Walking Tall

By Ross Gitomer, Upper School Teacher of Mathematics and Varsity Wrestling Coach
I’ve been short my whole life - really short. I was strong, but I was little my whole life. I was always looking up to people, literally, and I still am. My mom was a librarian in a middle school, and years ago she got me this book, "Short: Walking Tall When You’re Not Tall At All." She said she saw it and thought of me, and decided to give it to me. I think my dad told my mom that the book seemed stupid and that I didn’t need crap like that, and she agreed, I think but she gave it to me anyway. 

I’d like to start with a story when I was six years old, a story that has stuck with me for a while obviously. I learned a lot about myself from this story and about personal growth. In my first grade class at Three Bridges School in New Jersey, I sat in the front row of Mrs. Critelli’s class. Mrs. Critelli died years ago from cancer. But, she was a good teacher. A girl named Emma always sat one seat behind me. Emma  was my neighbor and I knew her well; she was on my bus route each day to school. Emma was very tall, and I was very short. Emma would make fun of me for being short, a lot from what I remember. One day, I must have been mad about something, but she was making fun of me for being short. One of the things that the whole class knew was that her mother had brain cancer. Well, out of trying to get back at her as a six year- old, I turned around and said, “Emma, I hope your mom dies.” Of course, what ensued was Emma crying a lot, and Mrs. Critelli dragging me by my arm out to the hallway, screaming at me.

 At that time, no cell phones were around. Of course, I was just praying my dad and mom wouldn’t find out. Well, Mrs. Critelli called my dad. When I walked into the house, my dad was standing there staring at me, and immediately I knew he knew. Not good. My parents and I had a long sitdown, and instead of just yelling at me or ripping me apart, my parents made me do something that helped me a lot. As a six year-old I had to pick up the phone and call Emma’s mom and apologize, and do the same with Emma. I also had to invite them over for a hang out. My parents helped me. When they came over, I also had to invite them to our local fair that was held each year. I spent the whole day with Emma and her mom, and it was a meaningful experience. What was the funniest, which my dad probably knew, was that I couldn’t go on any rides because I was too short, but Emma could. The bottom line: I acted like a complete idiot, but I learned a crucial lesson about hurting others, but more importantly: Learning to own who you are. Not loving or disliking who you are, but own who you are. 

Just a quick update before I go on.  Emma’s mom is a movie director and producer.  And Emma?  She’s a super accomplished actor and you’ve all seen her on TV as well as in the movies - from Law & Order, NCIS and the Walking Dead to a bunch of movies.  I’ve always gotten satisfaction from seeing her career take off despite her encounters with a stupid 1st grader.

My message today is about owning who you are, and also realizing that you will have success and confidence in your life the day you start doing this. It’s a constant improvement plan, but it’s one that is crucial. Being short is a physical part of me, and so I start this talk with this story just to show you that knowing who you are and appreciating who you are takes some time. Being short for me is one part of who I am, and frankly, I take a lot of pride in being short, but it took me a while to get there. I think it has made me a better person all around. My message today for you is to share some insight into how St. Christopher’s and this community has allowed me to be who I am as a teacher, coach, and colleague. And how your road through high school and beyond will be a massive success the sooner you start trusting your gut, and not caring what people think of you. At. St. Christopher’s I have learned about and been guided by three principles: 1) not worrying about what people will think if you know it’s the right thing to do, 
2) seeking help when you don’t have all the answers, 3) helping others find their path.

Not worrying what people think about you takes time, and some practice. For instance, one day when I was in the faculty lounge, Mr. Burke told me that he hopes I never screw up things with Kellyn. He essentially said I way outkicked my coverage, and that if I ever screw it up, I most likely will never find someone again. By not worrying about what people think, I am not talking about being a jerk or misbehaving. What am I talking about is when you are acting as the best version of yourself, who cares what people think about you. 

