by Lisa Perky
Today, (Today that I am writing, not Today that you are reading) DeVos was confirmed as our Secretary of Education. As a public school teacher in an area of generational poverty, I am concerned. We teachers sat at lunch today and, as we heard the news, we let out a collective sigh. Often, our lunch conversations revolve around how the public school system is broken, how our kids are somehow falling through the cracks while we are rushing around sealing every crevice we see, how no child being left behind is causing lots of children to be left behind. We mourn our failures as teachers and mentors, and we share ideas on how to improve as educators. Mainly, we talk about how much we love these kids, and we don’t know how to save them. Something, we all agree, has to change. But Mrs. DeVos is not the answer we hoped would come. Now, in addition to worrying about our kids, and our classes, and our school, and our district, hell even our state, we now worry for the nation.
What does this have to do with running? Everything. You see, I am an educator, and my job doesn’t end with a bell. My job is to connect to our youth. I help them grow, and set goals. I love them, help them love themselves, and others. I educate the WHOLE child – mind, body, spirit. While I don’t know how to end generational poverty, I know how to counteract its effects, at least in part, one kid at a time. Enter, the Lone Star Running Project.
We (each of you reading this included) all got into running for different reasons. However, once we “became runners”, we all realized the same thing; running saves lives. It is meditation, cardio, strength training all wrapped into one. It is left foot right foot, repeat, until the job is done. Running teaches us what we are capable of doing, and requires us to put in all the steps before getting the reward. Long distance running teaches us that the first mile is a liar, and anything worth doing is going to challenge us, and that it is in the challenges that we grow. Running changes our “I can’t” inner voice to an “I can” and “I DID!”.
It is in those lessons that we find a salve for the effects of generational poverty, and the impact of low socioeconomic status on education. Through miles, we can undo years of damage caused by unstable home lives, low self-esteem, poor interactions with adults, etc. Lone Star Running Project (LSRP) is a mentoring group. We change the inner voice of our youth, and by doing so, might be able to change the course of that kid’s life. We match teenagers to adults, and run side-by-side, three days a week, for a semester. In that semester, we take the kids from 1 mile on the track to the finish line of a half-marathon. Each step of the way, we help build character, set small and large goals, improve conflict management skills (both internal and external), and stoke the flames of the soul.
We are in our 4th season, and we have already changed dozens of lives. Fall semester is spent on the road, and Spring semester is on the trails. LSRP was designed off of a program in Bartlesville, OK called Run the Streets. One of our founders previously worked with that program, and decided to start a similar program in our area. We are now located in two Texas cities. Our mentors range in running experience from an Unogwaja to first time half-marathon finishers. We are lawyers, veterinarians, teachers, carpenters, business owners, and personal trainers. Most importantly, we’ve all experienced the life-changing influence of running, and especially running the trails. Our youth is equally diverse. Many of our runners join us as a way to escape the expectations of failure that society has placed on them. Some join after surviving huge health scares. Others join because someone told them they could never be successful at anything. I’ve seen youth join us with a fire in their eyes, and others with clouds. Every single one of them that put in the effort, left with their heads held a bit higher.
This fall, I got to run with a student I’ve known for two years. Miss. R developed PCOS as a sophomore in high school. This was diagnosed only after she was hospitalized with an ectopic pregnancy. Reread that. Let that sink in. Sophomore. PCOS. Ectopic. Read it again. Remember what you were doing at age 15. She wasn’t able to do sports. Now, a senior and healthy, she decided to give running a try (probably because she has a really pushy teacher). There’s that old saying about a duck and water, and that is Miss R. and running. Whether running her first mile, or an 8 mile training run, she stayed smiling. She has always been so quiet and to herself in classes. After finishing her 13.1 in December, she has now begun talking very effective smack to our track boys for calling themselves “distance runners”. They run 1 mile, she runs 13.1… It makes me laugh every time. I will never forget her proud smirk.
Before Miss R, I ran with Miss. A, who was indescribably quiet. She struggled every step of every run for the first few weeks. Then, the Saturday came for the 5 mile run. Miss A. blossomed! It was as though her spirit was just waiting. Her shoulders relaxed, her conversation flowed, her smile was endless. She improved steadily for the rest of the semester and completed her 13.1 on some tough trails in very muddy conditions. She earned most improved runner, and I found out from her teachers later that the confidence transferred immediately to the classroom.
There’s more though. I’ve learned that kids meet your expectations. This is good and bad, as they will meet YOUR expectations. What does that mean for our youth if adults expect failure from them? Or bad attitudes? It means that those adults will get that failure, and that bad attitude. I learned this from another young female runner. While doing walk-throughs at my school, I sat in on a class in which the teacher was struggling to get the kids to focus. The teacher kept calling out this one girl by name. After a few times, I looked up. It was one of MY girls (not mentioned above). I called her name, and her eyes widened. She had been caught meeting low behavior expectations by someone who expected greatness from her. She knew it, and you could see the shame. I introduced her to her teacher as the girl I knew her to be. I told the class of her accomplishments and general awesomeness. Her smile beamed, her behavior corrected, and her score on that day’s assignment was stellar. Kids meet our expectations. Running teaches them to have higher expectations of THEMSELVES. After all, adults can’t be around every second.
Running is the vehicle to self-improvement. This is something we know as runners. We see the benefit in our own lives. We cherish our time alone on the road or trail, and we might even turn into dragons without it. It’s amazing that we show ourselves love by doing something so beneficial for us. But, life is not a solo act. As Anne Mahlum once said, “life is better shared”. I believe that. I believe humans are meant for connection, and I believe we owe it to the next generation to share this gift. The truly beautiful part though, is that you will receive more in return than you could ever give. Please, when you are on your next run, think about everything running has brought you. Then, remember your teenage self. How could “teenage you” benefit from “adult you”? Now, go share that with someone.
About the Author:
Lisa Perkins is a public school educator, mommy, wife, dog-lover, and pretend-runner. She enjoys sarcasm, cookies, being in the back of the pack, and sprinkling conversations with well-executed profanity. Look for future blogs, such as “If you thread the needle to pass on a 2 way single track, I’ll clothes-line you” and “It’s ok to eat pizza in the bathtub – you’re an adult”.