An Educational Autobiography

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Joe Kacmarsky. Photo credit

By Joe Kacmarsky, Contributing Writer

“The most important thing in life is to be a nice person.” At the same time, “it does not matter what others think of you.” In other words, treat others well, but others do not determine my worth or who I am; I do. Before ever engaging in any type of formal education, I learned these two lessons. Instilled in me by my father at a young age, they would impact nearly every one of my social encounters that would follow, as well as many of the most important decisions I would make as I got older. Ultimately, these lessons would shape me as a person for the rest of my life.

Years later, throughout middle school and the better part of high school, I found myself being “myself,” an introverted non-conformist, unconcerned with what people thought of me and with my formal education. The only things on my mind were basketball and having fun. Fortunately, I was blessed with a baseline intelligence sufficient enough to “get by” with decent grades, but I had not yet experienced an influential educational impact—that is, until I attended Point Guard College.

Point Guard College is a weeklong basketball camp focused on the mental side of the game. Campers attended multiple classroom sessions in between on-the-court sessions. While my basketball teammates were attending camps at which they were playing basketball, I found myself in the classroom. I was not only content to be in a classroom, but I was fully engaged in learning—engrossed, for the very first time—because I was learning new things that were directly relevant to my main interest at the time, which was becoming a better basketball player. I must have taken more notes during that week than my entire freshman year of high school. It amazed me that there was a way to study how to become a better ball-handler, a better defender, a better leader, a better point guard, a better basketball player. Finally, I learned what it was like to learn—not to memorize and regurgitate, but to learn. For the first time it was grounded in joy and passion, rather than obligation and necessity. I was obsessed. After the camp ended, I bought books on basketball; I watched educational videos on basketball; I ate, slept and dreamed basketball. My paramount goal in life became to play college basketball. There was only one problem: time was running out.

As my junior year of high school was coming to a close, I came to a pressing, disheartening realization. I had not yet been recruited to play basketball in college; even more importantly, I had not yet even thought about attending college. I was living in a fairy tale world, thinking that I would magically receive a scholarship offer to play Division I basketball, despite the fact that my high school basketball career, at that point, was less than promising. That magical moment never occurred, but another one did.


“Hi, is this Joey Kacmarsky?”

“It is.”

“Hi, Joey. This is Tim Ortelli, the new Head Coach of the Rutgers Prep Basketball Team. I have seen you play, and I like what I see. I also noticed that things do not seem to be working out the way you would like at Westfield High. I am trying to build a top-notch program here at Rutgers Prep, and I want to bring in the type of kids who can help us get there, and I think you have what I am looking for—talent, shooting ability and toughness. What do you think about taking a tour of the campus and meeting the guys?”

Little did I know at the moment, but I was about to make the best—and most unorthodox—decision of my life. Although many advised me against it, I decided to transfer to Rutgers Prep and repeat my junior year, mostly because it allowed me to gain another year of basketball eligibility. My basketball career soon soared, as did my grades, and I met some of my best friends to this day. And, after two successful years on the court and in the classroom, I ended up getting recruited to play basketball at many excellent colleges, including Gettysburg College.

By this point in my life I knew how to get good grades, but I still did not know how to learn—I mean, truly learn as I did at Point Guard College—in a formal educational institution; that is, up until my next experiential encounter: an independent study at Gettysburg, with a professor whom I had never met from an academic department outside of my major. With the help of Professor Steven Gimbel, the head of the Philosophy department, I experienced the power of true learning, self-directed learning. The (self-determined) name of the course was “The Philosophy of Coaching.” As a lifelong athlete, some of my most influential figures—both positive and negative—were coaches. Meanwhile, I had developed a deep interest in coaching, not only in the context of athletics, but from the perspective of “leader-manager” and “executive” coaching. The course included weekly reading/research assignments, weekly discussions about the assignments and, finally, a term paper in which I attempted to formulate a definition of a coach (more difficult than it seems) and grappled with several difficult ethical questions faced by coaches.

For the first time in a formal educational setting, I was learning what I wanted to learn, when I wanted to learn and how I wanted to learn. I decided what I was interested in, I decided what I wanted to read, I created the deadlines and I decided what I wanted to be evaluated on. It was empowering, for sure, but it was more than just empowering. I had never before learned so much in a single semester, let alone in a single class. After months of reading and research and often-breathtaking discussions, I came to the philosophical conclusion that coaching is about promoting self-awareness and congruence in the client (or athlete)—getting him or her to find the answers within himself or herself—and, ultimately, helping to produce winners, as opposed to wins. I expounded upon this conclusion in a 30-page paper, which earned the grade of “A.” Although I had received some “A” grades in the past, this one seemed to mean more—mostly, I believe, because of my passionate interest in the subject matter. But, unexpectedly, I came away with more than just a positive learning experience and a great grade. I learned another lesson and formed a new personal view on the topic of education—that is, “one only learns what one wants to learn.”

I have reflected often upon this experience over the past few months, and I still believe in this philosophy; although, perhaps, it is not fair to extend the theory beyond myself or beyond my own personal learning experiences. Perhaps my view is better stated as, “I only learn what I want to learn.” Until the self-directed learning experience that I described, I had participated entirely in a “memorize and regurgitate” model of learning. But once I really knew what it was like to learn, I realized that learning does not start in the classroom or with instruction from others, and it does not end with satisfying an obligation or complying with a necessity. It may (or may not) start in the classroom or come from formal instruction, but it also takes place outside of the classroom; and, at its best, at least for me, it is grounded in sincerity and joy and self.

I suspect that this view applies to many others as well,if not universally. Looking back, it seems as though I aimlessly stumbled upon this epiphany of sorts by taking an unconventional path. I may not have always followed convention, but I do not believe that I stumbled at all. “The most important thing in life is to be a nice person, but it does not matter what others think of you.” Long before I understood the true power of learning and its different forms I had the benefit of this wisdom from my dad. What I did not realize, however, was the enduring impact that it would have on my success and who I am today.

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