We Don’t Deserve Teachers
A story that is only kind of about running.
We Don’t Deserve Teachers
LØPE MAGAZINE – Issue No. 036, November 2021
By Liam Boylan-Pett
I was jogging through East Lansing in the afternoon October 6 when I thought about “The Miracle of Life”—that V.H.S. tape health teachers across the country have plopped into the VCR on those wheelie TVs during health class for decades. The one about the human reproductive process and, well, the miracle of life.
When I was in high school in the early 2000s, a small group of my classmates and I couldn’t fit health into our regular class schedules—this is where I must admit I played the trombone in the jazz band and botched a solo during “The Christmas Song.” So, thanks to some scheduling finagling with the help of the school counselor and the teachers involved, I hauled home a big binder full of health class materials and took the course between my sophomore and junior years at Bath High School in Mid-Michigan. That, however, did not mean I was going to avoid “The Miracle of Life,” which was talked about in hushed tones among high schoolers back then.
So, one early fall day in 2002, I remember crowding into a small room in the offices of my high school with about five or six of my classmates and friends. Mrs. Cindy Nunn, our Phys Ed and Health teacher, stood in front of us next to a TV on wheels, and told us that this was it. To finish our health class requirement, she said, we needed to watch and discuss the video in the box on top of the VCR, the one about the human reproductive process that ended with a scene showing a live birth.
I don’t remember much after that, honestly. But I do remember that in the years since, Mrs. Nunn could never stop cackling when she told the story of me seeing the film. Mrs. Nunn, with a big booming voice that seemed on the verge of laughter at any moment, always described me turning ash white during the climactic scene, seemingly on the verge of tears or vomiting. She joked that one day if I ever had kids, I better not be in the delivery room. In fact, the last time I saw her in person—in the summer of 2020 during the pandemic—she brought up “The Miracle of Life,” laughing with my wife that I might be a liability in the delivery room.
Jogging through East Lansing this October, I thought about Mrs. Nunn’s memory of the “Miracle of Life” and me. Only three days earlier, I had been in the delivery room with my wife when she made one final push and welcomed our screaming daughter into the world. I don’t think I turned white. I did not vomit. I was on the verge of tears, however. It was beautiful.
Three days later, I wished I could have told Mrs. Nunn about it. She died September 10. I wished I could have told her that I might have even been helpful in the delivery room. I wished she could have met my daughter. We would have laughed a lot. Which was how it always was with Mrs. Nunn—a lot of smiles and laughter.
And as I ran along thinking about “The Miracle of Life,” I did start laughing.
That’s the thing about the people in your life that impact you. They help you out even when they’re not around.
I used to blog a lot. I would write about my running career, hoping that in a barely pre-social media world the blog would garner me some attention and possibly a shoe contract. (It did not.) Then, when I first started working at Running Times (Rest In Power), I almost always inserted myself into the stories I wrote. My editors there urged me away from that, and once I finally stopped, it was liberating. I loved not having to write about myself, and realized how sick of it I was at the time. And while I often insert myself into my stories for Løpe Magazine nowadays, it’s more of an attempt to lend some credibility—admittedly copying the New Yorker’s style of including a note along the lines of “they told me.” It has been a while, with some exceptions like my Columbia 4×8 and the fun story about the marathon with my wife, since I wrote more of a personal essay.
A big life change inspired me to pick up the first-person pen again. Going on short runs since my daughter was born, I thought about some ideas I wanted to capture. Normally on runs, I piece together the structure of a story I’m working on. Over the past few months, I’ve struggled to think about stories. Instead my mind raced about bringing a child into the world and how exciting and terrifying it all was. After October 3, however, when I no longer had time to think about raising a kid but actually had to do it, I have spent a lot of time on the short runs I’ve been able to sneak in thinking about what I hope for my daughter, which meant my mind wandering to the things I wished she would experience, too—trips to Belgium to run and eat hot, crispy french fries and drink sweet, yeasty beer, sprints down the too-steep Sleeping Bear Dunes, family and friends that make her laugh and cry. And I hoped she would have people like Mrs. Nunn in her life. Plus, I thought about a few more people in Bath, Michigan.
Bath is like a lot of small towns. It has its quirks—like the bathtub races that take place on a gently declining Main Street each year—and its history—which, in Bath, is a little more unique as in 1927 a domestic terrorist bombed the school, killing 38 students and six teachers. And like a lot of small towns, it has its people that make it special.
By the time I joined the cross-country team as a scrawny first-year with a mop of curly hair, they had already named the Bath High School track and field and football stadium after Mel “Doc” Comeau. A legendary coach who had led Bath to state cross-country championships for both the boys and girls in the 1980s and 1990s and multiple league and regional championships in track and field, Doc looked like Einstein but with straight hair. He was a half-miler back when he ran track in college, at a small liberal arts school in Michigan, and his success had me eager to be coached by him.
Gathered in circles before practice, Doc was simple. “Front-woods today at race pace,” he would say in his steady voice, the front-woods being a 1.7-mile stretch of the cross-country course he loved to have us run hard. He would tell us the groups we were running in, having the slower runners go first, and letting the faster runners chase after them, with the hopes that everyone would finish in a blanket. It rarely happened that way, but Doc would get the math right sometimes. “Let’s have a good one,” he would finish before starting multiple watches to get everyone’s time to write down on a legal pad.
Doc made his runners want to be better by slowly bringing them along and showing them they could do something. He wasn’t a rah-rah coach. Before the state cross-country meet my senior year, he spoke to me at the start line. “You already do this better than I ever have,” he said, “so go out there and show me how it’s done.”
