How to Live Forever: A Tribute to Ken Cole, my friend
Nobody sane wants to hang out with middle-schoolers. Nobody. They’re moody. They don’t know anything yet, but they think they know everything. They are contrary and distracted and confused, and full of brand new hormones.
So, they also stink.
I don’t know how I won the middle school lottery, but I know now that I definitely did.
7th grade was the worst year of my life so far. I was desperately in need of a positive male role model, and my dad (may he rest in peace) had way too many of his own issues to notice. I was chubby for the first time in my life and puberty had not been kind to me. I felt like no one liked me anymore, and friendships became difficult to navigate. I hated all the change, and I felt alone in the universe.
So, of course, I developed a crappy attitude. But my mama had raised me right. I minded my Ps and Qs in class, for the most part. However, one day for reasons I cannot recall, I got in my science teacher’s face. And I said whatever it was I needed to say, and walked away like a boss.
I’m kidding. I immediately wanted to crawl into a hole and disappear. I was horrified by my own actions, and I couldn’t go back in time. So I tried to pretend it didn’t happen.
I didn’t yet understand the teacher club. That my science teacher was buddies with my PE teacher, and that he had her back. That day, I got called aside during PE class. I don’t remember much of Ken Cole before that moment, but I promise I NEVER forgot who he was after it.
I had been searching for a mission, and he provided one: For the rest of the year, I would respect my educators. Then he’d get back to me to let me know if he thought it would be worth his time to work with me.
I don’t know how, or why, but suddenly all I wanted was to impress Coach Cole. I wanted to make him proud. I wanted him to like me. I wanted to be one of his kids.
Of course, I know now (and if you knew him, you know too) that we were ALL his kids. That we were ALL special to him. That we all mattered and had value and were worth his time. But back then, he had the magic that made each of us feel like we were the most special of all. I don’t understand how he knew, but he realized that I very much needed to be seen. To be on anyone’s radar. To know I wasn’t invisible.
He saw me.
I’m fairly certain I never raised my voice to another teacher again.
Give 110 Percent
I’m a mom. I have two kids, and so I have seen the following scenario play out with them. Of course, when it was me, I didn’t see it. See, everything had, up until this point, come fairly easily to me. I got straight A’s without much effort, and my life was mostly comprised of school, so I hadn’t ever had the opportunity to fail spectacularly at anything before.
Cue middle school PE.
I’ll cut to the chase by saying if there’s a ball involved and other people are relying on me to do something with it, I suck at it. Just facts.
My gut told me to give up. Quit, because I was making a fool of myself in front of everyone. But if there was one thing Coach couldn’t abide, it was a quitter. So there was no way in hell I was going to be one of those! The coach was a gruff dude. He knew just how much growl to use to get a middle schooler motivated. And he knew when to pull back.
I think a lot of coaches these days forget the second part. They forget that kids aren’t just short adults. But he never did that.
Coach Cole taught me to try. Always, and always as hard as I could. Just the desire to impress him, that’s all it took. I had never failed at anything before because if I tried something and it seemed too hard, I would just never do that thing again. Hard to fail if you don’t even try. So, now I was failing all the time. But I was giving it my all, and I have done that ever since.
Meanwhile, he also taught me to show up on time, and follow through on commitments. To do what I said I would do. Basically, he taught me how to not be an asshole.
We had Friday runs. I hated to run. But every Friday, I got out there and hauled ass. I must have given Coach all-knowing powers in my head, because once I knew I was on his radar, I didn’t even try to walk the parts behind the walls anymore.
I was always bright red, huffing and puffing, out of breath at the end. I thought on several occasions I was definitely going to pass out. But it didn’t matter, because I knew Coach was proud.
(also I was totally safe, but middle-schoolers are very dramatic)
For a few years, I participated in any and everything Coach Cole gave us to join. Gymnastics, dance, I didn’t care. I was IN. I was a terrible gymnast. As long as I tried my best, he didn’t care that I sucked. I was a very rigid dancer, and he worked tirelessly trying to help me stop thinking so much and just dance. And I never got great at that, but I did get a lot better.
It was amazing to watch him dance, though. He just really felt the music. No inhibitions. No hang-ups about who was watching or what they might think. It was beautiful.
And I could go on about that all day, but I think if he were here to read the final draft of this piece, he’d find that extremely boring. So I’ll just share a couple more memories before I go.
We kept in touch over the years; saw each other now and then, but I last saw Coach Cole over a decade ago. I don’t really remember how we got together, but I know my kids were with me, and there was some sort of outdoor playgroup activity going on, where the kids got to pick instruments and make a bunch of gawd awful music, and after that, they were supposed to just listen to some other music, and he and I were standing on the sidelines, the kids’ backs to us.
And when the music started, those kids just started moving to it. No one instructed them to dance, in fact, they were supposed to be sitting down. But it wasn’t disruptive, and the teacher let them be.
And Ken said something like
Look at how free they are. They come into the world without any insecurities. No hang-ups. And they just move in perfect rhythm to the music. It’s instinct. They don’t care if people are watching. They don’t care if they’re doing it right. And then we spend 12 years trying to make them all the same and we suck all of that unique beauty right out of them.
And so we do.
But we shouldn’t. You know, “body positivity” wasn’t some trend way back then. But I look back now and I realize that was a huge part of who he was. He spent years just working to help kids regain some of that freedom in their own skin that the world had sucked out of them. What a huge gift that was. One that is much easier to recognize in the rearview mirror.
He loved children, and he never lost the child inside of him, so children loved him back. Kids know, don’t they? They see people for who they really are.
Ken Cole absolutely changed my life all those years ago. I doubt that was his intent; he probably just wanted me to shut my mouth and open my ears for once. Have I mentioned I was mouthy?
And in middle school?
Thing is, I was but one of hundreds. I don’t know, maybe thousands. And just as I have passed his wisdom on to my own children, I’m sure so have many others.
And because his wisdom was truly wise, it won’t end there.
Ken Cole is going to live forever.
Just ask anyone who knew him.
Rest in Peace, Coach. I love you.
*In memoriam, a song: