Longtime defender of the title “Toughest Girl in Class,” Paula Z. proved the sure winner in every girl-to-girl athletic competition. Or so was the consensus among our sixth-grade peers at John H. West Elementary School, back in 1977.
So while mounting the knotted rope which hung from the gymnasium ceiling for the much-anticipated chicken fight games, I was a little disappointed but not surprised to see our entire class-full of mutual friends cheering for my opponent.
“Go, Paula! Yeah, Paula!” they rallied, screaming with vigor as their sure bet sized me up. What’s this?
I remember thinking. Don’t they know me? Don’t they know I’m as good an athlete as I DECIDE I AM?
Truth was they didn’t really know me at all. The bunch of us barely knew ourselves. Now
where did I stand?
I remember feeling nervous enough to forfeit.
“Go, Paula!” the fans clamored, all eyes locked on our Gold-medal Girl.
Now, my parents had instilled as much a sense of confidence in their skinny, artistic daughter as any parent could have. And my four wild brothers had filled in the gaps with regular tests of my will, strength and determination. Though I’d heard people describe me as “shy,” the word “wimp” would’ve been a precarious stretch. They just wouldn’t have dared.
So what was happening here? Not one person routing for me?! I had a decision to make: Who was going to win this event?
I took a deep breath, gathered every ounce of “Show ‘em what ya got” and fought like crazy.
Paula and I scrambled up and down those ropes, each pouncing on the other’s lap with our feet, me feeling closer to defeat with every inch I slipped toward the mat below.
“Go, Paula!” rang through the gym.
Who was I fooling? My arms had started to shake. My legs were rubber. And Paula’s face glowed more confident with every launch at my weakest attachment to the splintery rope.
I remember watching my toes skim the mat. It was over, just a matter of a few seconds. I could never recover; my muscles cried Uncle and my friend Paula emanated power.
It was okay; I’d fought hard. No one could have expected anything more.
Then I swung into the focus of my gym teacher’s stare. He
was the one in the room who knew me like I knew myself.
Mr. Sybil—a man who took no excuses for failure to try; a man who smiled as readily as he commanded self-determination; a man who I’d long sensed believed in my potential for . . . anything I could dream up.
Mr. Sybil’s eyes were locked on ME. And he
Mr. Sybil had intense eyes. Crystal-blue and deep with sincerity, now open wide enough to consume my doubt and draw that last reserve of energy—which I didn’t even know I had—to the surface.
His eyes had pull like magnets, whose force could virtually, maybe even actually, transfer power between us. He leaned in, his intent stare locked on mine, fists clenched, chanting quietly only to me:
“You can do it! Hang in there! You can do it! Hang in there!”
I needed that. And I had another decision to make: Who should I listen to? Who should I believe—him or them?
The voices of the nay-sayers seemed to fade to mute, their enthusiasm for my opponent replaced a-hundred-fold by the one-man rally for my super powers.
I suddenly realized: The outcome of this challenge depends at least as much on me as it does on my opponent or any other circumstance.
So Mr. Sybil’s rally became my own. My muscle lived in my head now—indestructible beneath the thick skull of a hard-headed adolescent. One instant recharge of my internal battery; another heave upward with those skinny arms; one defiant burst of I can do it!
I pounced on my unwitting opponent, sending her feet to the mat in a jaw-dropping victory for the sure loser. Mr. Sybil jumped to a resounding “Yessss!” while the rest of us stood shocked.
From that moment on I began to understand critical principals which I would practice and implement throughout the rest of my life. These realizations would later steer me at the crossroads and shape me when I could have been putty:
1. Thrill is to bypass the fear of failure for the opportunity to realize potential.
2. Throughout my life there will be people who believe in me and people who don’t. And I have the power to discern. Even if the ratio of non-believers to believers is a thousand to one, focus on the One.
3. Challenge is fun and sometimes, life-changing. If it’s legal, moral and reasonably safe, play with all your heart!
4. We all need someone who believes in us—despite circumstances, history or the odds. These people recognize our innate qualities and respect our potential for amazing feats. They’re passionate about bringing the best in others to the surface and beyond. And whether or not they realize it, they are acting in accordance with an essential element of their own life’s purpose.
People who take the time to help build others are the links between what is and what’s possible. Now there’s a legacy!
5. Great big impacts often come in great, little, unheralded packages and take a great many years to mature. Only in gratitude can the contributions of others attain their full potential. In gratitude we revisit these experiences throughout a lifetime, each time potentially gaining a new level of understanding of their effects, the opportunities for implementation and the importance of influencing others in positive ways.
6. The more you thank, the more “You’re welcome.”
Mr. Sybil you could have simply stood by—checking your watch, your clipboard and which pair was next up. The bare minimum would have sufficed. You’d still have collected a paycheck for a week’s work and I’d never have known what it was you’d chosen not to give to me.
Instead you took that opportunity to instill your best in a kid—not knowing if I’d ever remember; not knowing how it might ever matter. But I called upon the strength of that single connection time and time again, most significantly when tempted to forfeit. Life was tough growing up. But you’d shown me that I was as tough or tougher. You’d shown me that what others said and did was their prerogative—and that what I chose to focus on was mine.
And whenever I thought I was defeated I locked eyes with you again and listened to your voice until it muffled all the rest: “Hang in there; you can do it!” And so I did; and so I could. I didn’t always “win.” But I always grew—in strength, in confidence, in knowledge, therefore in gratitude for your faith in me.
I remain aware that I have choices every day—the choice to give or to withhold encouragement; the choice to recognize and rally for the strengths of others or to overlook them; the choice to give of myself in support of another or to stand by, check my watch and wonder “what’s next up.”
Thanks for giving me something that I’d want to come back and thank you for decades later. You are one of two people who are the original inspiration behind ThankingOfYou.com. The best way I know to say "Thank you" is to allow your contribution to help facilitate the recognition, affirmation and celebration of all who make a difference in the lives of others. It's gratitude come full-circle in my life.
By the way, Paula was an amazing girl. I knew she’d beaten me on the maturity front that day when she approached with a big, sincere smile and a handshake.
“Good game,” she said, her power now in her outstanding show of sportsmanship. Where had that come from? I don’t think I’d ever seen her lose!
Thank you, too, Paula. Without you this significant event in my life could not possibly have transpired. You’re always the Gold-medal Girl.
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