If my dream was to fly, the Reverend made clear that I would have to earn my wings. He became my greatest mentor through my tough adolescent years. He never made it easy.
In his view, three things awaiting a young man like me who was not serious about his education:
The jail. The hospital. The cemetery. Period. Get off the ball court. Turn off the music. Forget the girls. Don’t you dare dream about dealing or doing drugs. Get your head into the books. Nail your butt to chair and keep it there. Learn what you need to so you can make something of your life.
His Army bearing combined with righteous indignation made his powerful voice an unforgettable experience for a shy kid like me. As I grew through my own struggles, our ideas clashed fantastically. Yet I followed his program. Years later, when I accomplished my first solo flight in his small airplane, the Reverend was the first person to shake my hand.
He was my toughest critic. At times, I saw him as my personal nemesis. His lessons in our brief years together shaped the rest of my life. Beneath his tough persona was a man who genuinely cared. In his own brusque way, this man gave me hope that spared me from more peril than even I realized at that tender age.
A decade later, I started a new career in a field that would stretch my skills beyond every previous psychological and emotional limitation. There was no room for error, plus I had to survive training evaluations over a series of years. I had a lot riding on making the cut. By then, I was a very studious person, thanks to the Reverend. I could locate the textbook answer to every scenario. But “making the cut” would require applying this knowledge in a real world environment with real world consequences.
I got far on my booksmarts. Then, I hit “the wall”. This “wall” appeared in two very concrete ways. The first wall was an internal one. Solving real problems meant getting very uncomfortable. I had to open up and make bolder moves. This meant braving the risk of failure, even in a public way. The second wall was an external one.
The person selected to train me was a sheer hulk of a man. I will call him by the nickname “Grizz”. Grizz was taller than me, meaner than me, and unapologetically louder than everyone in the room. One could sense his presence from afar, as much as hear him. Grizz said pointblank that he was going to teach me everything I needed to be successful. He needed me to be receptive and to follow through on his guidance.
Almost immediately, our personalities clashed. I wanted to be perfect, and I found it painful to make mistakes. Grizz had no patience for elegant solutions, and he pushed me hard. I listened to his feedback, yet hated it. To protect my ego, I shut down. It became clear to both of us that I was not progressing.
In a few short weeks, Grizz identified my bad habit: I had the knowledge and was capable of performing, but when it came time to act, I doubted myself. I froze. Too fearful of making a mistake, my inaction turned solvable problems into a huge issues that neither of us could fix.
Once this secret was out, Grizz escalated the pressure on me. He forced me to override my bad habit. It was excruciating for me. I hated every single minute. Yet, it was exactly what I needed.
Grizz knew my potential more than even I knew. He drilled me in the art of effective decision making. Over time, I learned a deeper confidence in myself. To this day, when I freeze up, I hear his voice telling me to dig deeper and to follow through.
We like telling stories about the loving people who inspire us. Those stories come easy for me, especially when that individual was gracious and kind to me. The tough teacher? The harsh critic? That special relationship that can feel adversarial when, deep at heart, two people want the best? I admit that I do not tell their stories enough.
The honesty of a tough teacher can leave us feeling bruised. They get through to us in ways others simply cannot. They propel us to grow beyond what we previously imagined.
I named only two of my tough teachers. There are more stories of similar relationships that were difficult and challenging. These encounters were absolutely essential for who I needed to become. If life gave me the option, I would have chosen differently. Still, I cannot envision who I would be without them. My toughest teachers are the ones who made me “me”.
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