My dad was in the Air Force, so that meant that we moved around a lot when I was a kid. In 1981, we moved from Warner Robbins, Georgia to Atwater, California. I went to some good schools and some bad schools over the years, and my first school in Atwater was a bad one.
I was bullied a lot growing up, and it was especially bad that first year in Atwater – fifth grade. But as with most things in life, no matter how bad I had it, somebody else had it worse than me. In the fifth grade, that person was Candy.
Candy was poor, and in addition to economic hardship, you could just tell that she had an awful home life too. Her hair was long and tangled, her clothes were worn out and dirty, and I knew that she came to school hungry. She also had very poor eye-sight, and she couldn’t read very well.
Add all of those things up and the poor girl didn’t have a chance socially among our class of 10 and 11 year-olds. She was the class outcast. The bullying she endured paled in comparison to anything that came my way.
Every fifth-grader knows that life on the playground at recess is social survival of the fittest. The ultimate status at that school was to be champion of the tetherball courts. It was so important to be good that I had my parents buy a tetherball set so I could practice at home with the kids in the neighborhood. Being good at tetherball was one way to avoid some of the bullying.
Candy was horrible at tetherball, mostly because she couldn’t really see the ball. Of course, Candy didn’t have a tetherball at home, so she began to stay after school to practice. (I’m sure that she was also probably avoiding going home to who knows what that went on there.)
The teachers, and probably social workers, helped Candy to get some glasses and a magnifier so that she could see well enough to learn to read. They also got her signed up for the free lunch and breakfast programs.
Pretty soon you could see a real change in her. She was more confident when reading aloud in class, and she was getting good at tetherball. Not just good – she was getting really good.
I remember the day that I realized how much Candy had changed that year. We were on the playground where, by then, I regularly reigned as the afternoon tetherball champion. I was on a winning streak that day, and it was Candy’s turn to challenge me. I wasn’t used to having to work hard to beat her because she was so bad. Not anymore. She beat me. She beat everyone that day.
I’ll never forget the look on her face. I vividly remember her holding the ball, looking me in the eyes and smiling as if to say – “Look at me now!” All her hard work was paying off.
The next year, my parents took me out of that school and sent me to St. Anthony’s. I don’t know whatever happened to Candy, but I’m sure that she turned out just fine. It was clear in the fifth grade that she wasn’t the type who would let anything stop her from being successful.
I’ve had some difficult times lately. Honestly, there are days when I really have to dig deep to find the courage to move forward. I know that I am not alone. We all have challenges to overcome at different times in our lives.
We all also have had people in our lives who show us that our problems are nothing in comparison to theirs.
So, on those days when I just don’t know if I can make it through the day, I try to think of one of the many people I’ve known who have had to overcome greater challenges than I’ll ever face. Their stories of success give me the confidence to dig deeper and work harder so that things will turn out just fine for me too.