Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Kindergarten Chairs

I recall how I used to marvel at the pole-vaulting pit on the athletic field behind my school in St. Louis awestruck by the height of the bar!

“Imagine someone my age possessing the focus, daring and strength to face such a formidable challenge.”

That memory has served me well throughout the years when I sought to inculcate its lesson in my parenting and teaching.

My first student was Ben to whom I often said:

"Raise up the bar, son! Never lower it!"

I was hopeful that that axiom would inspire him to overcome the obstacles life had placed before him. If by working hard and empowering himself to reach in, out and beyond, he would become his own master!

Though I imparted a sense of “derech eretz”
[1] by teaching Ben the principles of Jewish ethical behavior, I failed in my efforts to improve his academic performance.

He was an average student and even fell below average in high school where I believe kids like Ben who-for reasons at times inexplicable-just do not fit into the prefabricated mold of a “good” student and, all too commonly, fall between the cracks.

Reaching in ...

His physical strength was awesome. I discovered just how much so one Sunday afternoon.

Standing next to the entranceway to the ice rink, I stood watching as Ben skated toward me at full speed. Increasingly ominous in appearance with every passing moment, he feigned trying to avoid crashing into me by employing his ice-sheering hockey stop that brought him so much joy-being able to stop on a frozen dime, as it were, while shaving the surface of the ice into a snowy burst of frozen flakes.

Even though I was very much aware that he was teasing me, I left soon with a better sense of how it must feel to stand in front of an oncoming train!

A powerful and skilled ice-skater, Ben’s primary rolw as an “ice guard” was to enforce safety rules during hours of open skating. His favorite part consisted mostly of helping tiny skaters who had fallen while on the ice and setting them aright. I remember how much he enjoyed the job.

Ben had always worked so well with children.

HisStrength, His Strength, My Indecision …

Of a much different and greater importance than his impressive physical prowess was the inner-almost spiritual dimension of Ben’s strength, his strength of character.

He demonstrated the degree of its depth when-having to undergo a corrective surgery to repair an infected appendectomy-the surgeon left the second incision deliberately unsutchered as a means by which to insure its complete healing.

And Ben’s role in this …

He was required to reach inside the wound twice daily, packing it fully with gauze and tape it shut. Imagine the reaction of most teenagers if they were to be asked to assume such a grave responsibility for several weeks!

On one occasion while the two of us were talking together in his room, I watched as he performed this self-procedure. Awestruck by the calm of his courage and dumbstruck by the care with which he approached this matter, I did not need much time before becoming so overwhelmed I did not knew if I should laugh or cry. In the end, I compromised by crying tears of joy!

In addition to strength and technique, the pole-vaulter, as Ben, must possess an inner strength, a driving force that will enable him to overcome the most challenging of obstacles with ease and grace.

[1] respect; literally, way of the land

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