Coach Scolds Immigrant Student for Coming Late to Practice – So the Boy Gives Him a Challenge He Can’t Refuse
“Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a battle you know nothing about.”
We hear this quote regularly but how often do we truly think about it? We can only understand what a person is going through if we can see life through their eyes and from their shoes. And that is exactly what a student in Des Moines, Iowa explained to his soccer coach.
North High School sophomore MJ Mangok’s description of his life is simple. It centers around three things: family, soccer, and school.
When MJ isn’t learning in the classroom, he’s on the field with his soccer teammates. This seemingly simple teenage routine is anything but for MJ.
“I lived in Egypt for 14 years, and then we came here in 2021,” he said.
Why One Coach Got Mad at a Student
MJ’s family is from Sudan, a country in northeast Africa, but fled civil war to Egypt before he was born. The family immigrated to the United States in 2021, and they’ve been working diligently to learn English and become a part of their new community ever since.
“I’ve got four sisters and one brother,” he said. “We’ve been here and we’re trying to communicate with people and be friends and play soccer.”
It’s easy to forget that many teenagers, especially those who have newly immigrated to the US, have a throng of real-life struggles that can easily rival those of an adult.
Leland Schipper is a soccer coach and math teacher at North High School. It was a normal day on the field when Coach Schipper grilled one of his students for being late to practice. What did the student, MJ, say in response? He challenged the coach to “do what I do” for just one day. To the teen’s surprise, Schipper took him up on that offer.
MJ’s trek to get to school and soccer practice each day is unlike most other teens at his school. At 6:30 a.m. each morning, he begins his day on a Des Moines Area Regional Transit Authority (DART) bus on the northeast side of the city. From there, he connects to another bus at the downtown station, which takes him to a stop near North High School.
“Sometimes I come late to practice and (the coach) asks me ‘Where have you been?’” MJ explained. “And I’ll tell him the bus got stuck or something.”
“He’s explained why he was late, but he’s never complained about that part of his life,” Schipper said.
MJ made a promise to his coach to try his best to be on time for school and practice each day. But he also presented a challenge to his coach: to try walking in his shoes for just one day.
The Challenge One Student Gave His Coach
So Schipper accepted MJ’s challenge and agreed to shadow MJ to school, practice, open gym and back home from 6:00 a.m. to 11:15 p.m. — all on city buses.
At first Schipper scoffed at that idea, but he was quickly proven wrong.
“While I knew MJ and many kids I work with face real obstacles, I was relatively sure I was fully capable of doing what MJ does,” he said. “By the end of the day, it was clear to me that MJ was right, I wasn’t.”
Their day together started by shivering at MJ’s city bus stop at 6:30 a.m. MJ lives a long distance from school and takes two buses to get there.
“Throughout our bus journey, I followed MJ like he was my guide in a city I have lived in most of my life,” the coach explained.
While waiting at the DART station for their second bus, MJ displayed wisdom beyond his years in very adult situations: “Even if there are little problems, it’s okay. Just go through it. You can fix it.”
The pair arrived at school at 7:40 a.m., which is 45 minutes before school starts. MJ explained that he had only two choices: be at school alone and extremely early or be five to ten minutes late. The coach began to understand why MJ chose to be a few minutes late so often.
Schipper followed MJ all day long, attending his classes and eating breakfast and lunch with him. Throughout the day, the coach learned a lot about how hardworking and resourceful astudent MJ is.
“He is determined to always do his best, and he laughs and makes everyone else laugh more than anyone else on our team,” said Coach Schipper.
The Important Lesson a Coach Learnt From His Student
The pair separated briefly while MJ took a two-hour journey home to pick up the shoes he’d forgotten that morning.
After school, the duo met up at the downtown YMCA. Making the trip by bus was something Schipper was not used to.
“I had no car and had to get myself to the YMCA on my own on the DART,” said Schipper. “I missed the bus. It was a cold mistake. The soccer team sent pictures of me in the group chat with captions ‘Coach is going to freeze’ and ‘RIP coach.’ MJ just laughed at me when I finally made it to the YMCA.”
The YMCA is a safe space for all and a favorite of MJ. He often plays sports with his friends or plays with a soccer ball on a racquetball court, often for hours. “I just like being alone with a ball,” explained MJ.
The pair’s day didn’t end there. They caught another bus and went back to the high school for the open gym period from 8:00 p.m. to 9:30 p.m. “MJ doesn’t always make it to the open gym on weeknights. He often does, but he would sometimes tell me he was too tired and didn’t have a ride. I regret that my response had often been, ‘Come on man, the DART bus is free for students this year. You’ve got no excuse!’ It is free, which is incredible, but it’s a lot more complicated than that; I see that more clearly now,” said Schipper.
At the end of the long day, the pair caught the bus back downtown with MJ sharing stories his life as a refugee in Egypt. “He showed me videos of him playing soccer as a 12-year-old at his refugee camp in Egypt. They were fascinating glimpses into the formative years that created such an incredibly resilient and joyous kid.”
The Importance of Being Kind to Everyone
It was after 11:00 p.m. when they arrived home at MJ’s apartment complex. They shared a hug and a goodbye, and the coach found himself emotional thinking about MJ’s long and exhausting days and was filled with a new appreciation for all his students’ struggles. He then sat down to document his day on Facebook and the post went viral.
“I’m writing this before I go to sleep after one of the longest days I’ve ever experienced,” Schipper began. “Today, I decided to walk in the shoes of one of our students at North – one of the young men I get the privilege to have on my soccer team. MJ gave me permission to share about our day together and about some of his story.”
As the exhausting day wore on, the coach realized he’d been too hard on his students who arrived late or couldn’t attend after-school activities.
“I think that kind of, especially in the winter, the sort of risk that there was if you missed a bus. On our way home, we were taking the last of the DART buses and I told MJ I wanted to get out and wait and he was more comfortable waiting inside in the warmth for a little bit longer,” Schipper said. “I was worried that if we missed that, it was a five-mile walk home, and I was pretty nervous for that. So, just that element that there’s not always a backup plan … that really struck me.”
“All that to say this: In three months, when you see a post on the North High School Boys’ Soccer page about MJ scoring a goal in a big game, it will represent a lot more than most Iowa high schoolers scoring a goal. And in two and a half years, when MJ walks across the graduation stage, it will mean even more. MJ turns obstacles into skills and finds joy in every moment of the process. It was deeply inspiring to have a front seat to it today,” wrote Schipper on his social media.
The experience left coach Schipper in awe of the lengthy routine MJ goes through each day, still finding the energy to be a source of joy for so many.
MJ’s explanation? He’s got a family at North High School, too.