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My turn, Larry Efird: Paying attention is only the first step

By Larry Efird

A month or so ago, a good friend gave me a book written by a person I highly respect.

It was a memoir written by Dr. Leighton Ford, brother-in-law of Billy Graham. I still remember Leighton Ford coming to my hometown for a series of meetings when I was in the seventh grade.  I also remember him doing a short devotional on the local news every night that lasted only about 30 seconds but always contained a positive nugget of truth to live by.   

As I read his book, I encountered some life-changing quotes written by some authors of whom I had never heard. Being in the “word business” as a teacher, I’m always looking for quotes and bits of sound advice to share with my students. One such quote made me stop reading and start thinking. Many of my students can read well, but they don’t stop to think about what they’re reading. That’s when I tell them reading is far more than exercising their eyes.

Mary Oliver, an American poet and essayist who died this past year, penned these simple words regarding three basic rules for living one’s life: “Pay attention. Be astonished. Tell about it.”

The first bit of advice is something all teachers have uttered thousands of times: “Pay attention.”

But paying attention is really just the beginning. Paying attention to our lives can effectively open up the door to being astonished. When I go to a high school football game, I pay attention because I’m interested in what’s happening on the field. I’m also amazed and astonished by some of the miraculous plays my kids make during the game. I’m also astonished by the creativity and athletic ability of the cheerleaders and the unhindered school spirit displayed by the band.

Being astonished makes me want to tell someone about it, so I might text my wife about a kid who plays with his whole heart every week and who scores his first touchdown of the season in his final game as a senior. I also text her the score, whether we’re winning or not. She cares because she knows how much I do.

But unfortunately, as I am paying attention to the kids on the field, I’m also astonished, and sometimes not in a good way, by the behavior of a few adults who yell toxic comments at coaches and officials.

I’d rather those individuals keep those comments to themselves, but since they are yelling so loudly, I can’t help but pay attention to their caustic invectives.

That’s when I have a choice to make. Do I sit and ignore what’s being said around me in the presence of others who are attending the game to support the team, or do I confront the perpetrators who are obviously not pleased with the scoreboard and who in a misguided way think that voicing public criticism is showing how much they care?

After watching someone yell at the cheerleaders to “get out of the way” when they are performing a dangerous stunt because they can’t see as well as they’d like or another telling band members to sit down as they stand and cheer, I shake my head. I wonder, “Who is the game about, anyway? The kids, or the spectators?” I also wonder why a grown man — or two or three — could insult coaches when they are aware of a coach’s wife and child sitting two or three rows in front of them.

Yes, I paid attention. I was astonished. And now I’m telling about it because I think there are too many adults who don’t understand something basic which even most teenagers do. Shouting unbridled, rude remarks at someone doesn’t do much good. It actually has the opposite effect.

One of the very best parts of teaching in my experience has been going to sporting events and watching my students compete and perform. The enthusiasm of youth keeps the world going, I’m convinced, to drown out the cynicism of those who don’t like what they see “on the scoreboard,” whether it’s in current events or at sporting events.

I’m thankful for people such as Leighton Ford, who cared about a little seventh- grade boy’s life and got my attention. I’m also thankful for writers who help us to see that paying attention is only the first step.    

Larry Efird teaches English at A.L. Brown High School in Kannapolis



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