The Champion Within

Muhammad Ali- a convert to IslamImage via Wikipedia

 It is with great shame that I tell you the story behind this poem. Shame because it shows I made a horrible mistake and judged someone. In 1989, I was an intern for Senator Sam Nunn in Washington D.C. One of the greatest statesmen of our generation! What a great man. 

I worked in domestic affairs and often answer the phone when they were ringing off the hook (as they often did.) I remember this one day that I had just gotten off the phone with a man from California who was convinced that the Senator was funding research to create laser beams that would put out the eyes of everyone on earth. (Senator Nunn was Chairman of the armed services committee.)  I listened with respect as any caller to the US Senate deserves and noted his concerned to be put in the daily log files. I say this not to excuse what happened next but just to give a context that it had been quite a day.

My next caller sounded almost like a child. The voice was quiet and the words were stilted. It was Muhammad Ali – at least he said he was. I listened to him and it was difficult. At first I pushed my pad of paper aside – it had been a long day. I'd just listen this one out. But then, as I listened, I thought to myself ‘What if this is really him?” He had some serious concerns and said he'd be by at a certain time on a certain date to see Senator Nunn. I took the message and said I'd pass it along. 

I remember getting off the phone and feeling a huge sense of uneasiness. If I took this message from this man who I didn't know and who certainly didn't sound like “the Champ” – at least the one I knew and took it to the front office – I might look like an idiot.  But, if I didn't take the message and he came by, I would be even worse. 

I took the message and explained to the front office manager the situation, “It didn't sound like him, but I'm bringing this to you just in case.” 

He came. The champ came to see Senator Nunn.

I didn't know it at the time but Muhammad Ali had Parkinson's Disease. (A disease of which I'm all too familiar since my father-in-law passed away from it several years back.) It was truly the champ, but trapped in a body that made it difficult to speak. I was congratulated for passing along the message but inside I was humiliated, ashamed, and sick at myself and what I had thought.

When I saw Touched by an Angel (a sappy TV series I love) and Muhammad Ali was on the episode (#522) it all came flooding back. The story was beautiful, but I saw a man trying his best to still be inspirational while trapped in a body that can barely speak and again I felt ashamed. Here, over twenty years later I am ashamed that I did not want to listen because of the way he spoke on the phone. Should he or his family ever read this — I'm so truly sorry. I really am.

But I bare this to you for a reason. We are surrounded by champions. Champions who may have struggles with speaking or talking like the rest of us. They don't fit in — whether disabled or impaired by physical problems or disease -they are everywhere.  

  • Do we disparage the champion within because of assumptions?
  • Do we jump to conclusions and not open doors?
  • Are we ignoring the champions among us because of preconceived notions?

In many ways, all of us are probably guilty of this same thing. The person who talks a little more slowly may find themselves interrupted by one who talks faster and is a little louder. We leave people out. We underestimate them.

The Special Olympics is an important cause in my life and some of the most beautiful people have life-changing moments at these games. This poem is not only inspired by my experience with Ali so many years a go, and the TV episode I saw, but also by the Special Olympians, those with autism, those with learning disabilities and Alzheimers and Parkinsons — those among us who are true giants that we often do not recognize.

Now, as I cry in tears as I write this post, please read this poem and decide that you will learn (along with me) to not be quick to judge nor underestimate the potential of those who may not communicate like we do. 

Thank you, my friends, in advance for not lambasting me on my thoughts and behavior. I am truly sorry.

Heavyweight Champion of the World

by Vicki Davis

Dedicated to all those fighters trapped in bodies that hide the champion within.

So, you speak a little slowly,
    sometimes I can't understand you.
You didn't quit, though.
   I am sorry I didn't recognize you
                 as such a fighter.

Did I discourage you
   with my impatient huff?
No one knew you were so tough.
I am so sad that I understimated you,
                 but you fought on.

I heard you and yet,
    I really didn't listen, did I?
But you stayed in the ring,
    still a champ
                 through everything.

For the true victor
    may be fit and battle-thin
or may be trapped
    with the champion

Fight on my butterfly
    though life has stung like a bee,
though this world
     doesn't know you
                   you are a hero to me.

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Vicki Davis

Vicki Davis is a full-time classroom teacher and IT Director in Georgia, USA. She is Mom of three, wife of one, and loves talking about the wise, transformational use of technology for teaching and doing good in the world. She hosts the 10 Minute Teacher Podcast which interviews teachers around the world about remarkable classroom practices to inspire and help teachers. Vicki focuses on what unites us -- a quest for truly remarkable life-changing teaching and learning. The goal of her work is to provide actionable, encouraging, relevant ideas for teachers that are grounded in the truth and shared with love. Vicki has been teaching since 2002 and blogging since 2005. Vicki has spoken around the world to inspire and help teachers reach their students. She is passionate about helping every child find purpose, passion, and meaning in life with a lifelong commitment to the joy and responsibility of learning. If you talk to Vicki for very long, she will encourage you to "Relate to Educate" or "innovate like a turtle" or to be "a remarkable teacher." She loves to talk to teachers who love their students and are trying to do their best. Twitter is her favorite place to share and she loves to make homemade sourdough bread and cinnamon rolls and enjoys running half marathons with her sisters. You can usually find her laughing with her students or digging into a book.

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Karyn July 15, 2010 - 5:41 pm

Oh, Vicki, many others would not even have passed on the message. Many would have said, “Yeah, right!” and hung up in the man’s ear. You kept your doubts private and acted with professionalism.

No shame in that.

No shame, either, in questioning whether or not something is actually as people say it is. After all, this is what you encourage your students to do, isn’t it?

You have been too hard on yourself.

coolcatteacher July 15, 2010 - 6:29 pm

Thank you for your kind words, Karyn. I guess this is just honestly, up front how I feel. I am very thankful I can be forgiven. But when I saw Ali in that TV show and how he was struggling to continue to inspire and not sitting back and making excuses for himself it just all came back how I felt when I underestimated and thought that.

I just hope and pray others can learn from it. I am still emotional from sharing this today.

Jane July 15, 2010 - 7:41 pm

What a beautiful poem. Thank you for sharing it as well as the sentiments behind it with us. Life is a learning process and you are allowing good to come out of a very forgivable error of judgement by reflecting in this way.

Wmchamberlain July 17, 2010 - 2:11 pm

Vicki, when I read the poem I don’t think of the disabled, I think of the quiet students that sit in class afraid to ask for help or just too shy to talk. How many times have I overlooked students simply because they want to be overlooked? As humans we all need to work harder to create connections between us and the people we spend time with. Thanks for baring this wound and making me think.

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Vicki Davis writes The Cool Cat Teacher Blog for classroom teachers everywhere