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Stephen Cocca: Overcoming adversity in golf and in life

I like to play golf early in the morning. Golf is, after all, one of the “expected” things that retired guys like me are supposed to do. And although it’s a social game, I particularly enjoy an occasional game alone so I can keep a detailed scorecard, tracking my scores and monitoring my progress over the course of the season.

Recently, on one such outing, I was able to mark that day’s scorecard with something far more significant than a par, birdie or a one-putt. As a result of a chance encounter with a former student, I have a feeling of satisfaction greater than anything I could achieve on the golf course. Being a retired teacher, I can mark this student as being successful on that larger scorecard of life.

Even after retirement every teacher must wonder what ever happened to that list of special students who presented a challenge when you taught them. I know I have. They would be the kids who struggled to read and write, fought with math problems or failed to absorb those deeper social studies and science concepts. Perhaps even those who frequently misbehaved. But you hoped deep in your heart that they would grow up someday and turn out well.

Sometimes you think about those students when you happen to pull out the old yearbooks or when you encounter a former colleague and talk about the old days. Mostly though, you encounter them in unexpected places and at the oddest times.

On this particular beautiful morning of golf, I caught up to a twosome ahead of me. They were leaning on a fence surrounding the eighth tee and explained that they were resting and told me to play through. The layout features a drive over a deep gully and carts and walkers must traverse down a steep path and over a bridge to climb the other side and complete the 135-yard hole. After thanking them, I teed off, admired my first-ever shot on the green and turned to grab my bag to begin the gleeful walk into the chasm that for so many years had claimed countless numbers of my precious golf balls.

I noticed then that another single golfer had just putted out on the seventh and was walking toward his cart, so I decided to wait and ask if he would like to hit and play out the hole together.

When he pulled up to the tee I told him my idea and he agreed.

As we chatted, I paused to study him more closely and then I said, “You look very familiar to me. I think I know you from somewhere.”

The tall young man then asked me, “Are you Mr. Cocca?”

“Yes,” I said tripping over my golf bag to shake his hand.

Then he told me his name.

He was one of those students!

We rode the golf cart together into the gully and ascended the opposite bank, a perfect allegory of his life. He told me of his struggles in school before and after sixth grade, the big turning point in a two-year community college program, how he’d taken the test for corrections and landed back in Western New York, married his sweetheart and was happily planning on building or buying a home and starting a family.

Looking at that scorecard today, I find myself unconcerned with the errant shots, blown putts and missed chances I marked on it that day. Instead, I treasure that card because it’s a reminder of a student who overcame adversity and is making life into something good.

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