One of the most common themes in the discipline of history, the subject I teach, is ‘continuity and change’ – the idea that for any belief system or institution (be it Confucianism, Christianity, or Constitutional Democracy) to survive long term, it must adapt. Certain core aspects of the system must be maintained, but its form and substance will invariably have to change with the times. I thought of this recently upon hearing that York High School will have to change their home course this season from its traditional location of East End Park (where I ran, literally, thousands of miles in the days of my youth) to a new location of Behrens Park, in north Elmhurst. I know a few York alumni, including the highly respected journalist Mike Newman, were dismayed by this news – but, I also know that York is too good of a program to allow a change of venue to rattle their sense of identity. We at HC are scheduled to run a meet their on September 24, and while the surroundings will be new, the competition will be no less spirited.
Continuity and change has also been very much on my mind as we begin a new school year marked by significantly expanded use of technology. This year, each teacher will have a web page operated by google (in previous years, we’ve used sharepoint) and all staff members have received basic training on the many options offered by ‘Google Aps for Education.’ The world of education has transformed in ways I never could have anticipated in the short twelve years I have been at this job. In my graduate work this summer, I had a professor provocatively suggest: “content is dead.” He made the point that students can now easily look up any information – the role of the (history) teacher is no longer to teach WHAT happened but rather to teach students HOW to think. We have thousands of powerful tech tools to help us do this, but the challenge is to figure out how to use these tools effectively. This is all the more challenging given that our students have been born and raised using cell phones and internet, while most educators can remember an era where our own teacher’s main tools were marker and white board (or even chalk and chalkboard).
I want to be a survivor, so I have tried to learn as much as I can about different ways to use computer technology in education. One program I like is called ‘wordle’ – this website allows you to input a text, and then will give you a visual representation of which words are most commonly used. For fun, I decided to see what a wordle would look like if I input the text of every blog I’ve written about our cross country team. Here is what I got:
What does the graphic above suggest about our team’s culture and identity? The single most commonly used word that appears in my blog is “team.” I’d like to think that says a lot about our commitment to each other – that we are driven not so much by dreams of personal glory as by our desire to improve for-and with-each other.
What is also striking, though, is how similar to other teams we must be. The other most frequently used words are the common language of the larger high school Cross Country community – more than most, we mark our lives by periods of ‘time’ – be it ‘day’, ‘season’ or ‘year.’ We see every form of the verb that consumes so much of that time: ‘run’, ‘ran’, ‘running,’ ‘runner,’ ‘runners.’ We see evidence of what we are running for – to be prepared for the ‘race,’ the ‘meet,’ or the ‘track.’ And we see aspirations for where we’ll finish: at the ‘top’ – as number ‘one’ – as ‘first.’
Of course, (as I also teach in my history courses) all of us have multiple layers of our identity. Culture is not static and it is not concrete. I’ve no doubt that being a member of the Hinsdale Central Cross Country team is an important part of the identity for most of our team members (it’s hugely important to me) – but so is, more simply, being a runner (to say nothing of the complex interplay of all the other aspects of our identities: racial, religious, ethnic, national, and gender, to name just a few).
I’ve been thinking a bit about my own process of identity formation recently, as my mother is preparing for a garage sale and last week beckoned me home to go through all my old belongings in an effort to determine what to keep, what to sell, and what to throw out. This method of curation was enlightening, as it allowed me to sift through the relics of my past and reflect, for the first time in a while, on earlier iterations of myself. Of course, there were lots of running related artifacts from my high school years: my old letter jacket, a journal entry I wrote for my sophomore English class about how much Mr. Newton influenced my life, an old training diary, assorted photographs (including some of me running on York’s decrepit old indoor track – and others of me running at the virtually unchanged Proviso Indoor track), and some dusty trophies.
More than anything else, though, what I spent my time sorting through was my enormous sports card collection. I must have had 50,000 or more different baseball, basketball, football, and hockey cards – organized sometimes meticulously and sometimes haphazardly into cases, sleeves, and boxes. Every athlete who played in the early 1990s is represented, often in multiples: Frank Thomas and Ken Griffey Jr, John Elway and Jerry Rice, Wayne Gretsky and Mario Lemeiux, MJ and Shaq. A funny thing happens around 1994, though – the card collecting basically stops. I realize now that running came to take its place. Being a cross country and track runner became my new passion, and my obsession with knowing all the players on all the teams and spending weekends going to card shows became unnecessary. I had found a new cultural group to belong.
One of the most fun parts of being a Cross Country coach is seeing this transformation play out with younger athletes. To watch our freshman tentatively enter room 155 for their first team meeting, wondering if they’d made a mistake, and to bear witness as they gradually come to appreciate our sport and, then, totally buy in. They start wearing XC shirts to school 3 days out of 5, become familiar with the pantheon (Shorter and Pre, Bekele and Farah, Rudisha and Centrowitz), are seen walking around the halls after school in short shorts without a trace of embarrassment.
It’s early, and our current freshman haven’t even had the experience of running in a meet yet (we open our season with a dual meet against LT next Wednesday, 9/2) but already I sense ‘the change’ happening. Last week, we held a 3200 time trial as a fitness test to establish training groups. This also provided us our first snapshot of the current crop of freshman. This new group is large, with 25 young men currently on the roster. Some were with us this summer, while others are recent converts from soccer. Alec Hill, Brandon Belgrad, Kevin Hopkins, and Matt Sayre are all younger siblings of current or former HCXC athletes. Continuity and change again. It’s a bit premature to know the character or dynamic of this class, but early indications are that they are dedicated and hard-working yet fun. And here is how they match up to the previous two freshman classes based on that first time trial:
Comparison of top freshman, 2013-2015
As I love to point out to freshman, where one is at this first time trial generally has little bearing on where one ends up. Case in point is Sean O’Connell, who last year ran 13:38 at this time trial but nearly broke 10:00 by the end of track (he ran 10:01 twice). Steven Zaher improved from 13:33 to 10:16. Neil Cumberland improved from 12:21 to 10:15. Liam Bots dropped from 14:25 to 11:53. Yandel was at 11:03 by the end of the year (and sub-5 for the 1600). Kiril Kuzmanovksi improved his times to 11:26 and 5:04. The same could be said of the previous class – every one of those guys (save Jan Erik Naess, who is a nationally ranked speed skater(!)) is now among our program’s top runners. None of this guarantees that Alec Hill, Michael Horton, Nate Sutton, Charlie Carter, Matt Kusak, Kevin Hopkins, or any of our other new runners will have a similar trajectory, but it does suggest that so long as they are willing to commit to the ‘trial of miles’ the chances are good they’ll see similarly large improvements. Hill, by the way, is 4’10” and weighs in at 80 pounds. Yet, as the famous saying goes, it’s not the size of the dog in the fight, it’s the size of the fight in the dog, and Alec has a lot of fight – his time for our pre-season time trial ranks him second all-time among freshman behind only returning all-state runner Blake Evertsen (the school record holder for every freshman and sophomore distance event, and a young man you’ll be hearing a lot about this season).
Alec and his freshman teammates will make their debut at KLM next Wednesday against the mighty LT Lyons, a team we respect and admire and who will be, like us, gunning for a trophy this season. And then, a mere three days later, the XC season will really get under way as we co-host the annual Hornet-Red Devil Invitational, an event we’ve all been anticipating for some time now. There will be 19 teams and close to 2000 runners descending upon the hallowed fields of Katherine Legge Memorial Park. Of this I’m sure: for some on our team and for other young runners competing for our opponents, it will be the event that solidifies their identity as runners, members of our tribe.