So its 1990, NKOTB were competing with Vanilla Ice for air play, Dances With Wolves was the critics choice in films but Edward Scissorhands had stolen the hearts teen everywhere. My closet was full of Andre Agassi t-shirts, denim overalls and scrunchies. I was 14 and entering grade nine.
I very clearly remember my first day of ninth grade. I was nervous. It was only the third time in my private school career that I was going to have a male teacher...and let's face it the first two male teachers didn't work out so well (one left due to his inability to control a classroom full of 12 year-olds, I have apologized to him since, the other...well...let's just say culture and language were just two of the many struggles he had).
Anyway, I was nervous. I remember entering the classroom, stuffing my over packed canvas backpack into my locker and finding my seat. I barely had a chance to say hello to my friends when a booming voice broke through the chatter.
"Ladies and Gentlemen."
We looked around to see who this guy was talking to. Ladies and Gentlemen? There were no adults in the classroom with us. Then we realized, he was talking to us.
"Ladies and Gentlemen, let's stand for opening exercises."
We stood. We sang O Canada and said The Lord's Prayer, all the while each of us were making our assessments of the new guy. He was tall, he had very long arms and very long hands. He stood like an athlete, on the balls of his feet, ready for action. He wore a tie with ducks on it. Ducks?
Yes, ducks. We would soon learn that Mr. Kennedy had three absolutes in his life - Basketball, Ducks Unlimited and Respect...not necessarily in that order.
He was a basketball coach at heart and everything we needed to know about life could be taught on the basketball court, or so he said. Nearly every lesson had a basketball analogy attached to it and if you didn't love basketball before you met him you did after or you shut up about it. And his favourite team was the Bulls. Nope that's not it, it was the Knicks. Just kidding, Mr. Kennedy...it was the Boston Celtics.
I'm not sure about the whole Ducks Unlimited thing other than I knew more about the conservation of wetlands than I ever wanted to thanks to Mr. Kennedy. And that navy blue duck tie he wore on day one wasn't the only duck prop he had.
And finally, Respect. That grade nine year I learned the definition of respect. Respect for others, respect for authority and most importantly respect for myself. I cannot remember even one time when Mr. Kennedy didn't call me 'Miss Bilcowski.' It set the bar for respect in his classroom. He expected us to respect him enough to be punctual and prepared and he expected us to respect ourselves enough to strive for excellence in every area of our lives.
He was our teacher when necessary but he preferred to be our coach. Showing us the way and then watching us succeed on our own. Playing along side us until we caught the ball and ran with it. He showed us the power of focus and meditating, the necessity of organization and that mistakes are forgivable as long as they are not chronically repeated (if they were you were quickly awarded membership to the 'Book in the Head' club).
He knew that we were capable of more than we thought. He knew that there was a bit of greatness on the inside of each of us and he did whatever it took to prod, shake up and inspire us to grab hold of that greatness and make something of it.
I think about Mr. Kennedy and his lessons all the time. I hope to pass on a tradition of respect and strength to my own children. And I strive to be a coach. And I hope that my own children will experience the tough love of a Mr. Kennedy at least once in their lives.
Thanks Mr. Kennedy, Coach Kennedy...I wouldn't have wanted to learn those lessons any other way.