From Small Things

Tukwila was never Mayberry RFD. The student body at Foster High School was never made up of Opie Taylor, Dobie Gillis, Veronica Lodge, Wally Cleaver, Richie Cunningham, Winnie Cooper and Marcia Brady. The demographics were a lot rougher than that. There wasn’t really a “right” side of the tracks in this town.

We were as much underdogs as Bulldogs, fiercely loyal to the tribe and hostile to outsiders… like the Glacier High Grizzlies. And dang if we didn’t outlast them, right?

As John Fogerty sang in “Fortunate Son,” Foster Bulldogs were not born with a silver spoon in hand. As Johnny Cash sang in “Roughneck,” Bulldogs were never expected to amount to much. Charles Dickens did not write Great Expectations about some Foster alumnus. We weren’t sent off to prep schools; we weren’t raised by nannies. If one of us ever matriculated at an Ivy League school, it was literally something to write home about.

And it wasn’t just the students that languished in the shadow of better and brighter stars. South Central Schools were never going to attract the kind of attention that Highline or Seattle did. Rising-star teachers did not dream of teaching in what was then the South Central schools. The district was so small, it sometimes didn’t even warrant mention on the snow-closure lists!

But there are advantages to being the dark horse in the race. Expectations can be a heavy burden. Would you rather be Darrelle Revis or Richard Sherman? Seriously. Would you rather be Johnny Football, or Russell Wilson? Flying under the radar with a chip on your shoulder can be a mighty motivator, and you get to surprise people while having a great time doing it.

So as underdogs who banded together, not unlike the Legion of Boom, we never gave much thought to a fellow student’s race within the school walls. You might have gotten pushed around because you were smart, or little, or young, or too well-off to fit in — or if you transferred in from Tyee. But not if you were black—not if you were Japanese, or Hispanic. For decades, in fact, racial minorities were almost celebrities. In 1976, for example, Myron Moss became the only African American on our football team when he transferred in from out of the district. As his teammates, we couldn’t have been more thrilled. At last, with Myron catching touchdown pass after touchdown pass, we might have a chance of winning a league championship! After a few weeks, Myron couldn’t take it any more. He finally said, “Cut it out, guys. I’m just like you. Just ’cause I’m black doesn’t mean I’m Joe Athlete.”

And yet it’s strange. Over the years, as Tukwila gained attention as one of the most racially and culturally diverse districts in the country, a lot of old-timers started talking about how the neighborhood was going to pot—how the school was just going to be overrun by gangs and thugs and drug dealers.

How short our memories are. Who did we think we were? The Partridge Family singing “Come On, Get Happy”?

One thing is certain: who the Bulldogs were had nothing to with race. It had to do with heart—with students who worked hard, and teachers who went the extra mile. Let me tell you a story that illustrates the point.

Act I starts with a particular student. Not an outstanding or model student. Not even ordinary, really. A little below average, academically. He had a touch of what we know today as dyslexia, so classwork wasn’t really his thing. Neither were extracurricular sports. He went to school, and he went home. Rode his bike and explored the woods with his buddies. He worked. He got a Highline Times paper route when he was ten, and later moved up to deliver The Seattle Times.

One early November evening while his family sat eating split pea soup and pumpkin pie, waiting for him to return home from his after-school paper route, he rode his paper-laden bike out onto 42nd just after dusk. He didn’t see the car coming from his left, and the driver was coming probably a little too fast to see the paperboy crossing the street on his bike.

The paperboy’s bike and left leg were entirely crushed. He was left lying at the side of the road, fifty feet from the point of impact, his forehead laid open and bleeding.

He could just as easily have died that day, but he didn’t. In a way, it was worse. He ended up immobilized in bed for nearly a year.

What kind of a future does a kid like this have? A dyslexic slow learner, now likely crippled and dropping a year behind his peers. Where do we go from here? No—no great expectations. What good can possibly come from Tuwkila?

Act II. Enter teacher, stage left. Not a model teacher either. In fact, a pretty unpopular teacher—one that even today, some 40 years later, certain students still resent, and with cause. But this is where things get interesting. This unlikely candidate for a tutor agrees to help this below-average student keep  up to speed with his classmates. From November through June, he comes to the student’s house after school three days a week.

Act III resolves in a most unexpected way. The tutor becomes a real teacher in that one-on-one mentorship, going on to a long career working with developmentally disabled kids in Washington State. And the paperboy becomes a real student. In fact, he also becomes an athlete. Recovering almost completely from his shattered leg, he becomes a two-year letterman with Mike Huard’s Bulldogs. As a student, he finishes in the top ten of a strong academic class and is widely regarded as the smartest of the bunch.

After leaving Foster, he goes on to graduate from the University of Washington Medical School—and of all things, becomes a surgeon. He has now opened two medical centers in Puyallup and continues to pioneer new techniques for reducing post-surgical pain. As Bruce Springsteen sang, “From small things, mama, big things one day come.”

And if you ask that paperboy’s mama today, she will tell you that accident was the best thing that ever happened to him. It turned his life upside down, and turned it around. A violent encounter with a car sparked the change; and a months-long caring encounter with a very imperfect teacher pointed that boy’s life in a new and vital direction.

It doesn’t matter who that student was, or who that teacher was. The point is this: the dark horses in the race of life can come out on top. The spirit that is within us—whether students or teachers—can lead us to greater things than all we could possibly ask or imagine. Be amazed at what you can become. Be in awe of where you might be going.

About Greg Wright

I have worn many hats as a writer and editor over the years. Unlike my scholarly and journalistic work from the "old days" at Hollywood Jesus, Past the Popcorn, or SeaTac Blog, the writing here is of a more overtly personal and spiritual nature. I hope it provokes you as much as it provokes me.
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One Response to From Small Things

  1. Greg Wright says:

    Drafted to celebrate the 100th Anniversary of Foster High School, my alma mater.

    The student talked about in the essay is my brother Bob.

    The teacher who tutored him is Michael Yurina, who was a Viet Nam vet not long back from the war when he was teaching at Thorndyke Elementary. I spoke with him last week–and though he continued teaching until he was 72, and is quite lucid otherwise, he has no memory of the specifics of teaching at Thorndyke, or of tutoring Bob. He doesn’t even remember Bob. That says a lot about what he was going through personally in those years.

    The poem “Minority Report,” which I wrote a year ago when I heard about plans for a 100th-Anniversary celebration, is a more poetic reflection on what I perceive to be the reality of growing up in Tukwila.

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