Life experience and balance.

Finding balance as a high school student can be difficult — then life hits and priorities change.

I am always struck by students who are so committed to their education, or academic progress, that they are willing to make a tremendous personal sacrifice, of time and energy. They are incredibly focused. Maybe you were you like that in school? I was just happy to have friends in class and to pass my classes. Really!

High school students came through my doors and some gave their best and others gave a little. Dedicated to academics, sports, and other activities requires a high level of commitment and passion. Tenacity, courage, grit — all great qualities to have as a Marine, a boxer or a student in high school. These are not qualities taught in schools; they come to us through events, situations, tragedies. All of which are very personal experiences.

It is through experiences that we are forged— they shape us. We have a choice to allow those experiences to define us or teach us and guide us. Students that can endure taking on studies, sports and a myriad of activities bear a lot of weight. It is a delicate balance. I often question that balance and struggle with what we ask of our students. That balance presents itself differently for different students. I saw students take on multiple AP classes, sports, leadership, band, and other college application-building activities, only to have the parent ask me —“aren’t they doing too much?” My answer was often, “yes.” I also saw students balance a heavy academic load and work part-time jobs. That balance can tip sometimes and priorities can get out of balance.

We all want children to be successful in life. The qualities that make people successful are often not learned by completing an assignment. Finishing the task, completing the journey and working towards the college degree is of higher value than the degree itself, in my opinion. The journey getting there, the bumps, the missteps, the enduring of an unexpected tragedy, they have a higher value than any assignment I ever gave.

If I were to pull all the stories together from my US History Advanced Placement classes and provide a common theme to them, it would be — going the extra mile, and raising up to expectations. It was an exceptional group of learners that year; they looked out for each other, they studied together, they laughed together and supported each other.

Genny had a smile that was larger than life itself. She was involved in nearly everything she could be: leadership, basketball, volleyball, advanced placement classes, just to name a few. She worked hard, and I don’t think it was ever easy for her, but it was apparent she was learning. She was determined to succeed in all she did.

She reminds me of this quote from the editor of the Saturday Evening Post, George Lorimer, when he said — “you’ve got to get up every morning with determination if you’re going to go to bed with satisfaction.”

I have no doubt on most nights she was tired.

It was May and the day of the USAP exam when Genny walked into my room. — “O my gosh Calabrese! I am so nervous.” She was talking fast, and I was trying to keep up. I could see she was nervous, pale, maybe even sweating. She said she had stayed up late studying. Sleep and rest help a brain to function more than the last bits of information from staying up late studying. As she talked, she mentioned not feeling well. I responded, “Genny you do not look well.” Knowing her mom was a nurse I asked her,  “Does your mom know you don’t feel well?” She passed it off as being nervous. She then said her side hurt. I began to ask more questions as I pushed more than normal because something was just not right. Genny was not herself. I remember telling her, “let’s go to the office and let’s see if we can get your temperature and call your mom.” Genny protested “but the AP exam, I cannot miss it.” I answered, “Really? You are more important than a test.” Together we walked up to the office.

Genny was admitted to a hospital that day having emergency surgery within an hour of arriving. My wife and I went to visit her the next day. She was surprised to see us, and we were grateful to see how well she was doing. Genny had a blockage that was resolved through surgery. She was disappointed she missed the test. I was relieved she was okay.

Looking at the situation from Genny’s perspective at the time, I could understand why she would be disappointed—all that work, studying, writing essays and taking tests. She didn’t have a chance to prove to herself and to others that she could do it. I agree with all of these reasons; however, now looking back on it, Genny learned perseverance. Her health was far more critical then the test and the skills learned in the class were still valuable. Unexpected events come out of nowhere, and they can knock us off our feet. It is during the storm that we show our courage and resiliency not when the wind is calm. Genny showed incredible resilience and courage. She recovered and was back at school. Her spirit was not broken, but her priorities did seem to change. Life was more precious to her and understandably so. Assignments were still important; however, Genny seemed to put herself and her relationships first. As they should be.

I wonder now how Genny sees it now?

Here is Genny’s side of the story:

Applying for colleges, playing varsity sports, leadership activities, part-time jobs, and AP classes were the focus of my junior year. The pressure was on as my friends and I floated ideas about where we wanted to go to college and what we wanted to major in. It was a year I faced personal challenges both academically and physically, and a year that forced me to grow up faster than I could have ever imagined.

