Strengths, lamentably, don’t always override weaknesses

Published 7:00 pm Monday, June 10, 2019

Summer is here, and all of the young men and women who have a reprieve from school for a few months will have a chance to build on their strengths and improve their weaknesses. Growing up, I learned a great deal about such things, as you are about to see.

It is true that, with proper work, you can take a weakness and turn it into a strength. Several years ago, I heard a story of a little boy who was born with no left arm. The boy’s mom wanted him to excel in something, so she put him in karate. She found a sensei and sent him to lessons twice a week for a number of years. The strange thing about the teacher was that for as long as the boy went to him, he only taught the boy one major move.

The boy advanced in his abilities, nonetheless and soon found himself excelling in his new skill, even winning a few tournaments. During one championship match, though, he was getting beat badly. The sensei hollered to him to do his “move”; and, as soon as he did, he pinned his opponent and won the championship.

As the boy and the sensei drove home with the trophy, the boy finally posed the question he had always wanted to ask: “Sensei,” he said, “why is it that you’ve only taught me the one move?”

The sensei said, “Well, for two reasons. One, it’s the best move in karate; and, two, there is only one defense for the move — and that’s to grab your left arm.”

Hearing that story fortified my long-time belief that one really can turn a weakness into a strength. It is a story I really could have used about half a century ago. But I guess it would only have confused me because with as many weaknesses as I was able to accumulate growing up, I should have been one of the strongest students from Southwest Elementary all the way to the halls of LaGrange High. Just ask any number of teachers who were blessed with my studentship.

Take the fifth grade, for example. It was Ms. Thrash, if my memory holds, who hosted my classmates and me that year. Ms. Thrash was quite a teacher who could recognize talent with the best of ‘em. One day she pulled me aside from all of my laboring classmates, and said, 

“Stevie-boy, I sure like your handwriting. I think I’ll let you start writing with a pen.”

See how perceptive the young teacher was. So, it was me and a fellow classmate named Robin who rose to the top of the class. Unfortunately, in addition to recognizing talent, Ms. Thrash also had the uncanny ability to detect certain deficiencies in her up-and-coming scholar — mainly the ability to listen. Listening, I guess, was kind-of my missing left arm.

In fact, it was missing so badly that Ms. Thrash asked mama make an appointment for me at the Clark-Holden Clinic to have my ears checked. When the results came back, mama learned that her fifth-grade scholar could hear just fine and only had a very slight — almost not worth mentioning — weakness of not listening.

Despite that lack of listening being only a slight dent in this young scholar’s armor, mama gave him a good fussing-out all the way home from the clinic. I never could figure out why mama seemingly overlooked the more important fact that I had been inducted in the top 1 percent of the class in the area of writing.

As any modern child psychologist would tell you today, that, truly, was a bit short-sighted on mama’s part, and the oversight even got bigger when she sent me to the back room when we got home and came in a minute later wielding a three-foot belt. Back then, parents never showed you the belt if they weren’t planning to use it liberally.

To close the curtain on that sad scene, I will say that episode was pretty confusing in this young scholar’s life, and this all before I heard the story of how the mama of the boy with the missing left arm admirably built upon his weaknesses. Instead of turning my weakness into a new and improved strength. However, mama just piled onto that weakness and added another, mainly the ability to sit down without significant discomfort.