Reflecting Back


1999 Bryon Sofinowski, Becca Slingluff Ritz, and Justin Holland

I just spent 173 consecutive hours with 17 high school students. Every morning, I was the first person awake, playing the role of human alarm clock to ensure there was enough time for all 9 girls to use the one shared bathroom before breakfast. Every afternoon, I coaxed kids out of their comfort zones and into sea kayaks and sea urchin infested water, onto mountain bikes and slippery rainforest trails. Every night, after dinner and journaling, I tucked them in, and then tried to fall asleep while they continued to giggle, nothing but a thin bamboo wall separating their gossip from my dreams. One night, at 3am, the hot guy in my dream started calling me “Ms. McDermott.”  “Ms. McDermott.” “Ms. McDermott.” After McDreamy called me Ms. McDermott a 12th time, he vanished and I snapped out of my slumber, a student’s face coming into focus as rubbed my blurry eyes and wiped away my drool. There was a leak in the thatched roof over her and another girl’s bed. I put on my grown-up hat and set to work.

The Jeepney picking us up from the airport.

The Jeepney picking us up from the airport.

A few days later, on our way to the airport to catch our flight home, our Jeepney broke down on a dirt road with zero traffic and practically zero cell-phone reception. After 40 minutes of problem solving, we finally arrived to the airport for our third group check in of the week, excited to be going home. Boarding passes in hand, we bumbled through the next security check point, one of our basketball players cracking a fresh, original joke about “no guns allowed.”  The gate, which was simply a sliding glass door to the runway, was packed. We waited patiently and watched the rain continue to fall outside. We waited some more. And a bit more. And then I fought the masses to get seats on the next flight out after hearing ours had been cancelled. The last 25 hours of that trip was courtesy of Cebu Pacific and their flight cancellation.

Locals riding on the Jeepney, students riding inside. On our way to the airport, about to break dow.

Locals riding on the Jeepney, students riding inside. On our way to the airport, about to break down.

During those 25 extra hours, I had some time to think about the trips I went on in high school – field trips and travel for sports – and what it was like to be the student, not the chaperone. Every memory ended with the same thought: Thank you teachers, for dealing with teenage me and my classmates in public.

My first trip abroad was with the History Club the summer after I graduated. I spent my life savings, 1,800USD I had saved in my three summers working at Castle Harbour Marina, on an 11 day whirlwind tour of Europe rather than buying a car as I had intended. My American History teacher and unofficial college counselor, Bryon Sofinowski, had organized the trip. I was pumped.

As a chaperone, Sof didn’t have to deal with a cancelled flight like I did, but he did have to deal with several students’ luggage getting lost. He also had to deal with students missing meeting times, and Amsterdam, and a little blond student who thought she could be a chaperone even at the age of 17 – me. I disagreed with the consequences Sof dealt to Randy, Kara, Meghan, and Russell after they were late to a check-in. Just a few days earlier, two girls, Pogo and Katie maybe, had slept through an alarm and almost made the whole group miss the Chunnel train, but they didn’t get punished as harshly as the other crew. Fired up, I tried to plead the case of my classmates, but I barely got out two sentences before I was crying. The spotlight moved from my indignation and attempted advocacy to me getting a tutorial from Sof on how to argue without crying. He suggested I practice arguing in the mirror. That didn’t work. To this day, I still cry when I’m angry and confrontational. It’s a curse.

My classmates in Europe, 2001. Loved it, glad not to chaperone it.

My classmates in Europe, 2001. Definitely more fun for us than our chaperones.

Though Sof’s tip to prevent my tears from flowing proved ineffective, it was just one of many pieces of advice from Sof. Fortunately, his other bits of advice have been more helpful. Sof was a huge advocate for student athletes. Even though he didn’t even coach any of the sports I played, he took the time to support all athletes, coaching me off the field.  He was instrumental in helping me figure out the ropes of NCAA clearinghouse and college recruiting. Knowing how important summer camps are to getting recruited for college sports, and knowing that my family didn’t have money to spare on lacrosse camps, Sof spent some of his planning periods, lunch breaks, and after-school hours helping me set up fundraisers. I ended up being able to go to the UMD lacrosse camp the summer after my sophomore year, and the Penn State camp then next summer. Several local businesses helped me out, but I will always remember that my largest donation came from Sof’s mother’s business.

To this day, Sof is still a huge student advocate. For a few years early in my teaching career, I taught alongside Sof at my alma mater, KIHS, where I saw him change more students’ lives. This man can be so motivational – or cutthroat some might say – that during a competitive food drive, he got students from my homeroom (and pretty much everyone else’s) to donate to his homeroom’s collection. His class creamed mine. Creamed everybody’s. I’m still in awe, and bitter.

Sof and I at a fellow teacher's wedding, 2007

Sof and I at a fellow teacher’s wedding, 2007

As helpful as Sof was, he was not my only guiding hand and advocate in the sports arena – my track coach Justin Holland was both a cheerleader and a grounding realist, and my lacrosse coach Rebecca Slingluff Ritz went above and beyond to advocate for me. She and Matt, her then fiancé, now husband, drove me to UNC Chapel Hill, 12 hours round trip, so I could do an overnight visit there one weekend. Recruiting trips were hard for my mother to swing as Logan was barely 3 years old and my other brothers were still in school. I was the only recruit there without a parent, which made me a little uncomfortable around the other recruits and their bright-eyed parents, who seemed like pros at the whole college deal. It wasn’t until halfway through that trip, in those moments when you realize you are the only one not laughing, that I learned Duke and UNC are bitter rivals and that pregaming has another meaning besides warming up before a game. I was clueless. I was out of my comfort zone. I was awkward. But I was there. I survived. I learned. And in the end I even had fun. College was within my reach.

Coach Becca and Coach Kepley.

Becca and Coach Kepley, the Girls’ Soccer Coach.

The support and experience of my coaches helped make college a plausible option for me. As a first generation college student, I needed a lot of help navigating the waters of college applications and FAFSAs and choosing majors and good fit schools. Sophomore year, when Sof asked me if I was thinking about going to college after graduation, I said yes, and presented him with a list of three schools: Yale, Stanford, and Harvard. Besides the two biggest schools in my home state, as a sophomore I only knew universities that were featured in movies. Though I was a strong student who graduated with honors, without Sof, Becca, and Holland’s expertise and care, I would have probably finished senior year with nothing but a diploma and three rejection letters in my hand. (Not that an acceptance letter would have changed anything – A 10,000 USD scholarship doesn’t even put a dent in a 160,000USD price tag.)

Through my coaches’ selfless concern and off-the-clock investment in me, they built my confidence and expanded my options. My coaches showed me that support and concern can come from so many people, in so many ways. They showed me the importance of a support network and the meaning of a community. They showed me what it means to pay-it-forward, to truly value education, sports, and teamwork. Getting me into a college that made sense for me was a team effort.  Thanks team.


4 thoughts on “Teamwork

  1. Rita,

    Finally got to read this and it was great! The kids that got in trouble was actually Russell, Kara, Meghan Wolfe, and myself! That is what we get for going to go see Jim Morrison’s grave and trying to navigate the French train system without knowing a lick of French. I think this is an awesome thing you are doing and I hope you are having a great time on the other side of the world!


    • Aha! Thanks for reading and thanks for filling in the holes in my memory Randy! I corrected that bit. Vietnam is interesting, especially because my Vietnamese is abysmal at best. Cheers, Rita

      P.S. I have a hard enough time navigating the NYC subway, and that’s in English!

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