During our first visit to GMU, one of my juniors was paired up in Public Forum Debate with a student from another area school (a hybrid entry). Because of an incident that took place that Friday (the day before the tournament), my student decided to quit the competition and head back to Florida ... with his mother's approval (she booked his flight and limo ride to the airport) ... while at the same time refusing to give the partner he ditched any of the research or cases he had on his computer. (He refused to give this information up despite my insistence he do so.)
With the non-Wellington debater in tears, I told her I would talk to Peter and we would try to come up with some sort of solution. I had never met him, but knew his reputation as a student-first debate coach from his days in the School District of Palm Beach County 30+ years before. When final registration opened that night, I approached Peter and explained the situation. Without hesitation, he offered a variety of options to solve the problem, including letting her switch events, allowing another student to partner with her from a different event, finding another partner for her if we couldn't find her one, or even letting her "maverick" (debate solo) in PFD.
"She will compete," he told me.
This last-minute flexibility, to ensure a student who dropped around $400 for a weekend in the nation's capital would participate, blew me away. At that point, I had been coaching maybe half a dozen years, and had never encountered a more pro-student coach. I was just hoping some sort of resolve could be achieved; after all, it would have been real easy for him (or anyone trying to finalize a major national tournament) to say, "Look, the tourney starts in 10 hours, there's no way we can accommodate such changes last-minute."
But he didn't do that. Instead, he bent over backwards to ensure she would have as positive an experience as possible.
I looked at Peter after we had resolved the issue and told him, "You have me for life."
(Sidebar: she did compete, with a student from a third school, and both represented Wellington on stage to receive recognition for advancing to tournament break rounds ... despite having to put together research and cases from scratch between midnight and 3 am in my hotel room ... and despite her new partner having never done PFD before that tournament.)
So for six years now, Wellington has attended GMU. We've had many successes, peppered with a few moments that made me question whether to remain in teaching, let alone coaching, let alone my sanity ... but for the most part, it's been a good run.
In 2012, Peter invited me to assist in the debate/congress tabulation room, which I accepted. This year, with a virtually novice crew, I was excited about the experience our students would receive, helping to bridge a vibrant past with a solid-looking future. But even I was not prepared for what would be, for me, one of the most amazing highlights of my 14+ year debate coaching career.
At the end of the GMU tournament awards ceremony Sunday night, Peter recognized five new Patriot Games "Mason Mentors," an honor bestowed upon by him to debate coaches he respects for their work ethic, their dedication to debate and student achievement, and their positive impact on the forensic community as a whole. The list of past recipients reads like a "who's who" of debate coaching: Tony Figliola (Holy Ghost Prep, PA), Tom Durkin (Loyola-Blakefield, MD), David Yastremski (Ridge, NJ), Steve Medoff (Pennsbury, PA), Harry Strong (Des Moines Roosevelt, IA), Mary Schick (Krop, FL), Beth Goldman (Taravella, FL), Michael Vigars (Trinity Prep, FL), Alexandra Sencer (Lake Mary Prep, FL), Steve Meadows (Danville, KY), Robert Sheard (Durham Academy, NC), Bro. Kevin Tidd (Delbarton School, NJ), and Kristie Taylor (Jupiter, FL), are just a few of the amazing coaches who have been recognized as Mason Mentors. Many are individuals Peter has known for decades; all are known nationally as coaches who put student needs and achievements above their own interests.
On Sunday night, I was honored to have my name added to the impressive list of coaches past and present who are Mason Mentors.
I am humbled beyond belief by the accolade. Writing this commentary is extremely difficult for me, because i have never been one to tout my professional or personal successes. When I was recognized as Florida Forensic League Coach of the Year in 2012, I think I included the honor as a pseudo-afterthought in my email about that year's FFL Varsity State results. Because it's never been about me, it's about the students, and how to ensure they have the best possible positive opportunities for knowledge and success.
In Peter's comments to the large audience leading into the announcement (and I wish I had a video recording of it!), he spoke of his experiences in Palm Beach with former Twin Lakes/Wellington coach Dale McCall, and the close association they had in the local debate community. He spoke of her building a nationally-recognized program, and how difficult it is to maintain that program after a successful coach leaves that leadership position. And that since taking over the Wellington program in 2002, I have strived to provide a successful learning opportunity for my students, both locally and nationally. He described me as "modest" (which I am) and "quiet" (which implies he may need to get to know me a bit better).
I now have a nice miniature bust of George Mason in my classroom, next to my engraved 2012 FFLCOY vase. But more importantly, this represents a total team effort. While I may have received recognition for my dedication to the forensic arts, I could never have achieved this without the proactive involvement of current and former debaters, their families, administration, and fellow debate coaches. Thank you for believing in me, as I believe in you :)