The running/teaching nexus

Here is some insight into my personality: I awoke at 6:00 a.m. this morning, as usual, took my shower, dressed in the clothing I’d set out the night before, grabbed my mug of coffee (the timer preset to begin brewing  simultaneous to the ringing of my alarm clock, the coffee poured over the perfect amount of half and half and sugar measured out with precision by my perfect wife, Megan), stuffed my lunch box (a sandwich and salad I’d made the night before) into my backpack, and rushed out to the door to my 2007 Honda which had at that point been warming up for 11 minutes (thanks to the automatic starter Megan got me as Christmas gift back in our Oak Park days – the car shuts itself down if you don’t stick the key in the ignition by minute 12).  It was only after I’d driven half a block on 57th street when the teacher’s parking lot came into view that I realized a snow day must have been declared and I somehow missed the memo.    That 2007 Honda became literally the only car in the parking lot:


Not one to waste an opportunity, I had a very productive morning spent grading an entire section of East Asian studies quarter projects and then pounding out an 8-mile escalation run on our school’s sole tred mill.  Alone in the fitness center that serves as the location of our post-run stretching and general strength sessions, I got my workout for the day in early, leaving me with the welcome prospect of an unexpectedly free afternoon, and, thus, the opportunity to write a blog on a topic I’ve long wanted to expound upon but never yet had the time: the ways in which my interests in teaching history and in running intersect.

My teaching assignment is somewhat unusual.  I teach two Sophomore level semester elective courses: East Asian Studies and African American History.  As I fully acknowledge to my students on the first day of class, I am neither East Asian nor African American.  My interest in these subjects is genuine, though.  I began teaching East Asian Studies in my second year at Hinsdale (2006-2007) after being asked my department chair to do so based solely on the fact that I’d participated in a three-week study tour to Japan a few years earlier (I’d not taken a single undergraduate or graduate course on the subject yet).  Since then, I’ve had the opportunity to visit Korea once and China twice, to take several graduate courses in the field, and to welcome into my family a sister-in-law (my twin brother Collin’s wife) who is now a professor of Chinese History at Ball State University.  I could give a robust defense of why I believe East Asian Studies is an important course, but I will here just point out that Japan and China are the two largest world economies other than the United States, while Korea represents a region of vital geopolitical importance.

As for African American History, it is the subject which drew me to history teaching in the first place.  As a high school student, the topic I most enjoyed learning about was the Civil Rights movement, as it seemed to me to represent the very best spirit of American democracy.  African American History is really the story of a people initially brought to this nation against their will, who nevertheless helped build the country up and held its leaders accountable for living up to the eloquent ideals expressed in our founding documents: that all people are created equal and thus entitled to liberty and to the pursuit of happiness.  This is an on-going project, and one that I think cannot be appreciated unless we know our history.

Of course, as a coach and avid runner, I love having the opportunity to incorporate stories about runners into my lesson plans.  Back when I taught World History, this was an easy task, as every year our exploration of the Ancient Greeks included a lesson on Phidippedes and the origins of the marathon.  The Greeks were also, as is well known, the founders of the Olympic games.  It is in the history of Olympics where the intersection of East Asian Studies, African American History, and running becomes most evident.

For one, I think the Olympics presents a fascinating prism with which to examine conceptions of national identity.  What makes one an American?  Is it defined by citizenship status?  By who your parents are?  By your behavior?  By how you view yourself?  How do American ideas about identity and nationality compare to Korean, Japanese, or Chinese ideas?  I have posed this question to my students, using the example of the American male competitors who represented us in the 2008 Beijing 1500 meter run:

us olympians

Because of America’s unique history, ours has been a nation that has been generally more welcoming of immigrants than many others (though certainly not as welcoming as we could be).  One would have to be heartless not to have teared up watching Eritrean born Meb Keflezeki shortly after winning our nations’ most famous marathon, wrapped in an American flag and wearing a jersey with the hand written names of the four victims of the boston bombing victims names on it:


Yet America’s story is a complicated one.  Few are as proud of America or as eloquent in defending it as Meb or Lopez Lomong, two men who found refuge from war here.  Yet not every American Olympian could grin as widely as Lomong did when bearing the flag for America during the opening ceremonies.  Consider this famous photograph from the 1968 Mexico City Olympics:


Here are Tommy Smith and John Carlos, on the victor’s podium after taking gold and bronze in the 200 meter dash.  Rather than reveling in their victory, they chose this moment to raise a silent protest, holding up a gloved fist in the black power salute to indicate their anger towards the nation they were representing.  As African Americans, they felt keenly that they were not treated as first class citizens, despite being literally the best in the world at what they did.  The act of protest became iconic, though Smith and Carlos faced virulent criticism from many Americans when they returned home.  The photograph today remains incredibly evocative, and can be used to engage in discussion about the rights of athletes to express political opinions, an issue that has surfaced recently as several professional athletes have chosen to make known their views about perceived police brutality in Ferguson, New York City, and Cleveland:


In a recent article I read in ESPN magazine, a columnist argued that 2014 represented “the return of the citizen athlete,” the first time in decades that athletes became as outspoken as Muhammad Ali had once been.  As the most popular athlete in the world, Ali chose to go to prison rather than register for the selective service – his protest against the Vietnam War which he viewed as unethical and imperialist.  Whatever you think of this opinion, it is worth contrasting the vocal activism of Ali with the careful guarding of self-image cultivated by Michael Jordan, the greatest athlete of the 1990s.

While most students are aware of the Carlos/Smith photo, very few know of an earlier silent protest carried out by an athlete on the Olympic podium.  In East Asian Studies, I look forward each year of telling the story of Sohn Kee Chung.    You may not know his name, but anyone interested in distance running or East Asia should know his story.  He is, in fact, the gold medal winner in the marathon at the 1936 Berlin Olympics (which have an obvious connection to African American History, too, as it was here that Jessie Owens turned in one of the greatest performances of all-time winning 4 medals and thus forever dismantling the pseudoscience supporting “Aryan superiority”).  Sohn was Korean born, but by 1936 his native land of Korea had been colonized by neighboring Japan.  As a symbol of their superiority, the Japanese forced all Korean citizens to adopt new Japanese names, and Sohn was officially registered for the games under the name Kitei Son.  Worst of all, he was forced to run wearing a Japanese jersey, and, after winning (in 2:29:20, at that time, an Olympic record) endured the playing of Japan’s national anthem.  Here he is, in his moment of victory:


This act of defiance was not lost on the Japanese, and Sohn never got to run another race.  A Korean newspaper published a photo of Sohn and his teammate Nam Sung Yong (renamed Shoryu Nam by the Japanese) with the rising sun of Japan erased; for this, 8 staff members were imprisoned, and the paper was shut down.

In the very long run, Sohn’s life path arced towards justice: he was chosen to light the torch when Seoul hosted the Olympic games in 1988 (the first encounter I ever had with Mr. Newton was when he came to speak at my elementary school after returning home from coaching the American distance runners at those games).   At the Seoul Olympic museum, which I visited on my trip there in 2008, his statue is front and center.    The one tragedy of his life is that he was born in North Korea, and, after Korea’s division in 1953, was never able to return home.  (You can read more about him on his IOC biography page:

Would you still run if the credit went not to your team but to your opponent?  If winning meant someone you resented would be glorified?  Sohn’s story raises those questions.  There aren’t easy answers, but, after all, the best teachers and students know that the true joy in education comes not from the answers but from the questions themselves.

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