The most successful people I have been around have mastered this. Even during the toughest times, Billy Abbot has always stuck to his personal core values; he is the epitome of a school guy. He knows who he is. He’s an older fellow now, but he is caring, he’s honest, and he’s actually pretty funny. He is supportive and he’s a teacher by nature. As his best self, the guy will tell you what you are doing well, and he will tell you what you need to work on. I’ve seen it first hand in wrestling. The guy every single time knows that winning is important to the kids, but he is himself in that he will make sure the kids’ character comes first. Kids like Kent Goode, he knows who he is, and he’s improving. He has the horse blinders on when it comes to math. He wants to do well in the class, and he does not care that his classmates may judge him on his persistence on getting help outside of class. He’s also himself when he talks about the drive to be really freaking good in lacrosse. I know nothing about lacrosse, but I see a young leader who wants to have a really good team. This goes hand in hand with choosing the hard right over the easy wrong. What comes about from being who you are and not caring what people think about yourself, comes respect. We all want respect. Two guys, Kent Goode and Billy Abbott, in my opinion are great examples of this. 

Not worrying about people think is crucial, but one of the most important things I have learned at St. Christopher’s is to seek help when I could use a little assistance. This may sound counterintuitive to not worrying  what people think, but that’s not what I am talking about here. “You’ve got to be a filter” one of my coaches told me long ago. You need to take in the things that will help you, and throw out the things that won’t. I have learned a great deal from my wrestlers on what they want out of a workout, or how best they learn a technique. You may not connect with someone well, so how do you help them as a teacher and coach? You have to ask for help, and you need to seek out help constantly. For example, Mr. Kiefer was my instructional teacher my first year. He would observe me every single day. I asked how he taught certain techniques in math, or how to handle a program such as St. Christopher’s wrestling. There were many times I wouldn't do what he would do, but there are still this day so many methods that I have taken from his teachings. You’ve got to ask for help. 

The third and final element of what I have learned at St. Chris is we all are both teachers and learners.  I learn from you just as I hope you learn from me. By far, my proudest moments occur when I see you all helping each other. To find your best self, you must teach, and you have to get comfortable doing it. In the summers especially, seeing the high school wrestlers working with the youth wrestlers in the youth camp-- it is amazing how well you guys can do this. Why is it important? When you start helping others, you will become a much better person. Teaching has taught me how to be a better person. When Theo was born, some of my favorite memories occurred seeing 14 to 17 year-old boys holding an infant, scared out of their minds. You learn to take care of something other than yourself, and wow, you begin to realize who you are at your core. If you are struggling in a class, or with something in life, the best remedy to your problem is to help someone else. Some of my favorite practices or classes are the ones where you all help each other. Instead of me as the coach, we now have 30 coaches in the room. Instead of me as the teacher, we have 16 teachers, and 16 students. 

This place is special, and what makes this place special are the relationships here. Dr. Hudson used to talk to the Upper School faculty all the time about how we are the relational managers. It was some educational language that we had to use. But, I don’t necessarily agree with this concept of relational management. Your teachers will be the relational managers sometimes, but I challenge you to be the relational managers with your family, your friends, and even your teachers and coaches. Get outside yourself and understand what other people are going through, and help them manage their life - don’t try to manage others’ lives - but help them manage their own. Ultimately, you will understand your life better as well. People will go through tough times in your life, and sometimes the worst of times, and it’s on you all to be there for each other.  

On a sad note, since my time here I have seen three young people who were members of the wrestling team lose their lives at much too early of an age. Quent Alcorn, John Fergusson, and Taylor Rudnick. As a relatively new father, I can’t fathom losing a child. Seeing those faces of the parents and - there’s nothing I can explain. But what I have learned from it? At John Fergusson’s small funeral at Hollywood Cemetery, I learned very quickly how close John was with his St. Chris friends. What I also realized was what an impact this school had on John and his life. The stories and tears poured out; the theme was always St. Chris. I saw this with Quent Alcorn….the memories--so much St. Chris. And finally, the most recent, Taylor Rudnick…...some of the favorite memories and pictures that were there--St. Chris. 

This place is family, and what makes this place family are the differences and unique qualities we all have, that we share. So, I’m bringing it back to walking tall, and knowing who you are. By acting in a way where you don’t worry what other people think of you. If you’re trying to always get help, and if you strive to constantly teach and help others, you will undoubtedly find yourself and you won’t worry what other people think of you. 


No comments have been posted