I went back to my old high school in Saratoga Springs last night, for the first time since 1983. I left there half-way through my senior year to attend Skidmore College and had not been back since. It's really true what they say: buildings from our past get smaller as we get older: the halls were narrower and the ceilings were lower; the murals seemed really tiny. It was an odd and disjointed feeling, to be walking through those spaces that hold a pretty significant part of the story of me. Fortunately I can't remember much of what went on there, and so a kind of warm feeling remains. It felt nice to be there.
I went back to watch my high school tennis coach, Rich Johns, be inducted into the Blue Streaks Hall of Fame. I played #1 doubles on the girl's tennis team with Carol Gant in the early 80s. Truth be told, I kind of sucked at tennis. I loved the sport, but I had no competitive drive whatsoever and I almost always caved under pressure. But I was a part of a very winning team, and I was, I came to understand over time, the luckiest girl in the world to have been coached by Rich. He was incredibly generous with his praise and warmth and worked hard to create a loving, uplifting, inclusive environment around a game we all loved to play. Life-long friendships grew there as a result, as did, for me, a lifetime enjoyment of the sport. I still play, though not very often or well; any one of my three kids can kick my ass on a tennis court any day of the year.
There was, of course, an unspoken understanding that we were there on the tennis team to win, but it really kind of hummed beneath the surface of a much larger narrative that Rich created around being kind and respectful and working hard and loving the game and caring for one another. I didn't know it at the time, but when I looked back from my perch as an adult, to those days as a kid on Rich's team, I understood that what he was doing was showing us how to be decent human beings, and that's no easy task in a world where winning is everything.
The story I share, always, of Rich Johns, didn't take place on a tennis court, though. It happened in a hospital room. In 1987, four years after I left Saratoga High School and Rich's phenomenally successful tennis program, I graduated from college and was promptly plowed under, riding my bike one day, by a speeding car. I went home to Saratoga Hospital that summer, for surgery and recovery, and one of the first people to visit me there was Coach Johns. To this day I have no idea how he knew that I was in the hospital or, really, even how he remembered me, after having been out of touch for the four years I was away at St. Lawrence; I was not that memorable as a tennis player, nor was I much of a stand-out in any other way in high school. I was just another kid trying to get the heck out of there and on with my life.
Rich visited me in the hospital that summer, and, with a new tennis racquet in his hand, strode across the room, laid it down on my bed and said, "This is for when you're back on your feet."
I don't think that Rich could have possibly known how much that meant to me at the time; how hard those days were for me and how much I needed a good incentive to get back on my feet; how incredibly grateful and astounded I was that my high school tennis coach had taken the time to deliver a racquet and a loving challenge to me. It is a moment in time that is seared into my heart. It is a story that tells precisely who Rich Johns is: a humble, thoughtful, generous, loving man, who cared and cares deeply about every single person he's ever coached or taught.
Rich Johns is not a person who travels light through this life; he is in it, participating with full body and heart and mind. He is one of those rare, rare birds who gets it. He did the best he could to teach me a few things about the game of tennis, but more importantly, he believed in me, which taught me to believe in myself. To Rich I was visible at a time in my life when I felt very invisible and insignificant. Coach Johns gave me a gift that has reached far, far beyond the 7200 square feet of a tennis court. He showed and continues to show me what it means to be a graceful human being. I wish there existed a Best of Humanity Hall of Fame. I'd lobby all of my days to have Rich Johns inducted.