“I respect strong finishers,” said Mr. Ahern. It was the crux of his appeal to our better sophomore selves, who in mid-spring were lacking in drive and concentration. The final marking period was upon us, and the sweet scent of the American summer vacation was almost intoxicating. Our first year in high school was drawing to a close; the fifteen or so of us had put in our time and were ready to check out till September. Mr. Ahern realized this before we acknowledged it in ourselves, so he was trying to keep us on the A track. We had a rather substantial paper to submit for his English class near the end of the year, and he wanted it to be our personal best. Don’t be discouraged by a dip in your grades through the past year, he said. I’d rather see you go out on a high note.
The speech definitely worked for me. It was motivating then, and it has come back to me countless times since. It comes back now as my two boys start their summer vacation as of 11 am tomorrow morning. And I recall the words and the feelings as I teach and draw close to the end of the spring semester. Teachers get weary at the end, too, I have learned, and need to work at being strong finishers themselves.
Outside of academia, life is rife with beginnings and endings as well. But what does it mean to be a strong finisher as a friend, or as a parent? In relationship it is a constant striving to be your best for the other person, I suppose. There is an ebb and flow in both doing and being. The Apostle Paul’s metaphor of a foot race comes to mind when I think of strong finishers: running in such a way as to claim the prize. It is part determination, part talent, part wisdom–and I fear the rest is blood, sweat, and tears. The following are characteristics I have come to associate with strong finishers in my own experience and observation since that fateful talking-to in tenth grade:
Strong finishers are self-motivated. Yes, Mr. Ahern’s words did motivate me. But that was because I loved the class, I loved English and writing, and I wanted to do my best anyway. Hearing those sentiments echoed by the teacher was an extra boost. It’s easier to stand up when you already are sitting up straight than when you are lying down flat.
Strong finishers pace themselves. I doubt Mr. Ahern expected the C students among us to end up with an A average for the year. Coming on strong at the end works best when you have maintained steadiness throughout. This does not discount the aforementioned ebb and flow–the inevitable screw-ups, the highs and lows of mood and inspiration. I’m referring to the overall picture where we hope the unpleasantries balance out.
Strong finishers know when they need rest. Pushing through moods, daily irritants, and even exhaustion is sometimes necessary. But if you know your own physical and emotional limits, you are unwise to ignore them. As much as I wish it weren’t true, it seems a lot of true progress is of the three steps forward, two steps back variety. Perhaps this is a matter of changing my idea of what a “step back” is: not so much a counterproductive move as a way to gain perspective and think before I act or speak.
In the hazy, lazy days of summer, my focus wanes even as I want to do my job, all my jobs, well. I still want to be a strong finisher, and I want to give my kids and my students the encouragement to be strong finishers too.