Friday, February 4, 2011


Coach Poletti's Picture he sent me - at age 90

Look closely.

The picture of the man in front of the fireplace with Christmas decorations all around him changed my life.  He boosted my self-esteem, gave me direction and purpose, loved me and made me think above my circumstances.

Some teachers stay as giants in our lives... and he is one.

I remember entering high school at the tender age of 13.  I had just been through the most tumultuous time I had ever had with my parents, and I was officially grounded for a year.  "May as well be my whole life," I thought, as sentenced was pronounced.  I knew better that to verbalize that thought.  I went to school in jeans, without makeup and completely winded.  That feeling didn't last.

The halls were filled with upperclassmen, all dressed much better than I was.  The girls had perfect hair and forms much more feminine than mine.  The elder boys, athletic and dressed in letterman jackets, with feathered hair stared shamelessly at every girl, even me.

I tried to focus, but it was like a trip to Hollywood.  My sister, Patty, had gone before me in high school and I practically memorized her yearbooks.  The people here were as enchanting as the thrill of High School.

Sixth period was the last class of the day, and one of the few that had upper and lower classmen mixed together.  It was called "Public Speaking", the breeding ground of future lawyers, CEO's and senators...and me.  The people in the class took second place to one: the teacher, Ernest G. Poletti.  He was tall and bald and had complete comand of the room.  Every eye was on him and I watched, fascinated, as he introduced the most important class I would ever take.

Poletti treated us as if we understood everything he said, and I was sure he was a genius.  He completely blew us all out of the water by telling us if we ever wanted to make the speech team we would have to come to seven a.m. challenges every morning.  Several people there were already signed up. I (uncharacteristically)  wondered, secretly, if my "grounding for life" would be lifted to come to school at 7.  I thought I might have a chance...

Seven a.m. challenges were exhilarating, and I was inches away from the Speech team captain, Julia Moriarty when I went.  Looking back, the super-Mormon-Sigourney-Weaver look-alike was larger than life to me.  I was a mouse next to her.  The rest of the room was a mixture of stand-out students ...and me.  I didn't do well that morning, but I absorbed a lesson: if I spoke very well, people would listen.

Meanwhile, I listened to Poletti, who was a model of organized thought mixed with persuasive delivery.  I learned impromptu (a no-preparation speech with organized thought), extemporaneous (preparation of world news that each student was given 20 minutes to read), debate (Oxford and Lincoln-Douglas) and a mixture of prepared speeches (my personal favorite was Original prose and poetry).   Poletti loved me, as he did all of his students, and encouraged me to compete.  I did, and my life was changed.

Poletti retired the same year, much to everyone's dismay.  Several teachers followed him, but none took his place.

In my senior year, I was not the speech team captain.  I missed the honor by three points, and Steve Tashima (my nemesis in Speech) took the crown and loudly boasted before me.  He was also President of the mega-brained CSF (California Scholarship Federation) and he didn't need another feather in his cap to make him even more self-confident.  Still, at graduation I was given the Ernest G. Poletti award (the speech team's most inspirational speaker) and I knew that I had discovered my calling in life.

Life, as all adults know, doesn't go as we think it will.  After graduating I  hit a lot of bumps in the road and  became less and less like that girl who dazzled with spoken words.  At my lowest point, I appeared to be lost: a drug-addicted, desperate, young, single mother who knew life would have to change.

It was then that Jesus made Himself known to me.  I still tear up thinking of Jesus saved me. His tenderness and love and faithfulness to save is still the most incredible miracle to me.

Years past and Mario and I sat in a restaurant after a church prayer meeting.  A crowd of high-school kids came in, dressed in business attire with a few supervising adults.  They were noticeably confident and polished.  Mario asked if I thought they were a local high school choir.  I smiled, and said I thought it was a speech team.

How many Saturday nights had I come away from a Speech tournament ravenous, victorious, surrounded by my friends who were the same??  At school we were squares and brains and listened to all the wrong musical groups, but together we were mighty and lived in a world beyond ourselves.  These guys looked familiar: like us twenty years ago.

As we left we passed the supervising adult that looked about my age (!) and I asked her where her group was from.  She told me that the group of kids were from a local high school and that they were, indeed a speech team.  She asked me, excitedly if I had ever competed in California.  I told her I did, in the Stockton Unified school district.  She asked my school and my coach, and without thinking, I answered that Poletti was my coach (I had only had him for one year).  She lit up.

"You know, he's still alive!" she said, encouraging me to write to him.  She gave me her card, and told me that she would forward any letter I sent to Mr. Poletti.  We said goodbye, and I left.

In the parking lot, Mario encouraged me to write to him.  He knew all about Poletti, from stories I had told him, and knew the influence he had on me.  Then he said it: "Do you think he prayed for you?  Do you think he knew Jesus?"

The question was suddenly clear.  Mr. Poletti had to have been a Christian.  He reeked of life and wisdom.  He changed me, moved me and welcomed me to be all I could be... like no other.  That night I wrote to him... and I struggled through an introduction and a brief synopsis of who I was now.  I told him about having a baby that saved my life.  Meeting Mario and marrying.  Having a daughter.  Teaching at a Christian School.  Visiting Africa, making plans to move there.  I wanted to ask my question, but didn't know how.  I eventually did:
          "...I want to say that in high school I was not very moral, and consequently not very happy.  Even so, speech made me walk upright and keep focused on something.  I'm sure it would have been easy to be swept away if it had not been for a purposeful goal in front of me.  I also suspect that you were (are) a Christian man, even though you never preached.  Is this true?  Looking back, I believe you had to be.  Some people who believe in God just radiate His grace...."

I ended the letter, thanking him for who he is/was to me, and that he remained a hero in my life.

Two weeks later I got an answer, in the form of a letter.  I couldn't believe it, seeing his return address label with a Modesto address.  I opened it to find the picture above, and a note written on a single piece of paper, in pencil:
             "Dear Janet
                       Please forgive me for writing in pencil but if I can't erase because I use ink I'm afraid I'll never be able to complete my message.  It is great to hear from you and to know you are a teacher in a Christian school.  That is a wonderful place to teach!  I am sure that God will inspire you in gratitude for your choice of a place to teach His Word!
                      God has been very kind to me.  I am in good health and still enjoying life- even tho I am ninety years old.  I still do most of the things I like to do.  God bless you for remembering me.  Your kind words are deeply appreciated and will never be forgotten!
                           Ernie Poletti   Alias 'Coach'"

My coach.  It still brings tears....

Today, as I sifted through the dailies about Cairo and the tremendous tumult there, I remembered the Iranian revolt of my freshman year.  The Ayatollah Khomeini and his methods of terrorizing us, the United States, were new and extreme.  I remember us all fiercely reading periodicals around Poletti's desk.

I learned how to research from this man.  How to collect and compare information.  How to test sources, how to filter through opinion and find fact, how to think past what I was reading.

And instead of a blog about Egypt I could only write this.  I could only think about a man who changed my life - in one year for one hour a day while I was a smart-mouthed know-it-all distracted by my peers.

Some people who believe in God just radiate His grace.