From stick figures to accomplishing figures

   “There wasn’t a whole lot of grade checking going done on the parents’ part,” says Donald Wahl (history and psychology teacher at Arvada West). For Wahl, education was not always his top priority. He grew up in a household of several siblings. Wahl’s mother came into the parenting scene at an extraordinarily early age. Wahl says, “There were six kids, five by the time my mom was 21. They [Wahl’s parents] were overwhelmed; so we didn’t have a whole lot of rules at times.” In fact, there might have never been any grades checked, since neither Donald Wahl nor his siblings can recall a time where their parents asked to see a report card.

   Wahl grew up as a motivated athlete, and his excelling play was enough to interest colleges despite his subpar academic performance. By growing up in a chaotic home environment, there was a lack of academic discipline outside of the school doors of Streator High School in Illinois. There were some school nights he could get away with being out all night and coming home at a time when most of his family was asleep.

   It was not until his senior year in high school when this all started to change. “They moved out here [Colorado] right before my senior year. Well, I didn’t want to move before my senior year. I had a college that was sending me letters and recruiting me in basketball, so I was able to talk them into letting me stay back in Illinois.” In Wahl’s senior year he moved in with his grandmother. “The first day I got home from school she sat me in a desk and said, ‘You’re going to sit here for one hour every day.’” She never told him to work on anything specifically . “She was smart enough to know that the human mind is curious and eventually, I would start doing my homework.” She was right. “For the first week I drew what must have been five thousand stick figures dunking’ a basketball; and finally I got so bored that I picked up a book and started reading it.” The next two nights he picked up the same book, which happened to be textbook for one of his classes. “By the time the quiz came, I didn’t even realize I had studied, I was just bored…. By the time I took that quiz I knew those chapters inside out.” When his quiz results came back he was shocked. He had scored the highest grade in the class with a 97%.

   “I had a friend [Darren Rice] who was a certified genius [IQ at or above 132] and had a perfect on the ACT.” The Chicago Tribune actually wrote up an article on him in 1980–there were only three kids in the country that had it. Rice scored a 94%, and Don Wahl became the first person he knows to have ever got a higher grade than Rice on a test. “Everybody’s like, no way–you must have cheated off of him, That’s when I showed them my paper, and I was like no-I had a higher grade than he did.” This was truly a defining moment for Wahl, as he came to the realization of how much he was capable of academically. “That highest grade on that test in that class was the one that just sparked an interest in me-like wow-I want to do this again.”

   Wahl was now funneling the same type of motivation he used in sports to take himself to the next step academically. In his senior year he maintained roughly a 3.8 grade point average, leagues ahead of where he was in his first few years of high school. His academic success became a bigger focus than basketball. In his first year of college at Arapahoe Community College, he played for their basketball team, but the program was cut after his first year their.

   Nevertheless, Wahl moved on to get a teaching degree, was listed as an alternate for an Olympic handball team, and has been Arvada West’s golf coach since 2001. It was not until after college that he started swinging a golf club. By simply reading a few books with golfing tips, he was shooting in the 70s after just a year of playing.

   He suggests that for struggling student, “It is easy to turn it around if you have even the tiniest amount of self discipline.” This means taking about an hour out of every night to do your homework in a distraction free environment. “If you don’t have homework, then read,” or “study ahead of time.” Wahl had his kids practice the method of studying one hour every night, and his oldest son was accepted into Colorado University with a full ride scholarship, while his oldest daughter has a Presidential scholarship at Colorado University.

   Wahl proves that the key component to reaching a better situation is maintaining motivation, and Wahl sees himself as a very self motivated person. When it comes to motivating other people, such as his students or players, he says, “Everybody is different.” Yet ultimately, as we saw with Wahl’s grandmother, it just takes the right influences to trigger that motivation.