It was heartbreaking to see him regularly chosen last for a baseball team when school children were organizing a game. He never did learn how to ice skate despite a very determined effort and lots of coaching and support from us. It took him forever to learn to ride a bike, and his knees and elbows were tortured in the process. Just the same, he was a happy child and was well liked by his peers throughout elementary school. The most difficult time for Jason came when he began high school.
One afternoon, my wife and I were sitting at our kitchen table when Jason entered our home in tears. He threw his school bag on the floor, undressed to his underwear, and crying he shouted "I'm never going to school again!" His hair was matted from lunch food and juice that other kids had assaulted him with on the school bus on the way home. We had to wait several hours before he could talk about what had transpired.
A few days earlier, Jason told us he was signing up for the cross-country track and field team at his school. He figured what he lacked in speed, he could make up with endurance. Margaret and I prepared ourselves for an emotional challenge. Nonetheless, as always, we encouraged him to "go for it."
The day of the bus incident, a few older students had continued to entertain themselves by further humiliating Jason. They teased him about his poor performance on the track and made him the target of their one-sided food fight.
After hearing the whole story from Jason, I told him I was going to his school the next day to have a heart-to-heart talk with those kids and inform the principal. He pleaded with me not to. He said it would only make matters worse for him to have his father get involved. He begged me to let him handle it. I told him I would not visit the school as long as he agreed to let me call the vice principal regarding the incident on the bus. He finally agreed. I knew he went to bed that night feeling like he didn't have a friend in the world.
I called the vice principal about the humiliation on the bus, and it was never repeated. Jason stayed with track and field even though the harassment at the track continued.
One day early that October, we had unexpected snow and freezing rain. The track team was allowed to train indoors that day. Jason asked the coach if he could borrow his stopwatch. He wanted to try and improve his time on the track. As the other kids exercised in the gym, they couldn't help but notice the one lone runner--Jason--plodding through sleet on the snow-covered track.
"Keep going, Jay."
"Don't give up, Jason."
"You can do it, Jay."
He had earned their respect.
A few weeks later, Jason came in from school noticeably agitated.
"Mom, Dad, sit down," he said.
My heart sank. It had the echo of the food-pelting incident.
He told us something we already knew, that each month students at his high school voted for an "athlete of the month." The coach would list on the chalkboard the names of students who had the best long jump, most points in basketball, and best track times. Then they would hold a vote, and one student would be presented with a certificate and earn the title "athlete of the month." Jason's name was not on the board that day--or any other day for that matter. He was last in every activity listed.
The coach, caught by surprise for a moment, looked toward the list of names on the board.
"Jason?" He asked with a puzzled look on his face, as though he couldn't quite place the name. "Oh...Jason."
"He works harder than any of us, Sir," the student continued.
"Well," added the coach, "we will have to have someone second the nomination."
A tear formed in Jason's eye and began to roll down his cheek as he told us what happened next. "Mom...Dad...everyone in the class put their hand up."
His mother and I, also in tears, looked on as he proudly displayed his certificate.
Whenever I despair, I think of this story. I remind myself that challenges are not overcome by force or by asserting the self, but rather by patient persistence, determination, and a sincere faith in the innate goodness of others.
Jason is in his fourth year of university these days and often holds the highest mark in his class. He works as a teacher's assistant and plans to go on for his masters. He is also training in the martial arts. Although it seems to be taking him forever to earn his black belt, I have no doubt he'll wear it, and wear it proudly.