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There are many inspirational stories about coaches, but this Staten Island teacher didn't know anything about soccer—and still found a way to help the students play.
By the time I hit my late 40s, life felt like it had reached a plateau.
I’d married in my teens, and now my kids were grown and I was divorced, living alone in a small, quiet condo. I was still teaching history at Curtis High School on Staten Island, just a few miles from where I’d grown up.
I’d been a teacher for 17 years. I loved teaching, considered it my calling to impact my students’ lives. Lately, though, it hadn’t felt that way. Curtis had changed a lot. Staten Island had changed.
Two horses were trapped on an icy mountain. Would help arrive in time?
Gone was the bucolic, semi-rural suburb with a view of teeming Manhattan. The island was packed and so was Curtis, with 3,000 students in a school designed for 1,600. Classes were big, the halls were crowded, days were hectic. I was running at full steam. Maybe beyond full steam.
It was at the start of that school year that I noticed the flyer posted in the school office: “Boys soccer coach needed.” I didn’t pay much attention. I didn’t know a thing about soccer. The closest I’d come to sports was working the food booth for my boys’ Little League teams way back when.
The next day the note was still there. And the day after. A week went by. Finally I asked about it. The previous coach was busy with the girls’ basketball team. No one seemed to want the job. The athletic director, Hank Butka, was planning to cancel the season.
I could have walked away. But for some mysterious reason—almost as if my feet had a mind of their own—I found myself heading to Hank’s office.
“You’re really going to cancel the season?” I asked him.
“If no one takes the job,” he said. He didn’t look too happy about it.
The words came out of my mouth before I knew what I was saying. “I’ll do it.”
Hank looked at me funny. “Joyce, you don’t know a thing about soccer, do you?”
“No, but I know I can learn,” I said.
“Have you ever played?” he asked.
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“Um, no. But I know some other local coaches. I’ll talk to them.”
Hank wavered. “Your first game’s in two weeks. The kids don’t even have uniforms yet. You sure you’re up for this?”
I nodded, trying to mean it.
A few days later, after a trip to a sporting goods store for uniforms and books on soccer, I called the team into my office. Luckily, there were nine returning seniors. Maybe they could help teach the younger kids.
The boys slouched and milled around the office. They were from a medley of nations—Egypt, Pakistan, Bahamas, Honduras, Guatemala, Mexico, Poland, Costa Rica, Vietnam, Jamaica and one kid from Staten Island.
“Where’s the coach?” Aldo Santos, from Honduras, asked.
“You’re looking at her,” I said.
Everyone froze. Twenty-three pairs of eyes locked on me.
“A woman?” burst out Aldo. He looked around, as if waiting for someone to tell him it was a joke. Silence. He snorted and stalked from the room. I let him go.
“We’re practicing this afternoon,” I said. “And every day this week. We have a game coming up.”
“Um, Miss,” someone mumbled. “We never practiced on school days before. Only before games.”
“Well, maybe that’s why this team has never had a winning season. Look, I’ll be honest with you all. I don’t know a lot about soccer. But I know about learning. And we’re going to have to work—and learn—together this year. So let’s stop talking and start playing.”
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There was some exasperated muttering, but everyone filed out onto the field. I began some passing drills and right away noticed something strange. The boys seemed very good—they all came from countries where kids start kicking soccer balls as soon as they can walk—but they never used each others’ names. It was always, “Hey, red shirt!” “Yo, curly hair!” I called them together. “Doesn’t anyone know anyone else’s name?” They shook their heads. I ordered them to introduce themselves and assigned each boy a running partner.
That raised a new problem. “Miss, I can’t be with him. He’s Egyptian.”