Mr. Calabrese was easily the coolest teacher on campus. (this is a total exaggeration on Genny’s part) Everyone knew him, everyone loved him, and everyone wanted to be in his classes. When the opportunity presented itself to be in his USAP class junior year, it was an easy decision. I wish I could say I based my decision to be in this college-prep class because of my desire to excel in US history, but let’s be honest. A guaranteed class with my favorite teacher and a bunch of my friends…I didn’t even hesitate. Mr. Calabrese is fun, loves to tell stories, and is easy to talk to which could only mean this class would be a piece of cake, right? Boy was I wrong!

I remember the first day of class, Mr. C stood in front of the class and explained what we were all about to endure. This was a college course that will require hours of nightly homework, note taking, weekly exams, and an incredible amount of hard work. There would be no special accommodations made for those who have outside obligations; leadership responsibilities, sporting engagements, other AP classes, or anything else that may interfere with succeeding in his class. His goal was to help us to pass the test at the end of the year, but it was up to us to put in the work. I was never one to shy away from hard work, so I was up for the challenge.

For the first time, I was forced to learn how to prioritize. There were times I missed out on things with friends because I had a test the next day or sacrificed sleep because I had to work or had a game and had to read the assignment before the next day. As hard as it was, I knew I challenged myself to take this college-prep course and was warned that it wasn’t going to be easy, so I did what I needed to, to succeed. It was this class, that truly taught me life skills that I use today. I learned time management, perseverance, and goal setting. Unfortunately, I never got the chance to take that exam at the end of all of my hard work, but the lessons I learned from my experience in this class was priceless.

As Mr. Calabrese mentioned, on the day of the big test I was not myself. I remember sitting in his class on a beautiful day, shivering, becoming confused, and with a fever high enough to scare the office staff. I was sent to the emergency room and was in the operating room having surgery within the hour. I spent the next 10 days in the hospital and missed the test. Ironically, this experience in the hospital is what solidified my desire to become a nurse. I guess it is true, everything happens for a reason. It seems as if I wasn’t meant to take that test after all. Mr. and Mrs. Calabrese came to see me in the hospital and it was then that I realized these special people would become lifelong friends. The purpose of having Mr. Calabrese in my life was not about how much he could teach me about history or how to pass a test, it was how he showed me that life is about balance.

A couple of years after this momentous year in high school, I entered college at San Diego State University with the goal of becoming a nurse. I was faced with challenges that made my transition to college extremely difficult. I was desperately homesick, school was hard, I had bills to pay, and the nursing program was impacted, so my chances of getting accepted were slim if my grades weren’t excellent. Talk about pressure! But, I dug down deep and remembered the lessons I learned from Mr. Calabrese and my experience in that AP class. I prioritized my time so that I could study nightly, balanced my class load so that I didn’t have too many hard classes at a time, and constantly reminded myself that I was there to become a nurse and refused to let anything stop me from reaching my goal. I was accepted into the nursing program, graduated, moved back to Brentwood, and love every second of my job.

I will never forget a conversation Mr. C and I had one day. He told me that he admired me because he could see that things didn’t necessarily come easy for me, but the reason that I did well in school was that I had a great work ethic and I never gave up. This was eye-opening for me because I never realized that someone could tell how hard I worked to do well in school, sports, and social activities. I took this with me as I went to college and through nursing school. Now, instead of sports, leadership, AP classes, and part-time jobs, I juggle the workload of being a mom, wife, and Oncology Nurse. I constantly strive for that balance in life, and I can honestly say that I am always a work in progress, which I am ok with.

I often think about how lucky I am to have had such wonderful teachers at Liberty High. I will forever be grateful for Mr. Calabrese and his encouragement, support, and friendship as he is one of the most influential people in my life. I also had the pleasure of having Mrs. Snover for several years while in high school and I will never forget her sweet, kind, and gentle manner. She had the word “Integrity” on her wall and she taught us all how to live our lives as honest people and to always do the right thing when no one was watching. Her words, stories, and lessons stayed with me long after high school. I hope that my children have the same experience I did with teachers who touch their lives in such a powerful way as Mr. Calabrese and Mrs. Snover did with me.

Persistence and resilience only come from having been given a chance to work through difficult problems. – Gever Tulley

With something to think about…

Your friend Chris… and Genny too!