Some of us were lucky enough to have had one or two really great teachers when we were in school. Mine was Mr. Gupton. He taught French and English grammar in my middle school. Mr. Gupton was a very intelligent and witty man. He was also legendarily demanding. He had a passion for excellence and he expected us to commit to that standard. He did not permit slack performance. He never had to talk about these expectations, but the message came through loud and clear as soon as he walked in the classroom. The way he carried himself, the look on his face, and the tone on his voice made it clear that he was there to teach us something and that our job was to learn it.
It is important to note that Mr. Gupton was surrounded by middle schoolers all day. We were in that unfortunate gap age where we had lost our cuteness and had not yet acquired any high school swagger. We were not easy to love, but he was completely committed to us. In poker parlance, Mr. Gupton was ‘all in’ every day. We responded to his commitment to excellence by giving him our best effort. We respected him and we wanted to earn his respect.
Soccer was the most popular sport in my middle school, and while Mr. Gupton was not our coach, one day at lunch he appeared dressed in full referee attire. He had a whistle, a referee jersey, referee shorts, referee socks, and even red and yellow cards. Looking back as an adult, I marvel at the bravery of a grown man to appear before a group of 13 year olds dressed like a referee, but it seemed perfectly natural to me at the time. He matter-of-factly stated that he would host a game at lunch and he expected players to be there. We ridiculed and mocked everything else at that age, but we did not ridicule or mock Mr. Gupton. It never crossed our minds to do so because he was confidently committed the game. He showed up on time every day and he officiated with the seriousness of a World Cup official. And his commitment made it really great for us.
When I think about the idea of being committed to an ideal of excellence and making quality personal, images of Mr. Gupton often bubble up in my mind. He showed us what that commitment looked like and we responded by doing our best for him.
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