I did not show him how it’s done that day, finishing a disappointing second in the state after winning the year before, but Doc came up to me after the race and shook my hand anyways. “You’re going to do a lot better than that next year,” he said, referring to college running. “I can’t wait to follow along.”
And Doc did follow along. I lived on the East Coast for 15 years after graduating from Bath. I would try to stop by a cross-country meet or a track practice when I was home. Doc would always ask me about the training I was doing. He would seem to be in awe when I told him about some of the workouts my college coaches or Frank Gagliano would cook up. He always spoke like it was a different world, what we were doing out away from Bath. But the thing was, he shouldn’t have been. He would have trained me similarly if he coached me when I was 24 or 27—Doc was coaching a 15-year-old running 25 miles per week.
My track coach knew what he was doing, too. While Doc was the head track and field coach, Howard Roberson, who taught our computer classes at Bath Middle School (that’s what I remember calling them during the late 90s, at least), was the distance coach for the track team. Like Doc, he was even-keeled. He was even more organized, though, and based each and every athlete’s workouts on what he called his “computer book” of workouts that he told us equated workout performances to race performances.
Mr. Roberson would stand in the middle of the homestretch, 50 meters from the finish line. Our group would gather around him and he would tell us the workout. “Eight by 200 with a 200-walk-jog as the rest,” He would say. Then, he would open his computer book, which was filled with spreadsheets, and, using his finger to go up or down a column of a spreadsheet, would tell us our goal times. Then, we would rip off the 8×200 workout, with Mr. Roberson running back and forth on the infield (that’s why we started in the middle of the straight, so he could run a shorter distance to capture our splits), counting off the seconds—“28, 29, 30, 31…”—as we crossed the 200-meter mark.
My senior year, we had a relay meet in Olivet on the schedule. Doc and Mr. Roberson approached me the week of the meet and asked if I wanted to go to Eastern Michigan University instead. There was a good 1600-meter race shaping up, they said. The Division 1 cross-country state champion was there. So were a bunch of other good runners. We were Division 4, the smallest of the divisions. I would love to go, I told them.
At the time, my best was 4 minutes, 17 seconds. Mr. Roberson told me he thought I could P.R., but he didn’t say by how much, based on his computer book and the workouts I was doing.
When I drove back to Bath the night of the Eastern Michigan race with my dad, I couldn’t wait to see Doc and Mr. Roberson. While they let me go to the big school meet, they still went to Olivet with the team. We got to the high school around the time the bus had almost emptied out. It was dark and it smelled like burning gasoline from the bus. Doc and Mr. Roberson were standing next to the back entrance of Bath High School. They already knew what had happened at the meet—that I had sat on the lead runners through 1400 meters and took off around the final curve, running 4 minutes, 10.89 seconds and winning by six seconds as my dad and my cheers were the only sounds in a stunned, vacuous stadium—and the first thing Doc said was, “Mr. Roberson won the bet.”
“What do you mean?” I said.
“He told me your workouts had you ready for a 4:12. I thought it was going to be 4:14.”
Mr. Roberson smiled and shook my hand. “I’ve never had anyone who could do the things you’re doing,” he said. “And it looks like we get to try even harder workouts now.”
I thanked both of them and asked what I should do the rest of the weekend. They told me to get in a long run and be ready to go the next week. “This was your senior gift,” Doc told me. “You’re with us the rest of the way.”
It was the best high school graduation gift I got.
Mrs. Nunn’s public service was at her house. Hundreds of the students she taught at Bath showed up. A few of my old classmates who graduated from Bath in 2004 were there, too. I hadn’t seen some of them since graduation. One classmate who graduated the year before me messaged me on Instagram to ask if I had went. She couldn’t make it to the service, but told me that Mrs. Nunn and my mom saved her in high school.
My mom and Mrs. Nunn were inseparable. My mom also taught at Bath High School. She was a librarian when I was in school, but ended up teaching English until she retired at the same time as Mrs. Nunn. They gave the graduation speech at the 2020 graduation, which was outside and much different during a global pandemic. They were together the last time I saw Mrs. Nunn in 2020. They were biking from my house in East Lansing. They probably laughed the entire ride.
There was laughing at Mrs. Nunn’s service, too. That’s what she asked in her obituary.
Seeing my old classmates and some of my best friends growing up was rejuvenating for me. I was one of those high schoolers who was so excited to leave and see something different than my small town. The thing is, I think I always knew how lucky I was to grow up where I did. I think I knew so much that I moved back to the area two years ago, even talking my wife into living in a state other than New Jersey for the first time in her life.
My classmate who messaged me on Instagram told me Mrs. Nunn and my mom saved her. For me, Mrs. Nunn, Doc, and Mr. Roberson—and so many other teachers I adored and learned from at Bath—guided me. They gave me some tools and urged me to try.
After October 3, I’m hopeful my daughter will find those teachers in her life, too. I’m going to try my hardest to guide her and give her any lessons I can. I know my wife is going to, as well. Same goes for all her grandparents and step-grandparents and aunts and uncles and extended family. We’re counting on our community to help us out, too.
We don’t deserve teachers. But I sure am glad they’re there. Especially the ones that are still shaping my days, whether giving me a laugh or urging me to try as hard as I can.
Postscript: The header photo is from 2000. It is the first time I broke 5 minutes in the mile. I have done so every year since, too. It might be tougher to keep the streak going now that I have to “Dad” every day and won’t have as much time to train.