Dear Coach Westmoreland,
You may remember me as the chubby, out-of-shape schoolboy in your middle school physical education class in 1983 and 1984. Writing this letter and thinking of those times summons from sealed inner crevices the sort of insecurity that makes me fear that you might not remember me at all. I certainly did nothing noteworthy in your class. On the contrary, I consistently was the slowest, the weakest, the least nimble and coordinated, and always the very last to be chosen in team activities. Yet I remember well your loving kindness and am assured that you probably do remember me, if only because of the degree to which I stood out in those respects and because my mother was a French teacher at our school.
As I think about your gym class so many years later, three things stand out most prominently in my mind. First, during both years that you were my teacher, I had P.E. right after lunch, which made an already uncomfortable experience even less pleasant. Second, I remember changing into our gym uniform -- how I hated those polyester gym shorts, which clung so unceremoniously to my thighs -- and then back into our regular clothes, which meant spending the last periods of the day caked in perspiration. Third, and most important, I remember that you were always there for me and the others who did not belong, and I will never forget that.
During South Carolina's cool autumn months, after the oppressive humidity had lifted to release refreshing breezes that had been locked away since spring, you would lead us all down to the main track, where we began our cross-country course. No matter how disheveled your troops, you were always distinguished in your pressed tennis shorts and short-sleeve sports polo shirt, your whistle fastened snugly around your neck.
Our class was full of misfits, either physical slow-pokes like myself or athletically gifted youths too naïve and filled with hubris not to allow their native gifts to spoil their character and look down upon their classmates. There was only one true student-athlete among us: Lang S., who was kind to everyone, excelled in the classroom, and yet was never second best on the playing field. Although he did not need my help, I always cheered for him silently.
Somehow, your warm, encouraging personality reached out and brought us all together, even if only for one period. Outside the gym, our distinct elements each settled into the boundaries of their own comfortable worlds -- the good students, the athletes, the punks, the rich, the poor -- all self-segregated as clearly as the layers of a well-made vinaigrette. In your class, however, we were One, all behind you, for fifty minutes each day. I would have worn those horrid shorts all day if only the other class periods could have been warmed by your presence.
The cross-country course began with half a lap around the track before we disappeared into the forest that took us over two miles around all the school's fields. Lang and a few others invariably raced to the front of the pack and disappeared into the woods. I would not see them again until I was back in the locker room.
I still remember those woods well, with their roots and low branches and hills, all of which conspired to send me to the back of the pack. The course ended with a brutal climb followed by a short but steep descent that spat us back onto the track where we had begun. I never once made it to the end without a cloud of steam emerging from my tired lungs. Not once. Yet without fail, you were there for me as surely as you had been minutes earlier for the gazelles who had navigated the course effortlessly. Without fail, you cheered encouragement as you watched me labor up the final hill, so sure were you that I could finish. When I did, I received a high-five that lifted my spirits and made me feel whole in an environment where that feeling was otherwise fleeting. You were always there, and for that I will always remember you.
Twenty-seven years later, I write to tell you that the chubby kid you once knew has grown up. I have gone off to college and law school and have entered the Great World for which you dedicated yourself to preparing us. I am also happy to tell you that physical fitness is now an essential part of my life. During the past several years, I have run three half-marathons, as well as several shorter road races; I have completed two century bicycle rides and a 150-mile ride for Multiple Sclerosis; I have taken countless tennis lessons; and I am a regular at my local gym.
I have always defined my personal success in terms of academic and professional accomplishments, but my dream is one day to complete an Ironman Triathlon. It would be the greatest feat of my life to date. One must dream. Please forgive me for listing these accomplishments, for I neither mean to nor do I have any basis to boast, even to my favorite P.E. teacher. But I wish to share these moments with you because I know in my heart that I never would have had the inner strength to set and realize those goals had you not both always been waiting for me at the end of that cross-country course and shared your encouragement in all our class activities. Please believe me when I tell you that I have never completed a single event without thinking of you. Even today, when I am at the gym and would prefer to give in when it would be so easy to stop, I think of you and press on. I finish and thereby I win. And I know that you are always waiting for me.
During the past few years, I have meant at least one hundred times to sit down and write you this letter to let you know what a difference you made in my life. I once checked the Irmo Middle School website to find the school's address. I was delighted to discover that you were the assistant principal, which came as no surprise. But for whatever reason, I have waited until now to write you.
I drove to Pebble Beach, California, with my roommate, Allan C., my best friend in middle school. Allan and I were discussing old times when he mentioned that you recently had passed away after a long bout with cancer. My heart sank. I pounded the steering wheel angrily, swearing expletives born of the deepest regret, as I had thought so often of writing you this letter. I cannot express my profound sorrow that I did not share with you the joy of my accomplishments when they would have meant the most to you. I am sorry that I was not there for you, as you were for me.
Please know that I think of you each and every time I exercise and your kindness carries me when I would rather stop. Life blesses each of us with many teachers, and you were among the best. You saw in me an inner strength that I myself would not see for years to come, and your encouragement provided a fundamental piece of the foundation upon which I continue to learn and grow as a person. Coach, I am eternally grateful to you. I will never forget that you were -- and are -- always there for me.
With great admiration,