Begin With a Single Step

i282600889608947603._szw1280h1280_I’ve been working the summer school session at Cristo Rey for a couple of weeks now. It’s a kind of dreary affair. The students arrive each day with a demonstrable lack of enthusiasm. They would rather be anywhere but in school attempting to recover credit for courses that they failed during the school year. They are generally well behaved but mostly just resigned to their fate. They are motivated by a desire to finish their modules as quickly as possible so that they might actually begin to enjoy summer. Some of them dug such deep ditches for themselves that they will be working until the end of July. They will be lucky to get a couple of weeks of holiday before the daily routine of the new school year begins again. 

My role is to assist the Title I students with their mathematics. All of the students with whom I work either failed Algebra I or Geometry. Many of them were on the list of students who qualified for my services during the regular ten months of the past school session but they did not choose to take advantage of the opportunity to get extra help from me. Sadly, they all believed that other activities were more pressing, such as playing baseball or visiting with friends. Their regular teachers and I did our best to convince them to spend a bit of time each week getting a second look at the various concepts that had been introduced to them, but all of our efforts were in vain. Now they are trapped for five hours each day toiling away on modules designed to reacquaint them with skills that they should have already mastered.

I find as I work with the students that they are generally very bright which leads me to suspect that they most likely were unfocused during class time, didn’t do their homework regularly, and just generally allowed themselves to fall into deeper and deeper academic holes. On the other hand, all of the students who gave that extra bit of effort working with me two or three hours each week managed to earn passing grades in their math classes. They are now enjoying the fruits of their labors with a nice vacation time or opportunities to earn money.

Henry Ford once wisely said, “Think you can. Think you can’t. Either way you’ll be right.” No truer words were ever uttered. With determination virtually anyone has the capability of overcoming even severe challenges. I have known students with exceptionally low intelligence quotient scores who have nonetheless learned incredibly difficult concepts by the force of their determined wills. As adults these individuals continue to shine mostly because they are willing to put in all of the extra work that they need to do to be successful. 

Not all of us learn at the same rate. Far too many students notice the brainiac in the math class who barely appears to be listening to the instruction but still manages to ace all of the tests and think that they must somehow be deficient. The reality is that even some of the seemingly best students sometimes have to put in extra time to get past those moments when certain topics just don’t make sense. They are unwilling to give up on themselves simply because their first efforts are challenging. This is true of both intellectual and physical pursuits.

Last evening I was mindlessly surfing the cable television channels after spending a long day of teaching mathematics and grading papers. I was tired and had little energy left for more intellectual pursuits like reading. I just wanted to watch something that would not demand too much of my brain. I landed on a program called “Extreme Weight Loss, When Love Can’t Wait.” 

I suppose that I was intrigued because I’m in the process of attempting to lose a few pounds myself. I had printed a number of Weight Watchers recipes to try in the coming weeks and I’ve been walking everyday even though my left knee is killing me. I’ve consumed enough water to drown a fish of late while I long for a big milk shake instead. I have set a goal for myself and I don’t intend to surrender. When I saw this summer series on ABC I decided to see what it was all about. 

The premise of the episode was that a young couple had grown grossly overweight since graduating from college. They had become addicted to eating without considering the value of what they consumed. As the weight poured on they became less and less able to exercise the way they had once done. The woman had been a collegiate soccer goalie and the man had played on a football team. They were very much in love with each other and hoped to one day marry but they were ashamed of how they now appeared and wanted to make changes in their lives that might prove that they were ready for the responsibilities of married life. Their goal was to get in shape before their wedding.

They worked hard, both for themselves and each other. The pounds slowly but surely came off as they learned how to make healthy food choices. They exercised regularly even though the entire process seemed to be hopeless in the beginning. As they began to feel better their desires became less and less about appearance and more and more about being their personal bests. By the day of the wedding they had lost a combined weight of well over two hundred pounds. Their faces were radiant and both exuded confidence that had long been absent from their lives. They had transformed themselves and what made them most proud was that they had done so even when it felt incredibly impossible.

We all face challenges in our lives from the time we are children until the days when we grow old and our bodies and minds begin to fail us. Those who do the best are not just the ones with the natural intelligences and abilities. They are the people who set goals and then work through problem after problem without giving in to the demons that tell them that they can’t succeed. 

I have an aunt who has severe osteoporosis. It has ravaged her for decades. She has endured multiple surgeries and been told on several occasions that she may as well check herself into a nursing home because she will never walk again. Every single time she turns her doubters into liars. At the age of ninety one she now walks with a cane and sometimes on very bad days with a walker but she is still in her home and she manages to get around. She is often in pain and her journey has not been easy but she has been unwilling to allow the naysayers to define her.

I am acquainted with so many people who do things that may have once seemed undoable. They find grit inside their souls that carries them to the top of mountains, assists them in earning advanced degrees, allows them to beat the odds with illnesses and injuries. The only real difference between failure and success is often the amount of work that one is willing to devote toward a cause. 

I keep hoping that the students who are sitting inside each day poring over problems and readings that they should have already completed will realize that none of them really needed to be there. Hopefully they will learn the art of managing their time and knowing what is most important. It’s an ability that even many adults never quite master. If I were to offer them any piece of advice it would be to work steadily and hard each and everyday and then celebrate like a maniac when the vacation time finally comes. I would also remind them that it is never too late to change. I have seen remarkable things happen to many of my former students who once seemed hopelessly lost. 

There is a magic bullet but it’s not quite as exotic as most people believe. The road to happiness and maintaining control over life lies in putting forth the effort, admitting mistakes, learning from them and continuously growing. Life is a never ending journey and it always begins with a single step forward.

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